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close this bookTraditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development (WB)
close this folderSummary of the conference proceedings
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTraditional knowledge and cultural survival
View the documentTraditional knowledge, land, and the environment
View the documentTraditional knowledge and agricultural sustainability
View the documentContributions of traditional medicine to health
View the documentTraditional institutions and participation
View the documentGovernment policies and traditional knowledge
View the documentBuilding a new partnership
View the documentConclusion

Government policies and traditional knowledge

Like many other initiatives in the area of popular participation, a favorable enabling environment is necessary to promote the use of traditional institutions and knowledge. Governments can provide such an environment through the passage of legislation and adoption of policies. Some governments, such as the nation of Ghana and the Provincial government of the Northwest Territories of Canada, have highly innovative legislation and policies in the areas of traditional governance and the promotion of traditional knowledge. These policies were presented by speakers at the conference and are briefly discussed in the following pages.

Ghana's Chieftaincy Act

The West African country of Ghana provides one of the best examples of recognition of traditional authority institutions, especially for purposes of local governance and development. Ghana has a population of approximately 14 million people comprising 75 distinct languages and major ethnic groups. In 1971, just fourteen years after its independence from Britain, the Ghanaian legislature passed the Chieftaincy Act. This act constitutionally recognized and protected the local governance powers of village chiefs, granted them authority to enforce customary tribal laws, and established regional and national assemblies in which they could discuss and govern their affairs. While the state maintains responsibility for the armed forces, the judiciary, trade, the economy and other national matters, these local chiefs handle more customary concerns such as divorces, child-custody matters, land disputes, and the maintenance of cultural heritage, practices, and ceremonies.

Under the direction of Mamadou Dia. the Capacity Building Division of the World Bank's Africa Technical Department is conducting a study of the Ghana Chieftaincy Act as part of a broader program called "Indigenous Management Practices: Lessons for Africa's Management in the 90s." This program is based on the premise that much of the "development crisis" in African countries is the result of a failure to take into account the particular values, traditions, and organizational styles of African societies. Development programs, it is hypothesized, would be more effective if they built upon African cultures and institutions, rather than imposed outside forms of organization and management. The Africa's Management in the 90s program is investigating the Ghana Chieftaincy Act as an example of new approaches to African governance whereby traditional authority institutions are adapted to modern development conditions. For example, it is examining the legitimacy and effectiveness of local decisionmaking and control by village elders or chiefs. This study, under the direction of Professor Moses Kiggundu of Carleton University, is examining the formal legal recognition and administrative uses of traditional chieftaincy by modern African nations.

The conference was fortunate to have as two of its participants and speakers Professor Kiggundu and the Honorable Nana Oduro Numapau II, current President of the National House of Chiefs of Ghana. Chief Numapau described some of the history and problems faced by the traditional institution of chieftaincy in Ghana:

Before colonization, chieftaincy was the fulcrum of society in Ghana. It gave unity and direction to the people and mobilized them for common purposes. With the onset of colonization, the colonial administration found the institution to be so viable that, through the policy of indirect rule, it sought to make chiefs junior partners in the government.

In the long run, indirect rule had a paradoxical effect on the institution of chieftaincy. On the one hand, the institution appeared to have gained strength through its close association with the colonial government; but, on the other hand, the very fact that the colonial government had power to grant or withdraw recognition whittled away the local people's right and power to make and unmake their chiefs in accordance strictly with customary law and usage.

This paradoxical situation cast its shadow over the institution during the independence era. All of Ghana's constitutions and governments since independence have given recognition to the institution of chieftaincy. And yet the institution has not enjoyed a stable status in Ghanaian society. Instead it has experienced ups and downs, mainly as a result of the government of the day seeking to play politics with the institution.

Despite these problems, Chief Numapau noted that the Constitution of the Fourth Republic of Ghana contains provisions that have strengthened the institution of chieftaincy and protected it from intrusions by national politics. The Constitution provides that the decision on who is or is not a chief, as well as all jurisdictional matters pertaining to the role of chiefs, are the responsibility of the National House of Chiefs and not the central government. Furthermore, chiefs are prohibited by the Constitution from participating in partisan politics. Nevertheless, there are broad areas, outside of party politics, in which chiefs (and queen mothers) do participate in national affairs and in the formulation of national policies. The President of the House of Chiefs, for instance, is a member of the Council of State and counsels the Presidency and other state organs. The ten regional and one national House of Chiefs have jurisdiction over numerous customary and legal issues, including adjudication of disputes, codification and unification of customary law, and elimination of harmful cultural practices. Chief Numapau said that he was "highly optimistic that the institution of chieftaincy is poised to play an enhanced role in Ghana's development." He mentioned the following factors as reflecting the increased potential for chiefs to participate in the nation's development policies:

First, we now have highly educated chiefs who understand the ramifications of modern development and have the expertise to contribute to it in various fields.

Secondly, because chiefs are not associated with political parties, ...their advice and exhortation will henceforth carry greater moral weight across party lines.

Thirdly, it is now widely realized that traditional fore and means of communication are relevant to educating the broad masses of our people on such development oriented issues as family planning and population control, indiscriminate sexual habits, teenage pregnancy and AIDS.

Fourthly, government-sponsored organs have not been able to supplant the chief as the medium of mobilizing the local people for communal efforts at development. And yet, it is now common knowledge that to achieve true development, the laudable efforts of the government will have to be meaningfully supplemented at the local, grass-root level through communal effort.

Chief Numapau concluded his talk by stating:

I do not wish to leave you with the impression that all is golden with the institution of chieftaincy in Ghana. It has its problems. For example, the institution is plagued with disputes and litigations over rightful occupancy of stools and skins and over land ownership. The incessant litigation over land, in particular, poses real problems to security of title to land for building, farming, and commercial purposes, to the detriment of development. There is no doubt that [we] chiefs in Ghana will have to put our own house in order by defining more clearly the customary rules of succession and of land ownership, as the National House of Chiefs has been mandated by the Constitution to do.

In his comments on Chief Numapau's talk, Professor Kiggundu noted that party politics and various government regimes used chieftaincy for their own ends and often gave it a bad name. "Politicians," he said, "would often go to the chiefs at night and then throw stones at them during the day." However, Professor Kiggundu stated that the institution is going through a period of renewal and, with adequate protection from partisan politics, it could play a vital role in the development process, especially at the local or grassroots level.

Chieftaincy is deeply rooted in Ghanaian society. There is not a single Ghanaian who does not trace his roots to chieftaincy.... It is extremely difficult for any outside force such as government to go into a community and do anything without the full support of the people and the chief. - Moses Kiggundu

In the area of dispute resolution, especially in terms of land conflicts, the performance of traditional chiefs is sometimes low, but public perception of the institution is high. This, Professor Kiggundu concluded, augurs well for the creation of a more efficient institution, both for mobilizing people for development and for preserving their cultural life and spiritual well-being. He and other participants argued that the institution of traditional chieftaincy had great capacity to adapt to modern circumstances and could be a positive force for African development.

Northwest Territories' Traditional Knowledge Policy

Another initiative in government recognition of traditional institutions and cultures was brought to the attention of conference participants by Cindy Gilday from the Department of Renewable Resources, Northwest Territories (GNWT) of Canada. The GNWT has established a Traditional Knowledge Policy. Based on the report of a Working Group comprised of representatives of the territorial government, NGOs, and local community elders, the policy provides a set of guidelines for incorporating traditional knowledge in government decisionmaking and programs. The policy defines "traditional knowledge" as "knowledge and values which have been acquired through experience, observation, from the land or from spiritual teachings, and handed down from one generation to another." The opening paragraph of the GNWT's policy states:

The Government of the Northwest Territories recognizes that the aboriginal peoples of the NWT have acquired a vast store of traditional knowledge through their experience of centuries of living in close harmony with the land. The Government recognizes that aboriginal traditional knowledge is a valid and essential source of information about the natural environment and its resources, the use of natural resources, and the relationship of people to the land and to each other, and will incorporate traditional knowledge into Government decisions and actions where appropriate.

It then provides a set of principles for implementing the government's policy:

1. The primary responsibility for the preservation and promotion of traditional knowledge lies with aboriginal people.

2. Government programs and services should be administered in a manner consistent with the beliefs, customs, knowledge, values, and languages of the people being served.

3. Traditional knowledge should be considered in the design and delivery of Government programs and services.

4. The primary focus of traditional knowledge research should be the aboriginal community.

5. Traditional knowledge is best preserved through continued use and practical application.

6. Oral traditional is a reliable source of information about traditional knowledge.

In the Northwest Territories Traditional Knowledge Policy we're working across the board on justice, wildlife, medicine, conservation - the totality of disciplines in which the world engages. We're not just looking at intellectual property in isolation. We're not looking at promoting traditional knowledge in just wildlife preservation. We're doing this institutionally as a government so the Departments of Education, Renewable Resources, Justice, and so on will all have to make traditional knowledge a priority in their work. - Cindy Gilday

While all government agencies and departments are responsible for implementing this policy, major responsibility for coordination, implementation, and monitoring rests with the Department of Renewable Resources. A traditional knowledge coordinator has been appointed in each program department who is responsible for coordination and monitoring of traditional knowledge activities within that department.

The Science Institute of the NWT includes the pursuit of research on traditional knowledge as part of its mission statement; and the territorial government's cross-cultural awareness training courses, which are available to all government employees, will now develop special sections on traditional knowledge.

The GNWT Traditional Knowledge Policy is extremely innovative and could provide a model for other governments that wish to conserve and promote the use of traditional knowledge in their environment, development, research, and science policies. The idea of such promotion was included in the International Convention on Biodiversity and Agenda 21 report both adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. However, no other governments have actually adopted explicit policies on the subject; hence, implementation of the GNWT policy should be looked at closely by both international agencies and other national and provincial governments.