These laws are commonly referred as the right to information (RTI) or freedom of information (FOI). The international community recognizes citizens’ ability to access public information as a human right.
Right to Information
I took my first bird flight over London on Friday courtesy of Pigeon Sim, an app developed at University College of London that simulates flying over the city, drawing on real time environmental data, such as air pollution levels. This was one of many attention grabbing displays within the Festival of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Annual Summit. The conference provided a similarly dizzying overview of the terrain of open government.
The UN has long espoused the promotion of transparency and access to information as core elements of human rights and anticorruption efforts. In 1946, UN Resolution 59(I), adopted in the very first session of the General Assembly declared: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” Subsequently, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights included the freedom of information as an intrinsic component of the freedom of expression. The UN Convention Against Corruption requires signatories "to take measures to enhance transparency in public administration,” And the 2000 Millennium Declaration, the preamble to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) declared the resolve to “ensure freedom of the media to perform their essential role and the right of the public to have access to information.”
So, the prominent references to transparency and right to information in the recently released report of the High Level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Experts on the post-2015 Development Agenda is not remarkable or surprising in itself. But both the language – the report calls for a “transparency revolution” and a “data revolution,” and the framing – the report proposes that good governance and transparency be included as core targets, suggest that there is an impetus for accelerated efforts in this area.
Any inclusion of transparency in the post-2015 MDGs will only be a logical complement to other global dynamics and the deepening of the information age. On the one hand, whistleblowers, wikileaks, and global media have harnessed the inexorably unshackling power of technology to bring issues of secrecy and transparency to the center of popular consciousness. On the other hand, and perhaps as a reaction to these forces, governments are launching various initiatives to demonstrate their commitment to the principle of transparency.
Right to Information (RTI) laws can be a useful instrument for improving transparency – if the political will for implementation is sustained, and if the broader governance environment provides the enabling conditions for the exercise of the law. A research project that studied the implementation of RTI laws in a number of countries showed that implementation has been very uneven across countries. In some countries, RTI laws had been leveraged effectively for extracting information in a number of important areas, ranging from public expenditures, to performance and procurement, and exposing instances of corruption. In other countries, the existence of an RTI law had little impact in any of these areas, and oversight and capacity building mechanisms had either not been set up, or not functioned effectively.
The findings of the study are not surprising. The implementation gap between de jure and de facto reforms in countries faced with capacity constraints and political economy challenges is well-known. Yet, international agencies have pushed policy reforms without adequate attention to the constraints and challenges of implementation. The pressure to win support and legitimacy with international aid agencies has been an important driver of the adoption of RTI laws. The right has also been recognized in international human rights conventions, and more recently has gained increasing international attention (for instance, the existence of a law is one of the considerations for membership in the Open Government Partnership). Further, pressure from domestic constituencies has also propelled political actors to champion the law. But, once passed, capacity limitations, the erosion of political will, and active resistance have been important impediments to realizing the potential of RTI.
There is increasing convergence between the goals that human rights advocates aspire to, and the development work of the World Bank. This was the consensus reached at a panel discussion on Integrating Human Rights in PREM's work, organized as part of the Conference organized by the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) network on May 1 and 2, 2012. The panel included Otaviano Canuto, Vice President of the Network, and other experts at the Bank working on labor, justice, poverty, and governance issues from a rights-perspective. It was moderated by Linda van Gelder, Director of the Public Sector and Governance group.
The panel showcased innovative ways in which a human rights perspective is being integrated into the Bank's work. In Vietnam, the governance team has engaged the country in looking at how right to information can further transparency and how awareness of rights can make the state more responsive to citizens. A team in PREM is looking at the Human Opportunity Index as a means of assessing inequality of opportunity among children. The World Development Report on Jobs emphasizes the concept of ‘better jobs’ that improve societal welfare, not just ‘more jobs’. Several of these programs are supported through the Nordic Trust Fund that furthers a human rights approach to development issues.
The Right to Information (RTI) has been highlighted as a key condition for citizen participation, social accountability and good governance, while also being recognized as a human right. In this context, the number of countries adopting RTI legislation has increased significantly in the past decade.
While in some countries RTI has been seen as part of the anti-corruption or state modernization agendas (for instance Mexico and Chile), in South Asia, particularly in India, it has been seen as part of the empowerment agenda. There, the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act has been embraced by grassroots groups as a powerful tool to demand their entitlements, especially those under government-sponsored social programs. This has resulted in use of the RTI Act by people to improve their living conditions. Although to a lesser extent, citizens in Bangladesh are beginning to realize the potential that their RTI Act has in this area.
|Photo Courtesy of Sri Lanka Library Association (SLLA)|
As the Sri Lanka Library Association celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year, it’s time for us to reflect on the contributions of the Library and Information professionals to the development of Sri Lanka. At the same time, given the explosion in the sheer amount and sources of information now available especially through the internet, I found myself asking; do librarians have a role in the digital world? How are they adapting to this change? And are organizations and policymakers still making effective use of their knowledge and expertise while making decisions?
A recent Sunday Island piece captures the challenges and exciting opportunities that Librarians face in Sri Lanka today; I agree with them that with the expansion of information and sources, professional assistance is vital to identify trusted and accurate information. As a result, we should more actively recognize and involve Library and Information professionals as partners in policy consultations and working groups.
Access to Information is a big topic these days. It is for the World Bank, with its own ATI strategy kicking in this week, on July 1. It's a big topic elsewhere too: The Philippine Congress just killed a Freedom of Information Bill, the Parliament in Liberia is taking up it's review of a Freedom of Information Act after a two year hiatus, and the New York Times reports on the positive effects that India's Right to Information Law has on the poorest castes.
Legislation, however, is only one side of the bargain. As we have argued many times on this blog, legislation could be mute if there is no culture supporting the law. If governments don't want to reveal information, how is a law going to make them? If citizens don't want to request information, how is a law going to encourage them? It's not only about transparency legislation, it's also about a culture of transparency.
Global Voices, a website that aggregates news and information from an international community of bloggers, recently posted an obituary entitled “Philippines: Congress Fails to Pass Freedom of Information Bill.” In my mind, this failed reform is but a lost battle in the larger war waged between patronage politics and good governance. Winning the war entails much more than enacting a new law; it requires transforming the country’s political culture from one dominated by a web of patronage relationships to one characterized by transparency, accountability, and participation.
I was in Manila during the bill’s final days, and monitored the news with deep interest as a coalition of local and international advocates launched a public campaign in support of the bill’s ratification. On May 24, 2010, ABS-CBNNews.com and the front page of The Philippine Star, an influential broadsheet, carried a piece entitled “World awaits RP’s (Republic of the Philippines) Freedom of Info Act” by veteran journalist Malou Mangahas. Here’s a snippet:
“Today starts a series of mass actions by journalists, workers, students, professionals, business and church leaders, and civil society groups in their vigorous push for Congress to ratify the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. But the world waits and watches, too. More than just a Philippine story, the 14-year advocacy of Filipinos for Congress to enact the law has become a serious concern of freedom of information advocates, scholars, and members of parliament across the globe.”
In my last post I wrote about the issue of public awareness, which Alasdair Roberts explains is one of the three main challenges facing India in its effort to implement the Right to Information Act (RTIA). Another challenge that Roberts names is bureaucratic indifference or hostility. If public awareness refers to citizen engagement and use of RTIA, bureaucratic hostility impacts enforcement of RTIA. Both have implications for the prospect of any legislation to actually come to life—by being used by people and enforced by public officials. Having examined the issue of public awareness, I now turn to public officials and the enforcement side.