Transparency and accountability in government actions are increasingly recognized as central to economic development and political stability. Where citizens know the rules that govern their society and have a role in shaping them, they are more likely to comply with those rules. Corruption is lower and the quality of regulation is higher. In addition, citizen access to the government rulemaking process is central for the creation of a business environment in which investors make long-range plans and investments.
Among the 185 countries sampled by the Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance, 138 notify the general public of a proposed new regulation before its adoption. Most countries that give notice are either high income OECD economies or located in the European and Central Asia region.
Fear of openly confronting politics can come in the way of achieving economic development goals. To help address this problem, the Development Research Group of the World Bank prepared a report synthesizing the vanguard of economics research on the functioning of political markets to understand the implications. It yields insights for strengthening existing transparency and citizen engagement policies with potentially powerful consequences for economic development everywhere, in poor and rich countries alike.
The call for an international set of guidelines came from many quarters between 2008 and 2010, but was largely driven by concerns raised in international fora by civil society, member states, development partners, and the private sector. These concerns primarily pertained to food security (and specifically food price spikes) and access, and rights to land and other resources by small, medium and large scale producers as they impact investments in food production systems.
One of the more notable concerns driving the development of the Guidelines was related to large scale land acquisitions (including what some organizations may sometimes refer to as “land grabbing”). Through a technical process FAO developed the initial draft of the Guidelines, and then initiated a process of input and consultation over two years before the document was given to the UN Committee for World Food Security (UN CFS) for negotiation.
As the subject of land rights can be very political (no international guidance can address the plethora of land challenges from Latin America to Africa to Asia and beyond with one-solution fits-all-problems), and civil society organizations, member states, and the private sector often have different views and needs in achieving their respective objectives, you can imagine it was not an easy task for CFS to agree to a set of guidelines.
An active player in the transparency space, the World Bank just released its fifth Access to Information (AI) Annual Report. The report presents the evolution and progress of the Policy on Access to Information (the Policy) since it was launched on July 1, 2010, provides a variety of statistics, and highlights a range of transparency activities carried out in fiscal 2015. Since 2010, the Bank has pushed the frontiers to disclose more information and twice revised the Policy to keep abreast of evolving public demand—in 2013 to clarify declassification of certain Board transcripts, and in 2015 to align the treatment of the documents and records of the Board of Governors with the treatment of those of the Executive Directors. The following are select highlights from the past five years.
Enhanced information access. The Policy has provided the public with access to a broad range of historical and current information on operations, research, corporate matters, and Board decisions. The Bank has also received and responded to more than 3,000 access to information requests. The number of requests declined from 700 in 2010 to 474 in 2015, due to the Bank’s proactive and systematic efforts to disclose information online. The main entry points to the Bank’s wealth of information are the Projects and Operations portal, which provides detailed information on lending operations, and the Documents and Reports repository, which contains more than 200,000 documents that are freely accessible to the public. Further, the Archives Holdings website offers a growing collection of digitized records dating to the 1940s.
Governance structure and appeals. The Policy has established two robust bodies to manage the appeals process—the AI Committee and the external AI Appeals Board. A new chair of the AI Committee was appointed last fall, Stefan Koeberle, Bank director of strategy, results and risk. In 2015, the membership of the AI Appeals Board was renewed with the selection of a new member and the re-appointment of two previous members. The number of appeals submitted to these bodies has been low, possibly indicating that proactive disclosure and the system for responding to requests are working well. The appeals mechanism ensures that the Bank implements the Policy effectively.
Image from the 2016 Aid Transparency Index
On April 13, 2016, Publish What You Fund (PWYF) launched the 2016 Aid Transparency Index (ATI), a broadly recognized measure of donors’ aid transparency. We were pleased to see that for the second consecutive year the World Bank (IDA) is in the top (“very good”) category— this year as number 6 on the list, with a score of 86. So, we are among the only 10 donors that, according to PWYF, have lived up to the Busan commitment on aid transparency.
Of course, we are proud of our standing. At the same time, it is worth noting that the ATI to a very high degree measures the publication of machine-readable data in compliance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard, while other aspects of transparency have hardly any weight in the index.
Transparency is a priority for the World Bank. Since the launch of our Access to Information Policy in 2010 we have not looked back; the just-released World Bank Group Access to Information Annual Report and 5-Year Retrospective makes this clear. The World Bank joined IATI when it was launched in 2008, and we published our first IATI data in 2011, but publication of IATI data is just a small part of our efforts to be an open institution. Detailed information on Bank supported projects, including procurement data, is available from the projects and operations database; we were among the first to map projects; details on financial transactions are available at the portal for open financial data; and the open data platform gives access to thousands of development indicators.
The notion of the “public sphere” is useful worldwide to consider how citizens can and do articulate demands to the market or to states. The public sphere is generally conceived as a place (figurative or literal) in which citizens can share information, debate issues and opinions, and restrain the interests of the powerful elite. This space is critical to the formation of public will and the transmission of it to official authorities.
In contrast, the Panopticon is a design for a prison or jail which allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not. The idea has been used to discuss online privacy, as individuals are often unaware of how governments and companies collect and use the information they gather about them online. Moreover, the revelation that governments and companies work together to “spy” on citizens, as revealed by Edward Snowden revived the concern that a modern-day panopticon might be possible.
But these concepts raise another important question: How can the public sphere, which aims to limit excess power, continue to function if the state is monitoring citizen activity? Much of the information that is collected and tracked online is willingly shared by individuals as they search the internet, use mobile apps, and contact friends and family. This activity is vital to the future of a public sphere around the world, but it also allows governments and companies to intrude in our private lives.
Silvio Waisbord explores these two evergreen, yet very immediate concerns. He argues that while digital technologies have improved the capacities of states and companies to track human activity, digital media can also be used for democratic purposes.
I have worked on public procurement and governance for most of my life. But I have never been more excited to finally have a solution at hand that has potential to change the legacy of opaqueness, fraud and lack of effectiveness in public contracting in many African countries.
Africa still need billions in investments to build infrastructure and provide quality services to its citizens, many of them vital: health care centers, food for school children, water services and road to help farmers market their produce. Investments as part of the Sustainable Development Goals in infrastructure alone carries a price tag nearly $100 billion a year. Unfortunately, like in many countries around the world, public contracting in Africa has been characterized by poor planning, corruption in picking contractors and suppliers and contracts are poorly managed.
But the good news is that this is changing. The series of blogs I’m kicking off will highlight the shifting of the norm towards open contracting in Africa.
Technology for Transparency: Cases from Sub-Saharan Africa
Harvard Political Review
Over the last decade, Africa has experienced previously unseen levels of economic growth and market vibrancy. Developing countries can only achieve equitable growth and reduce poverty rates, however, if they are able to make the most of their available resources. To do this, they must maximize the impact of aid from donor governments and NGOs and ensure that domestic markets continue to diversify, add jobs, and generate tax revenues. Yet, in most developing countries, there is a dearth of information available about industry profits, government spending, and policy outcomes that prevents efficient action.
Popular Uprising against Democratically Elected Leaders. What Makes it Legitimate?
In the last five years, democratically elected governments in countries as diverse as Guatemala, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Ukraine, Thailand, Macedonia, South Africa, Spain, Iceland, Hungary and presently governments in Moldova, Brazil and Poland were all challenged and some of them forced to step down by mass-based popular uprisings. If it had not been for the strategic weakness of the Occupy movement, the United States might have also seen toppling of its own democratically elected leaders closely tied to business elites. This might still happen. If Donald Trump wins the presidential election and attempts to implement some of his most outrageous campaign promises popular uprising may be in the making sooner than we think. When is people rising against their own government legitimate? A number of Western philosophical treaties, historical practice and agreements, including declarations of people’s self-determination rights stressed the moral and legal permissibility, and even necessity, to rise up against abusive regimes.
A remarkable debate on transparency and open government took place on March 15, 2016 at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, Missouri, USA. The issue was: Is American Government too open? Professor Bruce E. Cain of Stanford University argued that “Yes, American Government Is Too Open”, and Professor Charles Lewis of American University, Washington DC, argued that “No, American Government is Not Too Open”. You can watch the debate here.
It is a rich and illuminating exchange, and one that the two professors somehow manage to keep civil. I watched the debate online but in what follows I draw from the written commentary submitted by both professors, and I try to focus on the universally applicable points that each one made.