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Does the chance to access information carry a duty from those who ask?

Victoria Minoian's picture
Accessing information is a right that comes associated with—at least—the homework of reading, studying and understanding such information. (February 2010, World Bank booth at Library Week in Vientiane, WB photo)

Those who help disseminate information at the World Bank have a rule about the topics of disclosure and access to information. We do not talk about access and disclosure, we help exercise it. This blog is not about accessing information or disclosing it. Rather it is about reflecting on the use and exercise of accessed information from the two sides: that of the originator and that of the receiver. If the reader allows me a basic judgment, I think the exercise of accessing information comes associated with, at a minimum, the basic task of reading. Do you agree?  If you do, you may want to continue reading this blog.

Back in September 2008 I found myself conducting a research at the National Archives in Richmond, UK. This research was a contribution to a Human Rights Non-Governmental organization dealing with crime and genocide issues. Under the UK Freedom of Information Act I looked at British intelligence service and diplomatic correspondence about the killings of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th Century. The subject was a very sad one. I had to certify and stamp every single document copied so that the Courts of Justice—who will eventually appeal to the Right to Truth—can read and study the information before making any inquiry and/ or allegations. I spent three full days reading and deciding which documents were worth copying.

Accessing information is an exercise that comes associated with—at least—the homework of reading, studying and understanding such information. In other words this homework is about putting oneself in the shoes of the originator of the info—regardless of how much against or in favor of certain issues one could be—so that a dialogue—in any form (electronic, face to face, via letters, public announcements, etc.)—can then take place with as many sides interested. In brief, the task of reading is about generating mutual empathy, whether we like the issue or not.

At Nam Theun 2 I have been a witness to many inquiries for information and allegations from third parties. Most of these inquiries relate to information that coincidentally has been (and is) placed in the public domain, advertised and disseminated for a while. And some of the allegations seem not to have contemplated factual information that has also been in the public domain, advertised, accessed and disseminated. Can I then think that such public info is—possibly—hardly read before these third parties knock on the World Bank doors via a meeting request, a public letter or an email? Perhaps there is an issue of understanding (World Bank documents—the main format used by the institution to convey information—are not only long but linguistically complex to an average, non-specialized reader) or an issue of empathy. Or is it perhaps a question of a lack of interest in generating a dialogue (Dialogue: from the Greek διά / dia(“trough”) and λόγος/ logos (“word”, “account” or “reason”)?

Producers and requestors of information are accountable for reading the information, once available. (WB Photo)

Quite often I tend to think that accessing information is not a free ride journey. Such a journey comes with a backpack that I would like to name “the accountability package”. Regardless of the ultimate use that both or all sides give to any piece of information, originators and requestors are accountable for, at least, reading it once available. Wouldn’t you agree?

In light of the World Bank's new access to information policy a greater chapter of transparency and openness is taking place in the development community worldwide. This is a good achievement for an institution that heavily draws on a tradition of closeness and secrecy. I wonder then if both sides will conceptualize the journey of accessing info with the “accountability package” backpack on the shoulder. For example, I wonder whether the World Bank has a say when third parties report on one side of the story and especially when their inquiries have been answered by the institution. How accountable and credible will reporting on one side of the story will be then? Will reminding third parties of this responsibility be also a World Bank duty?

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