Syndicate content

Right to Information

Targeting Transparency

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

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.

Realizing the Potential of Right to Information

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

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.

Rights and Development

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

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.

Changing Lives through RTI

Luis Esquivel's picture

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.

Teaching a Culture of Transparency

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

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.

Killed Bill: Freedom of Information in the Philippines

Antonio Lambino's picture

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.”

Tackling Indifference and Hostility with Respect and Pride

Fumiko Nagano's picture

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.

Do Ordinary Indians Care about Their Right to Information?

Fumiko Nagano's picture

India’s 2005 Right to Information Act (RTIA) was described earlier on this blog by my colleague Darshana Patel, who saw first-hand some of the innovative efforts by district governments in the state of Maharashtra to implement the RTIA. She concludes her post with a caveat: legislation is important, but it is the actual use of it that leads to its effectiveness—and that use depends on public awareness.

This important point, among others, is discussed in detail by Alasdair Roberts of Suffolk University Law School in his informative paper, “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” The paper examines the progress to date in the implementation of the RTIA. Comprehensive and ambitious, the RTIA is hailed by enthusiasts as a legal measure with a “revolutionary” potential. However, the results of numerous studies including two recent large-scale assessments of the state of the RTIA reveal that the task of implementing the law is not without major challenges. According to Roberts, at the root of the difficulties are: “uneven public awareness, poor planning by public authorities, and bureaucratic indifference or hostility.” The first and third factors are the ones that I found more interesting for the purposes of this blog, and in this post I will focus on the issue of public awareness.

Just Because It's Legal Doesn't Make It (a) Right: Citizen Access to Information in Latin America - PART 2

Antonio Lambino's picture

A follow-up to an earlier post on Toby Mendel’s new book The Right to Information in Latin America: A Comparative Legal Survey.  11 country cases and a comparative analysis chapter are organized around the following categories: definition of access to information (“The Right of Access”); rules for processing of information requests (“Procedural Guarantees” ); public authorities responsible for disclosure (“Duty to Publish”); grounds for refusal to disclose (“Exceptions”); complaint mechanisms for refusal of access (“Appeals”); punishment for obstructing access (“Sanctions and Protections”); and public engagement and education (“Promotional Measures”).  

The systematic manner in which Mendel breaks down each country analysis gives the reader a comparative sense of the 11 Latin American countries covered.  As I continued going through the country chapters, I gained an appreciation for the various dimensions of how the “right to information” has been institutionalized to varying degrees in different countries in the region.  It became clear to me that all these categories are important in getting a sense of whether the “right to information” is indeed a right since, as we know, when it comes to law, the devil lurks in the details.

Just Because It's Legal Doesn't Make It (a) Right: Citizen Access to Information in Latin America - PART 1

Antonio Lambino's picture

UNESCO recently published Toby Mendel’s The Right to Information in Latin America: A Comparative Legal Survey.  The book is organized around the following sections: international standards and trends; features of a Right to Information Regime; 11 Latin American country chapters; and a comparative analysis on the legal and regulatory aspects of the issue.  While Mendel’s new volume is a significant and substantial addition to the policy scholarship on this topic, what struck me initially is the boldness of the book’s title.

The title audaciously starts with “The Right to Information…”, in stark contrast with an earlier major publication on the same topic by the same author entitled Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, first published by UNESCO in 2003 with a revised edition released in 2008.  As I started reading the chapter on international standards, I found that Mendel explicitly states the reason for this:

Pages