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For Open Governments, Does Virtue Merely Attract Punishment?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A while back, a friend and colleague here at the World Bank told me of an experience that bothered him. He had been talking to a minister in an African country where the government had been making strenuous efforts to become more open and transparent. It had passed a Freedom of Information law, made quantities of government information available, liberalized the media sector, thus creating a vibrant, even raucous public sphere…all the things people like me urge developing country governments to do. In a couple of neighboring countries, said the minister, the governments had gone in the opposite direction. They had restricted access to official information, clamped down on the press, and were generally thuggish towards the media, civil society activists and so on.

 What the minister asked my colleague is roughly this:

‘Can you guess which government is being painted as corrupt and incompetent by local and international NGOs and the local and international media? Ours!’

He continued thus: ‘Is that our reward for doing the right thing? The more transparent you are the more you are punished with relentlessly negative coverage and immature activism. Our tough neighbors now have a better reputation than we do. They are seen as less corrupt and more competent. Can you believe that?’

When my friend told me the story, it reminded me of press reports I had read about what Tony Blair apparently said in his memoirs about passing a Freedom of Information Law in the UK when he was Prime Minister. I googled it and came up with this 2010 BBC story titled ‘Why Tony Blair thinks he was an idiot’. According to the report, these are the words Tony Blair addressed to himself in his memoirs for passing the UK’s Freedom of Information Act:

'You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.'

Blair’s view is that Freedom of Information Acts are not used by ‘the people’ but by especially motivated groups like the media. He adds:

'For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you with a stick, “Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.'

Now, if you are an activist in an NGO focusing on transparency or a journalist keen to get your hands on as much government information as possible, you are likely to dismiss reactions like those of the minister my friend spoke to or someone like Blair.  You are going to make a point that I am broadly agree with: that transparency is precisely about holding governments accountable; it is not about making them comfortable.

Having said that, two considerations have recently had the effect of making me wonder if some of us are being grown up about all this. The first one is as follows.  I have come to believe that many media commentators and activists often reward open and transparent governments with harsh, unforgiving and often operatic reactions to the mistakes of these governments while ignoring the depredations and crimes of the autocracies. As I write, there are tough, non-permissive environments where journalists and citizen activists are still under jackboots. Many are not only being jailed every year, several of them are being killed. Are there huge efforts in the global public sphere to support the citizen activists, bloggers and journalists in these tough places? Very little. What fills the global media and the airwaves? Here’s what: the comparatively minor mistakes and shortcomings of the governments of open societies. The question is: how do we establish global norms of good governance if pressure for accountability is partial, if we only blast those it is easy to attack? Is the current partiality not a strategic error?

The second consideration is as follows. There is a real danger that the current imbalance in pressure will bleed support from on-going efforts to open up different societies, to pass more Freedom of Information laws, to create free, plural and independent media systems. Voices like those of the minister who spoke to my friend and certainly Blair’s act as warnings to leaders who are considering whether or not to resist pressure to open up their public spheres, and make governance more open and transparent.  For the reality is that each one of these steps amounts to a major reform of governance arrangements in any country. As with any reform, you are going to need a big enough coalition to get the reform through in each unique country context. In each case, it is naïve in the extreme to suppose that bottom up pressure alone will get the reform through. In each case, you are going to need support within national leadership structures. The more leaders come to the conclusion that supporting transparency is handling your opponents a mallet the longer the row that reformers will have to hoe.

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