UNDP Seminar Spotlights Complexity of Expanding Right to Know

17 July 2006

By Toby McIntosh

Fostering the right to know in developing countries requires multi-faceted, flexible strategies, according to the minutes of a May 2006 seminar sponsored by the United Nations Development Program.

The 31 seminar participants, with practical experience in many parts of the world, reviewed the impediments to improving government transparency and shared insights on the ingredients for effective right to know campaigns.

The participants agreed that the challenges include both increasing the supply of information and stimulating demand for information, with many practical ideas exchanges. The seminar was held May 22-23 in Oslo, Norway, under the auspices of the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre. The attendees included UNDP officials and outside experts.

The conferees affirmed the importance of the right to information in strengthening governance and helping poor and marginalized people. “There is a real need for countries to develop right to information strategies to support their poverty reduction/governance programming,” according to one of the conclusions.

World Bank Still Developing Anticorruption Strategy

The conclusions come as the World Bank considers how to respond to its president’s call to fight corruption, an effort he said should include “increased investment” in the realms of media and freedom of information. It remains unclear how the Bank will respond to this challenge. The initial internal documents being prepared for board approval in September continue to note both the media and freedom of information points, but without substantial detail.

The 14-page early June internal Bank proposal suggests giving a higher priority to governance issues, including in devising Country Assistance Strategies, and having the Bank “more actively” support governance-related matters, including “transparency issues (such as freedom of information laws, e-procurement, public disclosure of incomes and assets of senior government officials, and public listing of board members of state-owned enterprises.”

Also proposed is the creation of a new diagnostic tool, the Country Governance and Corruption Assessment. On major projects, anticorruption action plans are suggested, “which could include efforts on transparency (of both information and processes)….”

A longer anticorruption proposal is now being prepared for a board meeting July 25, according to Bank officials, and it may go into somewhat more detail. One official suggested, however, that implementation discussions related to freedom of information would occur after Bank approval of the anticorruption strategy, expected at the September annual meeting in Singapore. Also, at this stage in the Bank’s process, budget considerations are not discussed with the board, making it difficult now to assess the follow-through on President Paul Wolfowitz’s April 11 pledge to “increase our investments in such key areas as judicial reform, civil service reform, the media and freedom of information and decentralization of public service delivery.”

Oslo UNDP Conference Seeks Common Lessons

Drawing on the experience of UNDP officers, the UNDP minutes list a variety of impediments to pro-transparency improvements, including: hostile or indifferent governments, media repression, conflicts with privacy laws, government cultures favoring secrecy, limited administrative capacity and the lack of public awareness about rights to information.

Throughout the minutes are references to different approaches that can increase public awareness of the value of information, the supply side of the equation.

Programs in Peru backed by Article 19 focused on providing useful information on pregnancy and sexual diseases, not only to benefit public health, but also to strengthen civil society’s capacities to gather information. The UNDP supports “telecentres” to enhance access to
information in rural areas, with more stress now being laid on improved content.

Several examples were cited of how the right to know helped poor people in South Africa, with the comment, “However, while the lesson is simple, the process of making [right to information (R2I)] a reality is painstaking and requires significant cultural and mindset change.” The minutes continue, “In each of these instances, the law was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the effective use of information.”

Providing “institutional conditioning” is key, according to the summary of remarks by Richard Calland, Executive Director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre in South Africa. Among other things, ODAC takes officials on study tours to Sweden “to show how the culture of sharing and making information available is embedded.”

Making the right to information a reality in people’s lives was stressed by Charmaine Rodriquez, project coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, as she reviewed the Indian experience.

In a discussion about the elements of a good right to know legal regime, it was noted that “the rule of thumb when designing a law is that national and regional context matter.” The need to change civil service culture also was cited. “Even where there is political and organizational commitment to R2I, there is an issue with capacities and resources to make information available,” according to the minutes. The role of the media in promoting right to know, and also in complicating the matter, was discussed as well.

There is potential to move the right to information agenda “even when there is no R2I law or prospect of one,” participants said. Some officials may be willing to supply some information, and it is important to work with them, the minutes note. As an alternative to pushing for passage of new laws, the minutes praise “pragmatic” approaches. Civil society organizations in some places in India, for example, “are placing a focus on instilling information-sharing practices within governmental departments, to encourage officials to disclose information and set precedents for changing bureaucratic cultures.”

Other ways of promoting reforms also were discussed. These included targeting youth, using e-government technology, supporting progressive officials, involving the media, and training officials and civil society groups.

The strategizing in Oslo also addressed the UNDP’s role, with the general conclusion that UNDP can support right to information without having a dedicated program, “but it is critical that right to information is systematically integrated into all programming….” The minutes go into further detail on UNDP-specific activities.

The UNDP in April produced an extensive “practical guidance note” entitled, “A Guide to Measuring the Impact of Right to Know Programmes.”

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In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
1-(703) 276-7748