Civil society

Transparency is an expensive business for fledgling democracies


Activists and open government enthusiasts usually argue that transparency fosters democracy and good governance, helps fight corruption and is crucial for the defence of human rights.

With all that in mind, many countries have passed freedom of information laws in recent years to try to ensure transparency. This move was most favoured by flourishing democracies looking for tools and strategies to strengthen their new forms of governance. Such effort seems to have led to the building of good freedom of information laws – one analysis found the best laws were passed in developing countries, rather than in the established democracies.

However, well-intentioned civil society and politicians and well-designed legislation are not enough; for real transformation to happen, many events must take place – and access to information is just the first step.

In addition, for a transformation that favours the most underprivileged, the road is a longer one. Let's see how we could get it.

Once the first step – transparency – is settled (this first step is not easy itself, as we know), the second phase is the ability to add value to the loads of data and information unveiled. This step often demands a considerable amount of material and human resources. At this point, vulnerable populations might be left behind if they lack these resources.

The third step for a real change is agenda-setting. Once society and government agree that the problem presented is a serious one and something must be done about it, we are on the right path. Underprivileged groups, though, will need much bigger effort to present the problem to the general audience and get their sympathy to a point in which government will pay real attention to it.

Another important ingredient here to encourage social inclusion is true and efficient communication links between civil society and government.

The fourth step is possible as soon as government decides to act – and here one jurisdiction (a country, a municipality, a department) must have efficient institutions that are strong enough either to sanction or make the corrections or adjustments.

This week's Open Government Partnership annual conference in Brasilia, showed that we have a lot to learn and to evolve. Over two days in the Brazilian capital, it was visible that the executive branch of the central government has the leading and exclusive role in the process of open government in the various countries now part of the partnership. This is quite natural and is not a problem in itself.

However, the absence of local government should be an aspect of concern. After all, for those who cannot access such distant government agencies, it is difficult to believe how transparency and open government is going to improve their lives.

Hence, it is essential to work on the "infomediaries" – groups that use information to promote accountability – especially the potentially vulnerable populations and especially at the local level. These people need to be trained and they must be given ways to participate in decision-making processes. There is no easy way to do that and no magical formula.

However, this is the goal to be pursued. Otherwise, transparency is likely to enlarge the distance between the rich and the poor – and this is the first step for peoples' disenchantment with democracy.

Fabiano Angélico is a Brazilian researcher and consultant on issues related to transparency, access to information and accountability journalism. He is co-founder of the trilingual website Brasil Aberto, which aims to foster participation making transparency a reality in Brazil.


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