September 12, 2005
Building hope by building transparency
Paige Rohe is an intern in The Carter Center’s Office of Public Information.
In many democracies around the world, whether newly developing or long-established, a culture of government secrecy is all too familiar. Without the watchful and empowered eyes of constituents, corruption flourishes, government programs are less effective and government accountability is more elusive.
Throughout the world, passage and implementation of legislation that grants access to information has become an important step in democracy building, particularly among newly developing nations. Writing such legislation and effectively incorporating it into government functions is a difficult task, but there is hope.
Since 1999, The Carter Center’s Access to Information Initiative, led by Senior Program Associate Laura Neuman, has advised nations as they begin the long process to remove a culture of concealment and create a tradition of government transparency. Through the initiative, the center works throughout the Western Hemisphere—with particular emphasis on three countries, Jamaica, Bolivia and Nicaragua—to promote transparency.
“Passing the laws, relatively speaking, is the easiest part; implementing the laws [is] the most challenging, and enforcing them is the most important,” said Neuman, who noted it also is difficult to persuade constituents that accessing information is their right. “You have to convince people they can question a government’s actions, because they’ve been taught otherwise their whole lives.”
And if a public information system is not tested, it may fall back into its old habits, leading to corruption and human rights abuses. “When access to information laws are used, those abuses can be minimized,” Neuman said. “Because it’s not just one eye watching—it’s thousands upon thousands of eyes.”
Another issue is how to help nations determine what documents are important and how they should be archived. With all that paper and nowhere to put it, many important documents are burned while useless items are kept in messy piles in offices or storage rooms. Neuman said many developing nations could use scarce resources more efficiently if they knew more about how government information and documents can be used.
Equally critical, local media and grass-roots organizations must be trained to use the knowledge they acquire. Neuman cited an example of how the news media in Jamaica failed to further investigate a Jamaican civil society group’s discovery of a potential problem: “The organization learned of a railroad commission with staff and its own office; the only problem was that there is no functioning railroad in Jamaica,” she said. “They gave the story to the media, but no one picked up on it.”
Above all, Neuman argues, access to information is a cornerstone to democracy. “Access to information is an important pillar in any democratic regime,” she said. “It builds confidence and credibility. How meaningful is the right to vote if you don’t know what you’re voting for? Without information, citizens cannot experience the full value of democracy—the promise that they will be able to participate in government decisions that directly affect their lives