Access to Information: Helping Citizens in Bangladesh Exercise their Rights | World Bank Institute (WBI)

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Shamima a student in rural Bangladesh used her training on Access to Information to help some women in her community.
  • Bangladesh's Right to Information Act is new and stakeholders are working with WBI and other countries to learn how to make it successful in action.
  • WBI is working with partners across the World such as the Carter Center and the University of Cape Town’s International School of Transparency to help strengthen countries' capacity in this field.

 

April 27, 2011—In recent years, Access to Information (ATI) laws have become important in developing  countries. For example, in India, citizens have used ATI to gain access to their land titles or find out the attendance rates of teachers in primary schools and other issues that have improved the quality of their lives. However, not all developing countries have the same level of understanding and access to these laws.

Across the border in Bangladesh, Shamima Akter is an 18-year-old college student who lives in a small village in Jamalganj one of the nation’s poorest districts. The village has no running water or electricity and she and her friends walk five kilometers each way to college as there is no public transportation.

She is the secretary of a youth group that was recently trained in ATI by an NGO called Intercooperation supported by the World Bank Institute's (WBI). During the training they learnt about their right to information and that of their community members.
 

open-quotesIn government, there is a historical and primal fear of releasing information as well as perceptions of vulnerability, some civil servants feel as though releasing information makes them disloyal employees.close-quotes Chantal Kisoon, head of the Promotion of Access to Information Act Unit at the South African Human Rights Commission

At the same time as the training, their local government administration was preparing a new Vulnerable Group Development list for 2011-12. Members on the list would receive financial assistance from the government. Shamima learnt that some extremely poor women from her village were not included in the list.  She and her fellow group members decided to use their recent  training lessons to fight this exclusion and submitted a ‘Right to Information’ application to see the list. Just a few years ago, Shamina would have been unable to submit such a request.

The application was filed with the local government chairman on January 10th. She did not receive any written information by January 25th, the official response date. By this time the Upazilla Nirbahi Officer, a local official, came to know about the complaint and reviewed the list with a small team which decided to remove a few names that were not eligible and to include four women who actually were.

On February 23rd, Shamima finally received the revised list from the authorities and saw the names of the four women. Shamima and other citizens can now verify if the beneficiaries selected are the appropriate ones and what criteria were applied.

South-South Exchanges and Learning to Strengthen ATI in Bangladesh

Although the need for ATI has existed in Bangladesh, previous efforts by civil society organizations and journalists were scattered. A tradition of secrecy surrounded government agencies and the legal framework did not encourage information sharing.

WBI’s ATI program began working in Bangladesh in 2006 and was focused on supporting the nation’s ATI adoption process. “We  connected key stakeholders in order to strengthen coalitions, by holding workshops and organizing South-South exchanges, while building their capacities to move ATI reforms ahead,” said Marcos Mendiburu, Social Development Specialist in WBI.

WBI organized South-South knowledge exchanges between practitioners from India, who at the time had more experience in ATI, and Bangladeshi counterparts. In 2008, WBI organized a learning journey to Mexico for a delegation of key Bangladeshi stakeholders.

Bangladesh’s Right to Information Act became active on July 1, 2009. “The enactment of the Right to Information Act is an epoch making incident in the history of Bangladesh,” said Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister at the time. However stakeholders in Bangladesh realize that implementation is crucial as challenges can constrain ATI’s effectiveness. Government agencies need to set up mechanisms  to disclose information and raise awareness among the population on ATI while CSOs, journalists, grassroots groups, academics and citizens need to use information obtained through the Act to enhance accountability and governance. 
 
Working Globally on ATI

WBI is working actively not only in South Asia but also in Africa. For example, regular videoconferences are held to help ATI practitioners share good practices and methods of implementing ATI laws and making them active in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is done in partnership with the Carter Center, the University of Cape Town’s International School of Transparency and regional practitioner networks.

“In government, there is a historical and primal fear of releasing information as well as perceptions of vulnerability, some civil servants feel as though releasing information makes them disloyal employees,” said Chantal Kisoon, head of the Promotion of Access to Information Act Unit at the South African Human Rights Commission. However, there are results across the continent that point in the right direction. Liberia recently passed its Freedom of Information Act and in Kenya a new constitution was adopted that upholds the right of ATI.

This year a working group on an African Platform on Access to Information was established by the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the Open Democracy Advice Centre, Highway Africa, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, the Media Foundation of West Africa and Media Rights Agenda to develop a non-binding regional instrument on ATI.