March 22, 2010 — Access to Information (ATI) has been increasingly recognized as a crucial condition for transparency and accountability in government, as well as for citizen empowerment. While ATI is just one of many interdependent links in a long accountability chain, when securely connected with its neighbors, it can contribute to curbing corruption and fostering the public participation of a better informed citizenry.
Access to Information in Africa "Access to Information is a basic human right," former US President Jimmy Carter told an ATI conference in Accra, Ghana, in February. "Freedom of information is particularly critical for vulnerable and marginalized persons, including women. I have heard how women were not allowed to speak during public forums or have a say in public policy issues that directly affect them, such as laws on inheritance of property or the criminalization of rape. For these women, the right of access to information is key to encouraging participation and to fostering the tremendous contributions that women can make."
Access to information is a basic human right. Freedom of information is particularly critical for vulnerable and marginalized persons, including women.Former US President Jimmy Carter
African countries face various challenges to provide information access: low literacy rates, weak institutions, limited Internet access, a reliance on oral traditions, as well as inadequate records management and lack of full implementation capacity. Yet opportunities in the region have emerged as a committed and engaged group of stakeholders are demanding adoption of pending ATI bills in various countries. "After lagging badly behind the advances that have been made elsewhere around the world on the right of access to information, a critical mass of activity and activism is emerging," said Richard Calland, Director of the University of Cape Town’s International School of Transparency. "There is a real opportunity now to move forward, but in order to do so effectively we will have to be creative – not simply relying on the adoption of legislation, but looking to voluntary disclosure systems, for example – and build strong, multi-sector partnerships."
Challenges and Solutions In this context the World Bank’s Africa Region and the World Bank Institute (WBI) participated in and supported, along with other donors, a regional conference on the Right of Access to Information organized by the Carter Center in collaboration with regional partners. Through plenary sessions and working groups, 130 conference participants from 18 countries discussed the challenges and potential solutions to strengthen ATI coalitions. In the absence of a comprehensive statutory right to information, alternative options identified for ATI advancement included proactive transparency, sectoral transparency (i.e. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) and leadership integrity. WBI Vice President Sanjay Pradhan, who spoke at the opening panel with President Carter, stressed the importance of harnessing the power of technological innovation, as well as the need to provide support through knowledge exchange, multi-stakeholder coalition building, and leadership strengthening. Creating an Action Plan At the end, a regional action plan was developed and country delegations —consisting of both state and non-state actors —developed country specific action plans.
Laura Neuman, manager of the Access to Information Project at the Carter Center, said the African Regional Findings and Plan of Action, "serves as a complement to the global Atlanta Declaration for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information, and provides an important set of considerations and a clear roadmap for forwarding the right in the region. The African Plan finds that while transparency is essential to good governance, paradoxically in many countries it is seen as a costly luxury rather than a development priority that brings economic gains." Moving Forward Together WBI is exploring support to a group of African countries to implement the action plans in partnership with the Carter Center, the University of Cape Town’s International School of Transparency, regional practitioners’ networks and other World Bank units.
It aims to do so by enhancing linkages between regional and local stakeholders, building their capacity through knowledge exchange, and showcasing good practices. In Ghana, the World Bank is supporting a dialogue between the national Coalition on the Right to Information and Parliament on the draft bill, as Nana Oye Lithur, convener of the Coalition, highlights: "The Right to Information Coalition in Ghana is looking beyond the promulgation of the Right to Information Law by Parliament. We will collaborate with Government to identify information delivery structures."
Additionally, in Zambia, the World Bank is supporting consultations to draft and adopt an ATI Bill with key stakeholders—government officials, civil society organizations, and journalists. "This ongoing technical support provided by the Bank is considered crucial in helping the country learn from international experience in this area," said Kapil Kapoor, Country Manager for Zambia. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, the World Bank is working with the government and civil society to realize the passage of a Freedom of Information Bill.
"WBI's work that emphasizes strengthening coalition and capacity of stakeholders to make ATI work could be very helpful in laying the groundwork for enactment and implementation of the bill," said Vivek Srivastava, Senior Public Sector Specialist in the Africa Region.
For information on WBI's Access to Information (ATI) program, please contact Marcos Mendiburu:firstname.lastname@example.org
Read a transcript of the speech by Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President, World Bank Institute