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A spoonful of transparency: good but no cure-all

The New York Times ran a story last week about a five-year-old Indian law that reinforces the right—and sets in place the process—for individuals to request government-held information.

Ms. Chanchala Devi, for example, applied for a government grant she had heard was available to help poor people like her build their own houses. After four years of fruitless waiting, she used India’s Right-to-Know law to request a list of people who had received the money while she had not. Within days, the story reported, Ms. Devi’s own funding came through. The story continues:

…it has now become clear that India’s 1.2 billion citizens have been newly empowered by the far-reaching law granting them the right to demand almost any information from the government. The law is backed by stiff fines for bureaucrats who withhold information, a penalty that appears to be ensuring speedy compliance.

Great news. But while the law has empowered individuals (over 2 million of them in the first 3 years of the law’s existence) to seek redress for their grievances, the article also cites critics who complain that the law has not had hoped-for system-wide effects on corruption, and that it acts as a “pressure valve” without posing a serious challenge to the system.

Joseph Stiglitz, among others, has convincingly argued that information gathered and produced by government officials rightly belongs to the public; that people need such information to participate meaningfully in democracy; and beyond these arguments, that openness has an intrinsic value. A 2008 JPAL study gives Stiglitz an empirical assist: giving urban poor people access to published “report cards” about local politicians’ performance and spending influenced those voters to elect incumbents based on issues (rather than caste or religion, for example).

Possibly the most-repeated success story told about information disclosure comes from Uganda, where World Bank researchers found in 1995 that only 13 percent of national government transfers to local schools actually reached the schools. After the Ugandan government began publishing in the newspaper how much money was supposed to go to each school, the proportion of funds “leaking” out of the system decreased dramatically. Four years later, 90 percent of that money was reaching the schools, and the newspaper information campaign was given credit for the change.

Like most simple stories in development, this one is actually not so simple. A paper by Paul Hubbard at the Center for Global Development objects that the plummeting proportion of funds going astray has to be put in the context of comprehensive fiscal and education reforms going on in Uganda at the time. Another study found that information disclosure efforts like the famous newspaper campaign were only effective in communities “that were literate and assertive enough to act when abuse was revealed.” Hubbard observes: “transparency by itself is insufficient if there is no opportunity for collective action.”

Which brings us back to India, where the Right-to-Know law is helping Chanchala Devi—and hundreds of thousands like her—to get what she is entitled to from her government. Why should we want it to be a cure-all for India’s corruption ills? What drives us to search for panaceas and silver bullets? Any expectation that this law alone will tackle an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy is probably way too much for it to bear.

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  1. Pablo Kuri wrote:

    We have a similar law here in Honduras, it’s called ¨LEY DE TRANSPARENCIA Y ACCESO A LA INFORMACION PÚBLICA¨ or law for transparency and access of public information. It not only obliges the transfer of information, (and here is where it gets tricky) the law also establishes that an Information Access Dependency is created. Also, it requires one liaison per ministry, dependency and so on to deal with public demands.

    People don´t need access to information, they need things being done right. All this talk of the best use of funds is a debate where the polity has the capability to act. What´s the use of information if the Courts are corrupt and the institutions created to act don´t. Why the hell do we need a law for something that is a citizen’s right.

    I just want to say, as a national aid worker how frustrating these issues are. It is especially hard when its your own country being butchered.

    P.S. The President of Honduras and his cronies went off to the World Cup just in time for the biggest Dengue outbreak in the last 5 years. How about them apples! :$

    Posted July 8, 2010 at 1:28 am | Permalink
  2. Pablo Kuri wrote:

    Sorry, I forgot to remind you that when dealing with information, especially coming from government dependencies, you need what to look for. Also, in the third world, keeping track of things is not our main forte. No matter how much money you pour into information systems they just don´t seem to work, odd really (sarcasm).

    This reminds me of the great function markets have: information supply. This coming from a non competing organization is farfetched. I just want to say thank you for your contributions, and for having this window of opportunity were the aid community can take a bath in humility.

    Posted July 8, 2010 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  3. Pablo Kuri wrote:

    ¨you need to know what to llok for¨.

    Posted July 8, 2010 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  4. Ben Taylor wrote:

    “Good but no cure-all” sets an impossibly high standard. Nothing is a cure-all. And while I agree with Paul Hubbard that “transparency by itself is insufficient if there is no opportunity for collective action”, I would argue that without transparency, it is impossible to make effective use of whatever opportunities for collective action do exist.

    In other words, transparency may not be sufficient, but it is certainly necessary.

    Posted July 8, 2010 at 3:28 am | Permalink
  5. Owen Barder wrote:

    necessary but not sufficient, right?

    did anyone suggest that access to information was a “cure-all”?


    Posted July 8, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  6. Plan cul gay wrote:

    We have a similar law here in Honduras, it’s called ¨LEY DE TRANSPARENCIA Y ACCESO A LA INFORMACION PÚBLICA¨

    Posted July 11, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  7. David Wofford wrote:

    If I recall correctly, in Uganda the information on amount of money that the school (or district?) was also posted on the schoolhouse door so parents could easily see what their kids were due. This is an important point — access to easily understandable information. Agree with Owen, acces to informaiton is not a cure-all, but it is an essential element in the ability of citizens/communities to take organize and take action. You can’t easily hold politicians accountable if there’s no possibility of accounting.

    Posted July 12, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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