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COMMONWEALTH: How to Beat that Democracy Deficit

Sanjay Suri

ABUJA, Nigeria, Nov 28 2003 (IPS) - The Commonwealth heads of government meeting, beginning in the Nigerian capital next week, is committed to promotion of development and democracy – both in heavy deficit among member countries. The answer is open government, says a new report ahead of the meeting.

"Entrenching people’s right to access information is the most practical way of achieving this," says the report ‘Open Sesame’ prepared by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

The report is asking heads of government to immediately implement "liberal access to information laws developed by people and governments working in close cooperation." It is asking the institutions of the Commonwealth itself to put in place disclosure and information sharing policies. "Without this, the quest for robust democracy and rapid development will never be realised," the report says.

"Open government is notoriously absent in the majority of Commonwealth member states," the report says. "Only 11 out of 54 Commonwealth countries have access to information laws." Others have guarantees in the Constitution but few enabling laws to activate them, the report says.

Does this go back to colonial days and British rule? The Commonwealth is after all a group of countries that were once ruled by the British.

That hangover can be heavy, the report says. "Colonial authorities which owed no duty to subject populations purposefully used secrecy to signal their power and distance," the report says. "A culture of secrecy permeated government, and systems to keep information from the public became embedded."

The report adds: "Today, except in a handful of countries, governments enthusiastically retain and indeed embrace these symbols of supremacy as if there has been no intervening change from colonial to constitutional governance. Official secrets acts, preventive detention and anti-terrorist legislation, criminal defamation laws, overly indulgent contempt and privilege laws, media and privacy regulations and restrictive civil service rules all remain very much intact."

The report is asking the Commonwealth heads of government meeting Dec. 5-8 (CHOGM 2003) to declare that the right to information is central to democracy and development.

The CHRI is seeking several specific measures from the Commonwealth:

– It must assist member countries to design and implement effective access to information regimes.

– It must open up its own ministerial meetings and CHOGMs "which currently remain so stubbornly inaccessible."

– Declarations are not enough; member countries must be required to report progress on this front at each CHOGM, held every two years.

The report is asking member countries to introduce liberal access to information laws by the next CHOGM in 2005. It is asking specifically for proactive publication of information about, for example the basic activities of government departments, their rules of operation and procedure, decision-making criteria, performance indicators, points of public access and financial information including expenditure.

"Governments do not own information," the report says. "Rather, information is a public good in much the same way as clean air, electricity and water. Government is a vast storehouse of information. The information kept by government holds the memory of the nation and supplies a full portrait of its activities and performance."

The CHRI report points to fundamental areas in which information becomes central to democracy and to development.

Take poverty. Many of the populations that are worst off live in India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh, whose populations together amount to 90 percent of the Commonwealth. But development strategies have often failed because of the closed environment between governments and donors without involvement of the people, the report says.

"Poor people know what they want but are out of the habit of questioning aloof governments," the report says. But governments and donors have not been willing to open up. "Yet the Commonwealth insists that it is committed to development in partnership with people and civil society."

Access to information is a core feature of participatory democracy. But Commonwealth citizens are struggling because of lack of information. In India, for example, the criminal background of candidates is withheld from people, the report says, despite an order from the Election Commissioner.

The Commonwealth is relying on free markets and equitable economic growth to quicken development, the report says. "The right to information provides crucial support to the market-friendly good governance principles of transparency and accountability. Markets, like governments, do not function well in secret."

The report adds: "The free flow of information ensures that markets work for people rather than corporations. It helps level a playing field that is currently heavily skewed in favour of big business."

Guaranteed right of access to information is essential also for fighting corruption, the report says. "Corruption undermines democracy. It creates a culture of impunity destroying the rule of law and creating a class of overlords who need secrecy to keep their dark deeds hidden in dark places."

It is no coincidence that "countries with access to information laws are also perceived to be the least corrupt."

Right to information laws are necessary also to "peel back the layers of bureaucratic red tape and political sleight of hand and get to the ‘hard facts’," the report says. "Armed with information, even the most marginalised of citizens can take action in their own interests."

But the means of getting that message across to the leaders at the Abuja CHOGM will be the bureaucracy itself. Like the leaders at Abuja, the Commonwealth itself is on test for its support to open governance.

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