Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Right to Information: A Human Right

To follow up on my last post, probably the best article on Burma that I’ve seen since the beginning of the “saffron revolution” was written by Bertil Lintner in the October 2007 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Lintner has been writing about Burma for the Review for decades but I was actually surprised to see his byline in the truncated version of the Review that exists today. It’s a depressing read, but probably the most intelligent piece on Burma to be written recently. He says that unlike other Asian nations that have experienced military rule such as Indonesia or Thailand, Burma is unique. In other countries there were still competing elites such as the business class or traditional nobilities. When the Burmese military took over in 1962, they took over everything. The business elite, which was mostly made up of ethnic Indians and Chinese, fled the country. Any change that comes to Burma will involve a split in the ranks of the military. There is no indication of that happening. The generals know that if they “don’t hang together, they will hang separately.” The most that marching monks can do is to signal to the lower ranking officers that there is no long-term future in military rule. As yet, however, there is nothing to suggest that the lower ranking officers are ready to rebel.



Earlier in the week I had the privilege to attend a forum on “The Right to Information and Legal Accountability in International Financial Institutions” held at the University of the Philippines – Diliman, and sponsored by several local and international NGOs working on accountability issues. The forum was prompted by the presence in Metro Manila of international NGO representatives attending meetings of the Global Transparency Initiative, one of the forum’s sponsors.

Panelists and audience combined amounted to not more than sixty or seventy people; it might have been good had a larger number of people been able to participate as the issues taken up are important to the Philippines and other developing countries. On the other hand, the relative candidness on the part of panelists might have been inhibited had a larger group – including media – attended. Panelists were mostly public interest lawyers from the Philippines and abroad, as well as representatives from the Philippine-based Asian Development Bank.

There was general agreement that information about development infrastructure projects funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the other multilateral development banks is far more accessible today than, say, fifteen years ago. This was also of personal interest to me as I was working on these issues in the mid-1990s while living in Washington, DC, working mostly on Philippine development issues. Still, as the NGO representatives would stress, there is much, much further to go.

The ADB’s associate secretary for compliance review, Suresh Nanwani, made an interesting point at the outset. He said that while panelists certainly had disagreements, everyone there agreed on the importance of these issues. Communities should have information about project plans that will impact there lives, and they should have input on the discussion. “Operationalizing this,” however, “can be a different matter.” He noted that despite their disagreements, they all spoke the same language. Although not all were lawyers, they could all follow legal arguments. Although not all were economists or social scientists, they all understood the concepts. They meet in gatherings like this, “and we bond.” What, on the other hand, could it possibly mean for a small farmer in India to be told that he had the right of “access to information?”

Toby Mendel, a Canadian-based attorney working for the Article XIX Global Campaign for Free Expression, presented a human rights argument in favor of ready access to information from the MDBs. Essentially he argued that the right to information is enshrined in United Nations covenants and should be held as equal in legal weight to the individual’s right to not be tortured. Further, just as nation states should not torture people and cannot establish other institutions with the right to torture people, likewise, nation states are bound to provide their citizens with information about their plans and activities and any institutions that nation states establish – individually or collectively – are also bound to provide information about their activities. Access to information is a human right, just as the right to not be tortured is a human right.

The mechanisms that would allow individuals to take up human rights cases with multilateral entities are not yet in place, however. In the long run the international treaties that brought the MDBs into being will have to be re-written to make MDBs accountable to individuals. This will take a long time, Mendel conceded. Still, policies have been put in place and must be strengthened which do make the MDBs more accountable.

One problem is that communities which take issue with an MDB project can only make appeals within the MDB compliance process itself. There is no higher authority outside the MDB to which individuals or communities may appeal and which could compel MDB compliance.

The ADB’s Nanwani briefly outlined the process by which communities can raise objection to project plans. This can result in additional reviews and copies of the review document are then made available to both the ADB directors and the community that has taken issue. This actually goes further than the World Bank process where review documents are only made available to the directors and not to the community concerned.

I would concur that significant progress has been made in the last 15 years toward making the development banks more accountable. Accountability assumes, however, that the target country enjoys at least a relative degree of democracy, and has a vibrant civil society that can make meaningful to the “small farmer” this access to information. Unfortunately, most of the governments which receive infrastructure loans from the MDBs are not very democratic.

I recall a conversation at the World Bank that I was part of way back in the mid-1990s along with the Philippine peasant leader Jaime Tadeo and the Bank’s senior agricultural analyst for the Philippines. Tadeo objected to the economic restructuring that the Bank’s sibling institution, the International Monetary Fund was pushing on the Philippines. The Philippine economy had to be restructured, the argument went, in order to bring in more hard currency with which to pay back its existing loans, and therefore qualify for new loans. Restructuring would open the economy up to more involvement and control by foreigners, Tadeo objected. These are decisions your government is making, the Bank official told Tadeo. If you don’t like it, then change your government, don’t complain to the Bank.

Tadeo reminded him that the Filipino people had changed their government when they ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, yet the people were still being made to pay back the loans that the dictator incurred. The loans, in effect, are not made to governments, but to people who have little say in them.

The situation has improved, but the MDBs are still working with dictators.

1 comment:

Rick Penner said...

Hi, Don,

Haven't heard from you in ages. Great to get your message!

I was one of those who used to get your Occasional Newsletter (I still have them); they're like old short wave radio bulletins I collected from various and sundry places around the globe; or letters from missionaries in the field (which my dad collected; I still have them in an old box up in the closet I went through recently).

The point is, a blog can be refreshing and "live" if it arrives from an exotic location like a serial letter from some person one knows "out there."

Like a postage stamp of unusual origin.

Just let me add: don't only do analysis; instead, add plenty of short pieces (in-between) giving "live" reports from the field about your life, what's on your mind, about the Philippines, about what you've heard recently "over the transom" as it were (since you get messages from sources we'all don't normally see).

Anything will do, any kind of short mention about stuff you heard on the TV locally, the radio, via letters, through the interesting Internet connections you must have, and so on.

Your "attractor" points are not your intelligent comments (as worthy as they may be) but anything flowing from your unusual and original location and perspective.

You "hear" and "see" from places many of the rest of us don't hear and see. The "color" of your reports provides the popularity and platform for your thinking -- get it? The "color" sets the stage; builds the vehicle. Gets the hits. Attracts the attention.

Stick with me and you'll be working Vegas!

Anyway, I'll be following your blog. Thanks for writing....

Rick Penner
Burbank, California