GuideStar International's Blog

August 26, 2010

Conference on Transparency, Free Flow of Information and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

By Caroline Neligan, Director of Partnership and Development, GuideStar International

London, 24-25 August 2010.

Organised by Article 19

This conference was convened in anticipation of the United Nations High Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) +10, being held in New York from 20-22 September.

The backdrop to this meeting was the substantial progress needed to meet the MDGs and that transparency and the free flow of information are critical principles that must be fully integrated into the development agenda at both international, national and sub national levels if this progress is to happen.

Full details of the conference can be found here http://www.right2info-mdgs.org/conference/. It was an incredibly rich two days with some remarkably thoughtful, wide-ranging and inspiring presentations. Needless to say, it’s impossible to do justice to them but I’d like to provide my immediate reflections on the meeting.

Firstly, there was a very real sense of a growing ‘transparency movement’. This movement brings together right to information, anti-corruption, human rights, budget monitoring, social auditing and development effectiveness experts and activists, among others. Generally these groups work in silos but are starting to recognise the common themes of their work and are seeing that together, we can move the agenda forward and embed access to information in development debates and practice.

Of course, when it came to writing a joint declaration for the UN meetings during our final session, it was harder to reflect all these different interests and concerns, but there was a genuine sense in the room of the complementarity of values and objectives that could be powerful if harnessed properly.

Aruna Roy, of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in India, the social movement well-known for spear-heading India’s Right to Information laws set the tone for the meeting in her opening plenary remarks. She noted that many in India have never heard of the MDGs or understand what they are. If you don’t know, how can you demand your rights? That said, although they might not be able to articulate the 8 goals, poor people do know what makes and keeps them poor. And much of this is caused or exacerbated by corruption and the arbitrary use of power. Access to information is critical to ending this vicious cycle. There was common agreement in the room that budget transparency, is key for proper accountability – “Our money, our accounts”.

  • Who gets the money?
  • How is it received?
  • Who controls it?
  • Are we getting what we’re paying for?

For me there were some key issues raised from these discussions. Of course we need to make sure that access to information and anti-corruption agreements and laws have teeth. But to even achieve this, there is a real need for proper infrastructure and capacity building so that civil society has the expertise and tools to demand and make use of the information it requires.

Also, civil society itself must expect to be ‘walk the talk’ and practice the principles of transparency that they demand of others. There was much concern expressed, and rightly so, about the “counter -associational revolution” that is occurring in countries around the world where civic space is shrinking or threatened through regressive laws and practices. This is undoubtedly a cause for concern and transparency can indeed be a risk for some organisations and individuals. However, to pick up the refrain of the conference “transparency costs, but lack of transparency costs more”. Information on who’s doing what, where and how, is vital to the growth, influence and impact of the sector and must be expected and enabled.

There is however, a real risk of approaching civil society as a homogenous group, when of course this is simply not the case. International NGOs for example are remarkably influential and are donors themselves – receiving money from both governments and private sources. Where do these organisations see themselves in relation to the IATI work on aid transparency, for example? How can they promote information demand and supply? What can they do to help their partner CSOs report effectively? This, I felt, wasn’t addressed in any detail during the conference but I hope will rise in prominence as the ‘movement’ grows and progresses.

For more, keep an eye on the Right2Info website http://www.right2info-mdgs.org/ also on twitter @right2info_mdgs.

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