The people of Emkhandlwini village, Kwazulu-Natal Province, South Africa, were upset, and justifiably so. There was a drought and they needed water urgently. Several other nearby villages had received water, but they had none. They had made repeated appeals and even visits to the local council, all to no avail. In desperation, they turned to the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), a local NGO that helps groups make requests for information using the local access to information law.
With the support of ODAC, the villagers made requests for minutes from council meetings at which water programmes had been agreed, for the council’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and for the IDP budget. In due course, they received a lot of this information. It showed that Emkhandlwini was one of the villages targeted for water deliveries, but that it had somehow been left out. Armed with the information, the villagers were able to reassert their claims, and soon water was being delivered to their village.
This story is just one of many thousands, perhaps millions, of examples of people in countries all over the world using access to information or freedom of information (FOI) laws to assert their rights. These laws, which give individuals a right to access information held by their government, are based on the idea that a government holds information not for itself but on behalf of the people. They are a powerful democratizing force, which help put a face on the bureaucracy and give citizens an important tool to force a sometimes reluctant government machinery to respond to people’s demands.
The Emkhandlwini story illustrates one of the powerful benefits of the right to information, namely ensuring that public benefits are distributed properly. These laws have also been used to great effect by the media and civil society to expose corruption. One of the most high profile cases of this in recent years was the MPs’ expenses scandal in Britain. MPs fought tooth and nail to prevent the release of the details of their expense accounts. When the information was finally released, largely due to the FOI Act, British citizens understood why MPs had fought so hard to keep it under wraps. There were numerous cases of scandalous expenditures, including a claim for a floating island to keep ducks on and for clearing a moat at an MP’s country manor house. Dozens of MPs were unable to run in the next election and the speaker of the House of Commons was forced to step down for the first time in 300 years.
A more grassroots example comes from India. Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a grassroots organisation based in Rajasthan, was founded to prevent corrupt officials from cheating illiterate peasants out of the wages they were due. Over time, MKSS developed a new empowerment strategy based on the idea of a ‘jan sunwai’ or ‘public hearing.’ It would bring local communities together and read out official documents, for example related to construction records for school buildings, bridges and dams. This often elicited laughter, because the documents contained false information, such as bills for transporting materials 5 km when the real distance was only 1 km, or people listed as being paid when they had moved away or were dead. Demonstrating corruption in front of the entire village largely stopped it. These stories generated massive support for the right to information, and there are now an estimated 5 million requests annually in India.
The right to information is also essential as an underpinning of democracy. If citizens are to participate in a real way in public decision-making, they must have access to the information upon which decisions are being based. Often overlooked is the fact that this right is one component of a successful business environment. In countries like Canada and the United States, some 25 percent of all requests come from businesses.
As of today some 90 countries, from all regions of the world, have adopted FOI laws, covering some 5.5 billion people globally. There has been a revolution in recognition of the right to information over the last 20 years. Over 80 percent of today’s laws were passed since 1990, many in the last 10 years. Recently, the right has been recognised by the United Nations as a fundamental human right. It is perhaps surprising that it has taken so long for such a natural idea — that governments exist to serve the people, including in terms of providing them with information — to come of age.
Egypt is a relative latecomer to this club. An FOI law was being discussed inside the government as far back as 2007, but nothing came of it. After the 25 January uprising, the government renewed its focus on this legislation, and for a time it seemed that the adoption of an FOI law would be an early democratic achievement. This moment now seems to have passed, and a longer struggle now appears to be looming.
The experience of other countries demonstrates that governments are often resistant to adopting FOI laws, in part because they do not really want to share information with the people. It is only through widespread pressure from a broad cross-section of society — the media, NGOs, businesses, forward-looking elites — that they can be convinced of the need for it. Egypt has a certain advantage in this respect: the revolution. Egyptians must utilize the revolutionary spirit to insist on electing a new government that is opposed to corruption and wants to provide better services to the people, two of the key benefits of FOI legislation. With the support of a strong civil society coalition, this objective is almost certain to be achieved.
Toby Mendel is the executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy