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Between a rock and a web page

 

By Paul Constance

 

 

“Secrecy is a form of corruption,” Costa Rican Nobel laureate Oscar Arias told an audience at the Inter-American Development Bank a few years ago. He was referring to the tendency of certain Latin American governments to keep a tight lid on information about the use of public funds, particularly those destined for the military. “Even when it is not used to hide the illegal enrichment of people in government," Arias added, "I believe the attitude of governments that abuse power by keeping the people in the dark as to the use of public funds is a corrupt attitude."

 

By insisting on the public’s right to know how their taxes are spent, Arias was invoking an ancient principle. Twenty-five hundred years ago, during the dawn of democracy in the city-state of Athens, citizens placed enormous importance on their ability to monitor public revenues and expenditures. Historians have determined that nearly all elected officials in the city-state were subjected to an euthynai, or audit, at the conclusion of their term, in which they had to offer a detailed account of the public monies that had passed through their hands.

These accounts were recorded on papyrus or wooden boards and stored in public archives, along with information on the city-state’s debts, inventories from its temples, construction budgets, military campaign expenditures, and other fiscal minutia. Any citizen (that is, any male who was not a slave) was free to consult them. As if that were not enough, some financial accounts were chiseled into marble stelae and erected in public gathering places such as the Acropolis and the Agora, where they received the widest possible exposure. Hundreds of those inscriptions are still legible today.

Are modern democracies doing any better? Not necessarily. As late as the mid-1990s, governments could claim to be financially “transparent” if they stored printed copies of budgets, contracts and other financial data in a few archives that were open to the public. This usually meant that interested citizens had to travel to the correct facility, plow through volumes as thick as phonebooks, and then hope to find a working photocopier—all during office hours. Though somewhat easier than sifting through stacks of papyrus, this was hardly convenient. Unsurprisingly, few people bothered to look, and public finances remained one of the darkest corners of the celebrated “information society.”

Then the Internet began to change expectations. As people got used to paying their bills, checking stock prices and balancing their bank accounts online, they began to wonder why it should be so difficult to learn what their government is spending on schools or crime prevention. Soon civil society organizations were demanding that governments use the Internet to improve accountability.

In Latin America, some governments were quick to get the message. Upon assuming office in 2000, Mexican President Vicente Fox declared that executive spending accounts would be placed on the government’s website. Soon an enterprising reporter visited the site and discovered that Fox’s staff had paid more than US$400 for bath towels destined for the presidential mansion. The ensuing scandal, dubbed “towelgate” by the media, led to the resignation of one of Fox’s most senior advisors and prompted weeks of passionate debate about government spending.

Instead of retreating, Fox continued to promote greater fiscal transparency, backing an ambitious freedom of information law that was passed by Mexico’s Congress in 2002. Today, virtually every federal, state and municipal government website in Mexico has a “Transparency” link on its front page that leads to detailed information about budgets, procurement, contracts, staffing and salaries. Even traditionally hermetic institutions such as the armed forces are included. Want to know how much the Mexican Army is spending to acquire new weapon systems? Log on. Oscar Arias would be impressed.
 
Mexico is by no means unique. Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic have also recently passed comprehensive freedom of information laws, and similar measures are being debated in the legislatures of nearly every other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Government websites with detailed data on public finances, once the exception to the rule, are starting to become more common.

Though these and other “electronic government” initiatives are often dismissed as window dressing, I think they reveal an important change Latin American society. A quick survey of newspapers in any of the region’s countries shows countless articles on the source of political campaign funds, cost overruns on public contracts, questionable pension benefits and mismanaged social services. This shows that the media, pressured by civil society, is bringing increasing scrutiny to the intersection of money, politics and government. As the Athenians seem to have presciently understood, this exercise is vital to the health of a democracy.

The IDB, which is financed by taxpayers in its member countries, is also a focus of scrutiny. Like other public institutions, the Bank has been expanding the scope of its information disclosure policies to reflect the evolving expectations of its constituents. This edition of IDBAmérica includes one journalist’s assessment of the Bank’s efforts so far (see link at right to "Lights and shadows"). In upcoming editions, we’ll take a closer look at how the region’s governments and civil society organizations are using the Internet to ensure that decisions concerning the use of public resources enjoy the benefits of sunshine. 

*Paul Constance is managing editor of IDBAmérica.