When Zahida Bibi’s oldest daughter, Sumera, asked if she could join a beautician’s course at a state-run vocational training institute, Zahida didn’t know how to respond. She wanted the best for her daughter and welcomed Sumera’s wish to help support the family. But she knew nothing about the institute, whether it was safe for girls and how studying there might help Sumera.
The family lives in Pakistan’s Punjab region, sharing a mud-brick house in a remote village in Tehsil Pir Mehal. To support her husband with disabilities and five children, Zahida carries out domestic work in several households. A daughter with vocational skills could provide an urgently needed boost to the family income, hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. But Zahida needed to know more before she could allow Sumera to take a big step and attend the college.
Information as an anti-corruption tool
Fortunately for the family, in May 2021, Transparency International Pakistan had organised a right to information (RTI) workshop in their village. The event was part of a campaign to raise awareness of Punjab’s RTI law. It showed people how to submit requests to obtain information from public bodies. Women were encouraged to attend, so Zahida went along.
Laws like the Punjab RTI law enable civil society, the media, business and ordinary people to request and receive information on how their country is run in a wide range of areas, including public contracting, service delivery, expenditure and exercise of authority.
Access to such information is a human right, enabling people to make fact-based decisions about how they interact with authorities and who they vote for, and to seek remedies for wrongdoing. RTI laws are an essential tool to engage and empower citizens to demand accountability from governments, fight corruption and develop trust in their institutions.
Low awareness of the right to information
Globally, around 120 countries have RTI legislation. However, the quality of these laws varies. A strong RTI law prevails over all other legislation, prioritises the public interest, provides for proactive disclosure of information and requires refusal of information to be justified. Most importantly, the law must be usable by ordinary people through a simple procedure.
But even a well-formulated law doesn’t necessarily mean that the right to information is widely known and upheld. How successfully laws are implemented also varies across countries, as does compliance with the regulations.
According to the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Asia 2020, which surveyed more than 20,000 people in 17 nations about their day-to-day experiences of corruption, less than half of citizens (46 per cent) are aware of their right to request information from government agencies and institutions. Only 11 per cent of citizens had used this right to request official documents from their government in the previous 12 months.
That’s why Transparency International is working worldwide to promote RTI laws that meet international standards, are fully applied in practice and are used by people to hold their governments accountable.
Promoting openness and transparency
Transparency International helps ensure that the detailed provisions of RTI laws are translated into meaningful tools for the public. Chapters inform people of their RTI rights, and train and support them to submit requests for information.
Chapters’ Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) are key to encouraging people to take action on RTI. ALACs give legal advice and support people’s use of information to expose corruption. Transparency International experts advise people how to use RTI laws to gather information for corruption cases and provide assistance in legal proceedings. They also analyse the RTI cases they receive, to assess whether a country’s RTI regulations are working.
Since 2016, Transparency International Pakistan has trained and helped almost 1,350 people in submitting RTI requests – over 30 per cent of them women. These cover subjects from development plans and support for people with disabilities, to budget allocation and expenditure. Thanks to the workshop Zahida attended, she knew how to find out more when Sumera asked to enrol in the institute.
Armed with knowledge about her right to information, she filed an RTI application with the Vocational Training Institute Punjab. Despite their legal obligations, public institutions are often reluctant to provide information under the RTI law. But to Zahida’s surprise, the training institute was transparent, sharing the information she needed to decide on Sumera’s future.
Holding officials to account
Zahida learned that the institute teaches women the skills to start home-based businesses, offering free courses and providing students with a monthly stipend of 500 Pakistani Rupees (US$3). With this newly obtained information, she agreed to Sumera training as a beautician. Having such knowledge means she can hold the institute to account to ensure that it provides a full service in support of her daughter’s education.
Zahida’s story shows that as well as being a key accountability tool, the open provision of information can develop people’s trust in their public bodies. By building confidence in Punjab’s institutions, it provided a lifechanging opportunity to Zahida’s family as they struggle to emerge from the impact of COVID-19. Sumera now hopes to open a beauty salon at home to help support her family.
The GCB shows that more than three out of five people in Asia think ordinary citizens can help stop corruption. RTI is an essential tool to help them do so. By empowering people to use information to hold officials to account, Transparency International chapters around the world are supporting them to access their rights and ensure their voices are heard.
Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption, and support citizens to exercise their right to information. With more than 100 offices in more than 60 countries, ALACs provide an accessible, effective way for people to report corrupt, access public information and demand action. Learn more: https://www.transparency.org/en/alacs