A spoonful of transparency: good but no cure-all

The New York Times ran a story last week about a five-year-old Indian law that reinforces the right—and sets in place the process—for individuals to request government-held information. Ms. Chanchala Devi, for example, applied for a government grant she had heard was available to help poor people like her build their own houses. After four years of fruitless waiting, she used India’s Right-to-Know law to request a list of people who had received the money while she had not. Within days, the story reported, Ms. Devi’s own funding came through. The story continues:

…it has now become clear that India’s 1.2 billion citizens have been newly empowered by the far-reaching law granting them the right to demand almost any information from the government. The law is backed by stiff fines for bureaucrats who withhold information, a penalty that appears to be ensuring speedy compliance.

Great news. But while the law has empowered individuals (over 2 million of them in the first 3 years of the law’s existence) to seek redress for their grievances, the article also cites critics who complain that the law has not had hoped-for system-wide effects on corruption, and that it acts as a “pressure valve” without posing a serious challenge to the system.

Joseph Stiglitz, among others, has convincingly argued that information gathered and produced by government officials rightly belongs to the public; that people need such information to participate meaningfully in democracy; and beyond these arguments, that openness has an intrinsic value. A 2008 JPAL study gives Stiglitz an empirical assist: giving urban poor people access to published “report cards” about local politicians’ performance and spending influenced those voters to elect incumbents based on issues (rather than caste or religion, for example).

Possibly the most-repeated success story told about information disclosure comes from Uganda, where World Bank researchers found in 1995 that only 13 percent of national government transfers to local schools actually reached the schools. After the Ugandan government began publishing in the newspaper how much money was supposed to go to each school, the proportion of funds “leaking” out of the system decreased dramatically. Four years later, 90 percent of that money was reaching the schools, and the newspaper information campaign was given credit for the change.

Like most simple stories in development, this one is actually not so simple. A paper by Paul Hubbard at the Center for Global Development objects that the plummeting proportion of funds going astray has to be put in the context of comprehensive fiscal and education reforms going on in Uganda at the time. Another study found that information disclosure efforts like the famous newspaper campaign were only effective in communities “that were literate and assertive enough to act when abuse was revealed.” Hubbard observes: “transparency by itself is insufficient if there is no opportunity for collective action.”

Which brings us back to India, where the Right-to-Know law is helping Chanchala Devi—and hundreds of thousands like her—to get what she is entitled to from her government. Why should we want it to be a cure-all for India’s corruption ills? What drives us to search for panaceas and silver bullets? Any expectation that this law alone will tackle an entrenched and corrupt bureaucracy is probably way too much for it to bear.