If President Dilma Rousseff’s government can meet expectations, Rousseff might just be remembered as Brazil’s first ‘transparency president’.
The expectations of which I speak are not just those of Brazil – they are the world’s. On April 17th and 18th, more than 50 countries will meet in Brasilia to unveil their commitments to the Open Government Partnership (OGP)– the first ever multi-national, multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to advancing transparency, access to information, citizen participation and accountability in government. First announced at the opening of the United Nations in September of 2011, the OGP represents a global paradigm shift towards greater transparency and more effective democratic governance.
Eyes will be on Brazil not only because of its position as co-leader of the Partnership, alongside the United States, but also because Brazil has created considerable expectations in the area of transparency policy over the last few years. In 2011 it created two more important expectations: a freedom of information law and a Truth Commission.
Today’s Launch of the Brasil Aberto Movement
For all of Brazil’s expectations, and for those of other countries in Latin America, a group of leading NGOs from around the region launched the Brasil Aberto movement today. The movement’s website – http://brasilaberto.org – is a space for citizens from around the region to monitor news on the OGP, governmental commitments, and to propose, vote and comment on measures to improve openness, transparency, and accountability in government. Most of the website’s content is in English, Portuguese and Spanish – maximizing viewership on a global scope is the first means by which Brasil Aberto seeks to ensure governments work for the OGP and the OGP works for citizens.
In the eyes of the world, Brazil has already achieved impressive good governance advances. It was one of the first nations to maintain open-expense-accounts through the Controladoria’s Geral da União’s Portal da Transparência. The lei complementar 131 of 2009 extended the obligation to post expenses on the web to municipal governments. Brazil was also one of the first countries in the world to experiment with participatory budgeting, most famously demonstrated by the city of Porto Alegre in the 1990s. Both of these initiatives contain serious shortcomings. But for the world they are and will remain truly innovative illustrations of Brazil’s commitment to more transparent and open government.
Over the last year Brazil has created even greater expectations. During the week of the 24th of October, a week that should go down in history as the week of Brazil’s ‘Great Opening’, the Brazilian Senate enacted a freedom of information law as well as a long-awaited Truth Commission. The first measure regulates a constitutional right, as stipulated by Articles 5 and 37 of the 1988 constitution. The second finally establishes a right to truth, opening Brazil up to itself after years of quiet anger and misgivings.
These two measures place enormous political expectations on Brazil, both at home and abroad. Whereas Brazil’s Transparency Portal and Participatory Budgeting were rather unique experiments, these new measures are international standards: more than 95 countries or 5.5 billion people already possess freedom of information laws, and more than a dozen countries have undertaken truth and reconciliation. Brazil’s performance will be measured, and its commitment to real transparency and openness cannot hide behind novelty.
The freedom of information law comes into effect on the 16th of May, exactly one month after the OGP, and it is manifestly clear that Brazil’s federal, state, and municipal governments still have far to go in terms of readiness. As for the Truth Committee, it has not even begun to operate.
Public commitments vs. political and administrative action
Despite these mildly disappointing preliminary results, Brazil’s government is publicly committed to transparency and truth. President Rousseff, a survivor of the dictatorship, is believed to support the Truth Commission, albeit far too quietly for many advocates. As for the freedom of information law, Rousseff is considered the political architect of the measure, having introduced it to Congress in 2009 as Chief of Staff under President Lula. Jorge Hage, the Controlador Geral da República, has also played a very active role in voicing support for the freedom of information law and Brazil’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership more generally.
It is time to see these very public commitments translated into tangible administrative and political action. Serious efforts must be made to implement the freedom of information law. This means establishing information units across governmental entities, training public servants, and setting-up appropriate archiving, IT, and procedural systems. The Truth Commission must also be given the political authority to do what it was meant to do. A half-measure Truth Commission will only demonstrate that authoritarianism still prevents Brazil from becoming internally strong and a beacon of openness.
Soft Power, the Power of Open
The Open Government Partnership is Brazil’s chance to consolidate a position as a world leader in the area of transparency. This is true ‘soft power’, a power within Brazil’s reach. A commitment to transparency translates into strength on the international stage and at home. Transparency and access to information are critical for rooting-out corruption, creating greater efficiencies in government, empowering citizens with information, and diminishing information asymmetries that retard economic growth and public sector effectiveness. In short, improving transparency is the best way for Brazil to show itself and the world that it is a vital democracy committed to its people.