How does access to information support good governance and poverty reduction? What needs to be included in the effective design of access to information programmes? This practice note by the United Nations Development Programme argues that access to information is an empowerment tool that underpins democratic governance, and which is also fundamental to other priority programme areas such as HIV/AIDS, the environment, gender, crisis prevention and ICT for development. To reduce poverty, it is essential to maximise poor people’s access to information to enable their participation in democratic and policy making processes.
Access to information and freedom of expression are international human rights under Article 19 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Access to information is not only about promoting and protecting rights to information, but is equally concerned with voice, participation in democratic processes, and setting priorities for action. The underlying governance principles of an access to information approach are transparency, active participation, responsiveness and accountability. These principles underlie a conceptual framework called the ‘Information and Communication Circle’ which aims to maximise poor people’s participation in democratic and policy making processes.
Poor people often lack information vital to their lives, and the voice to access resources or influence policies which affect them. Access to information is therefore closely related to equity and empowerment. Furthermore:
- Access to information and communication are critical for providing effective humanitarian assistance as well as for long-term crisis and conflict prevention.
- Insecurity and crises within a country have a negative impact on access to information. Increasing insecurity sometimes intensifies governments’ surveillance and censorship activities. In these cases information is withheld under the guise of ‘national security’, especially regarding internet access and use.
- The promotion and protection of access to information is as important as ensuring flows of information between different stakeholders.
- Access to information increases the demand for better governance which in turn perpetuates demand for increased access to information.
Democratic governance is central to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. In turn, rights to freedom of expression and access to information are prerequisites for ensuring the voice and participation necessary for a democratic society. It is essential to create and strengthen communication mechanisms that enable poor people to influence government policy and practice. Doing this requires:
- Strengthening the legal and regulatory environment for freedom and pluralism in information
- Supporting capacity strengthening, networking, and higher standards of media at national and local levels to promote the exchange of independent and pluralist information
- Raising awareness on rights to official information and strengthening mechanisms to provide information
- Strengthening communication mechanisms for vulnerable groups.