The Middle East Council on Global Affairs (ME Council) held a virtual workshop on November 16, 2022, to reflect on issues of transparency and right to information (RTI) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This discussion followed an initial online workshop on governance reform held on June 30, 2022. The second workshop was attended by distinguished former policymakers, scholars, and experts who assessed the region’s transparency track record and charted pathways forward. The discussion was moderated by Tarik M. Yousef, senior fellow and director of the ME Council, and Robert P. Beschel Jr., nonresident senior fellow at the ME Council.
The discussion started with a recognition that transparency is among the most critical issues confronting the MENA region. Countries in the region currently confront challenges that include rising inflation and interest rates; a two-track growth trajectory among oil producing and non-oil producing states; a heavy debt burden, particularly among non-oil producing countries; climate change; and various post-COVID shocks. In confronting these challenges, government learning and adaptability will be crucial. Greater transparency will play a crucial role in facilitating the flow of real-time data and information, which will in turn support the evidence-based decision-making that will allow MENA countries to correct course. Yet, many MENA governments fail to collect or publish standard statistics on economic and financial outcomes or on public sector performance. A recent World Bank report concluded that the MENA region fares poorly on a variety of transparency-related indicators, whether they address topics such as press freedom, right to information, or financial and fiscal transparency. An answer to these issues will require local solutions to local problems, along with a focus upon empowering sub-national governments and building local capacity.
One expert contended that the largest obstacle to transparency and accountability in the MENA region is the invisibility of citizens to their governments. Only a few governments in the region have focused on equitable development that centers citizen welfare. The situation will not improve until Arab societies address the reality that their citizens lack voice and visibility, along with the opportunity to validate and hold governments accountable. Other participants agreed, emphasizing the need for mechanisms to amplify citizen voices. Many governments fail to disclose key documents and information, such as budget and audit reports, and have yet to pass effective RTI legislation. Creating spaces for civil society to hold governments to account will be a key dimension in moving this agenda forward.
Another participant argued that political will and capacity are necessary to make changes to improve transparency and accountability. Transparency is inadequate without concomitant accountability measures and improved data gathering and sharing practices. Tunisia’s case demonstrates that improvements in access to information do not immediately translate into increased transparency. State institutions must be empowered to hold each other accountable. In MENA, many government accountability institutions are not fulfilling their function and collecting data of sufficient quality.
While transparency and accountability are mutually supportive, another expert noted that the two are not always correlated. For example, access to information laws are not correlated with reductions in corruption. Another participant added that successful transparency initiatives are ultimately based on a cost-benefit analysis by government officials. If the cost of releasing data is perceived to be too high, they will not release it. In contrast, transparency with data can generate positive spill-over effects. This was the case in Jordan when an actuarial study which showed that the social security fund would be bankrupt in ten years went public, generating public pressure to resolve the problem. In this case, maternity and unemployment insurance funds that were not originally under scrutiny were also eventually shored up. Other reforms that can support the implementation of a transparency agenda include strengthening civil society, enhancing centers of government, improving data quality prior to dissemination, building institutional capacities, calibrating reforms to account for political economy considerations, and improving rights protections and democratic governance practices.
The discussion then turned to right to information legislation. RTI legislation and implementation are improving globally, but MENA has only recently started making progress here. Only around a third of MENA countries have adopted RTI legislation, and in many cases the quality of this legislation is poor and sanctions for noncompliance remain high in some countries. While RTI adoption in the MENA region is uneven, the region’s legislation excels in terms of the scope of information it covers. The Tunisian case shows the role that non-state actors like civil society groups play in the adoption of progressive RTI legislation. The experts highlighted several elements necessary for RTI legislation to be effective. The first is the underlying presupposition that all information belongs to the public and should be available to everyone (with limited and clearly defined exceptions). There should be an independent and effective system of oversight, along with a cadre of designated information officers to respond to requests and ensure the legislation is implemented properly. Procedures for requesting information and responding to such requests should be affordable and accessible, including through electronic means.
Experts then analyzed the determinants of success for Tunisia’s RTI legislation, often held up as an example in the region. They highlighted the active involvement of civil society organizations working with the government to draft the RTI legislation, as well as how international organizations, including the World Bank and OECD, created incentives and applied pressure on the Tunisian government during the drafting process. In contrast, Egypt’s less successful RTI outcomes can be explained by the national security exemptions (and ambiguous definition of what information pertains to national security) that complicated the release of many documents and data. One participant asserted that national security concerns are present and used by RTI opponents in many contexts to prevent change. Other participants followed up by arguing that stagnation in implementing RTI legislation is often due to a lack of political will on the part of the ruling governments. One solution the experts suggested could jumpstart RTI implementation is to spread the issue across the government rather than relegating it to a single ministry. Ultimately, transparency reforms are both valuable and necessary and can be implemented at a relatively modest cost. However, solutions must align with political economy concerns, involve civil society, and be implemented alongside important structural changes.