Tag: freedom of information

Information wants to be free. Congress wants it to be held for ransom.

It’s bad form to criticize other
disciplines’ journals based solely
on titles, but Annals of Tourism Research?
This is the sort of thing libraries
spend their budgets on?

Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is trying to end taxpayer access to publicly-funded research. The article is worth reading, not least because it is the only time that you’ll ever see the term “powerful publishing cartels” in this age of disruptive new-media innovation.

And yet the academic publishing market really is different, as one UC-Berkeley professor argued last year. When Nature tried to extort a 400% subscription fee increase from the University of California system, there was very little to do except engage the nuclear option–that is, threaten to boycott the journals entirely. Academics, whose lives are shaped by publishing in journals, are at the mercy of those journals’ publishers. In such negotiating positions, it’s unsurprising that publishers have managed to steadily increase their yield from universities that–as you may have heard!–are otherwise struggling to get by.

In the long term, the disjuncture between stagnant or shrinking university resources and increasing fees for access will lead to a rather severe readjustment. The same thing will happen to the plethora of new journals that is happening to the plethora of newly-minted Ph.D.s. That is, they will starve, wither, and — well, only the journals will die. The Ph.D.s will move on to jobs in industry. (I hope.)

What could help, of course, would be a far-sighted policy that would guarantee that the fruits of taxpayer-funded research would be available to taxpayers. This utopian dream is easily oversold. Let’s be frank: the general public doesn’t particularly care or directly benefit from research. The indirect benefits are pretty good, but no single journal article is likely to matter much to the public, which is simply unable to read and evaluate the articles unless they get their union card earn their doctorate. But it’s reprehensible that universities, which even if “private” are tax-supported by their nonprofit status, are given federal money to produce research which is then given to private publishers which, in turn, take quite a bit of money from universities to let them see that research in slightly better-formatted versions.

The good news is that the publishing house Elsevier has managed to rent their very own congressperson for, apparently, only a couple of thousand dollars in campaign contributions. At this point, even academics can scrape together a few shillings and find a senator or two to champion our cause. But please: let’s stick to the small-state legislators. Their campaigns are cheaper and some of us have a pay freeze.

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Will Transparency Save the World Bank?

I confess that I am a World Bank junkie. There is nothing (well, very little) that perks my intellectual interest more than an in-depth discussion on the internal and external politics of the Bank. Over the past two weeks in DC, I have mercilessly subjected my graduate students to numerous conversations about the challenges facing the organization with experts within the Bank, US Senate, and the world of NGOs and think tanks. To my fabulous students, I want to say thanks for letting me nerd-out. To faithful Duck readers, I’d like to pose a few questions about the future of the Bank that arose from these conversations.

Fellow Bank-junkies will undoubtedly have caught the big story about the World Bank’s Open Data Revolution in the New York Times on July 3. The story aptly captures the Bank’s current crisis:

“…while the I.M.F. is busy with scandal and the debt crisis now shaking Europe, officials at the World Bank’s headquarters here are confronting some existential questions, including the big one: What exactly are we doing here?”

Indeed, for well over a decade the Bank has been struggling with a tripartite challenge of waning relevance, questioned effectiveness, and challenged legitimacy. In response, the Bank has sought to redefine its identity from a lending Bank to a Knowledge Bank. In so doing, the Bank hopes to redefine its comparative advantage and raison d’etre in an increasingly crowded and competitive field of development funders, generating influence and authority as much from its expertise as the (waning) power of its purse.

And I have to say that in the last year, the Bank’s transformation has been remarkable. A few months ago, the Bank finally passed its revised information disclosure policy, moving from a highly restrictive policy that listed what could be disclosed to a much more liberal policy that presumes everything is open unless explicitly exempted (hallelujah!). It also created free public access to a wealth of development data, including the World Development Indicators. Moreover, it is now possible to quickly find extensive information on the World Bank’s projects and programs, complete with links to project documents on its project portal page. The World Bank has even starting geomapping its aid programs (thanks in large part to the groundbreaking work of AidData and Development Gateway). Not surprisingly, the World Bank has in turned earned high marks for its efforts, including top scores in Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Assessment and the Center for Global Development’s Quality of Official Development Assistance (QuODA).

But for the moment I have a few questions regarding the impact of this Transparency Revolution on the future of the World Bank (and I’m sure I’ll have more questions later):

First, how can transparency be effectively turned into an accountability tool? We have yet to see how the opening of the data floodgates at the Bank will (in development parlance) “empower stakeholders.” This will depend not so much on the accessibility of data as the usability of data, as noted by the Aleem Walji, the Bank’s guru for Open Data. To paraphrase the words of one close observer, open data could be like the race car that no one can drive. How will we know the real impact of the open data revolution? Hint: it won’t be through the number of hits to the website or the download count.

Second, will the Bank’s new and improved transparency, as well as its efforts to “democratize” its governance, solicit sustained political support, particularly from its biggest donor? We’re in the midst of the FY2012 Budget Request and it includes a big call for a General Capital Increase for the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. But the general sentiment in DC is that this is going to be a hard sell. The World Bank (in contrast to some of the other MDBs and bilateral aid agencies) is held in high esteem, but there is little political support on the Hill for development aid and multilateralism in general.

Third, will the Bank’s progress in reestablishing its legitimacy via its transparency revolution translate into a revival of its relevance? I ask this because there is a deeper underlying problem regarding the need for the Bank today. Global financial crisis notwithstanding, the demand for the Bank’s (and other aid agencies’) loans and services is quickly waning in most areas of the world, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa. Many middle income countries are now graduating from the International Development Agency (IDA), the Bank’s soft loan window. Their need (and desire) for funds to help support infrastructure and other development projects can be easily met by private capital markets, which offer rates similar to the IBRD (the Bank’s hard-loan window) without all the conditions and safeguard requirements. More critically, new non-OECD DAC donors – most notably China, as well as large foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – provide would-be borrowers with many other options besides the traditional multilateral and bilateral lenders. Knowledge Bank aside, can the Bank continue to exist with its current mandate, staff and structure without demand for its core lending business?

Finally, for your amusement, a completely unrelated observation offered by one of our speakers about the contrasting cultures and internal debate within the IMF and World Bank:

“The Fund is arrogant, superior, and like the Borg. If you put five Fund staffers in a room, only one will speak. The Bank, on the other hand, is unfocused, undisciplined, squishy. If you put five Bank staffers in a room, they will all speak at once.”

(And no, that flattering comparison did not come from our NGO speaker. It came from from someone who worked within both of the institutions….)

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What you should know about ‘Right to Know’

While WikiLinks is dumping information from the US military all over the internets, the South African government is taking some rather disturbing steps to ensure that citizens, citizens and pretty much everyone in between will not have the right to access any information deemed a threat to “national security”.  What kind of information threatens national security? Well, according to the “Protection of Information Bill”, pretty much whatever government (local, regional, national) decides. It’s a dangerously vague bill that could possibly do great harm to South Africa. I don’t think I need to go into great detail why so much government control over information is a bad thing. I’m not an African politics specialist, but I’ve been chatting about it with my very cool historian friend Sarah Duff, who gave me the following run-down of the main issues below that I thought I would share with Duck readers as this story, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention outside of South Africa. If nothing else, how could you possibly resist a movement with a logo of a crumpled vuvuzela?

Last month the Minister for State Security, Bheki Cwele, announced to the Ad Hoc Committee currently steering the controversial Protection of Information Bill through the South African Parliament that ‘secrecy is the oil which lubricates our democracy.’ While not only an icky choice of metaphor, Cwele’s positioning of secrecy at the heart of South African democracy runs counter to the ideals embodied by our Constitution, and is also ‘against the spirit of 1994’, as struggle veteran and former cabinet minister Kader Asmal remarked last week. If it is passed in its current form, the Protection of Information Bill will empower state employees – in government departments, parastatals, local government councils, and state agencies – to classify all and any information as secret without having to provide reasons for doing so.

This Bill has been introduced on the grounds that South Africa’s ‘national interest’ needs to be better protected by allowing the state to make ‘sensitive’ information secret. But partly because of the Bill’s very vague definition of ‘national interest’, it is clear that its reach is far wider than ensuring South Africa’s security. (It is also debatable whether South Africa needs this legislation when other laws, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act, make allowance for the classification of sensitive information.) By allowing government officials to classify all state-held information, by increasing the penalty for being in possession of classified information to imprisonment to up to 25 years, and by refusing to include a ‘public interest’ clause, the Bill will have profound implications for the work done by journalists and whistleblowers. In fact, the Bill is unconstitutional, as it contradicts Section 32 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to access information.

Although the media has drawn attention to the Bill’s potential to stifle freedom of speech and expression, the Bill’s impact will be felt by all South Africans, and will have a disproportionate effect on those people who rely heaviest on the state for support. It was for this reason that the Right2Know Campaign was launched at the end of August. Representing more than 400 civil society organisations and 10,000 individuals who have signed the Campaign’s petition, Right2Know campaigns against the introduction of what we call the Secrecy Bill: a piece of legislation which will transform South Africa into a secretive and paranoid society. Our week of action against the Bill was launched with a silent march to Constitution Hill on 19 October – to coincide with commemorations of ‘Black Wednesday’ when, in 1977, the apartheid government banned three newspapers on the grounds of the protection of the national interest – and will culminate with marches to Parliament in Cape Town and the Durban City Hall on 27 October. Our branches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban have put on a range of seminars, workshops, cultural evenings, and even a symbolic funeral for free speech.

Political commentator Richard Calland has described Right2Know as ‘very remarkable, and very significant’, and the Campaign has made political waves. During his second presentation to Parliament on Friday, Cwele condemned the campaign’s actions and giggled nervously as Right2Know campaigners lined the walls of the meeting room. But he turned a deaf ear to the Campaign’s concerns. We only have one chance to stop this Bill, and from preventing South Africa from becoming a society of secrets. We will make ourselves heard loudly – so that not even the deafest government can ignore us.

For more on Right2Know, see www.right2know.org.za and check out their twitter here

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