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Technology for Transparency, Civic Engagement and Accountability in Latin America

Corruption, systematic violations of human rights and widespread poverty are closely connected. The cycle of corruption facilitates, perpetuates and institutionalizes human rights violations. Powerful and corrupt political and military groups that have systematically committed acts corruption have since covered-up or erased the evidence. Such scenarios were even more harmful in countries were perpetrators and collaborators from local and international networks escaped unpunished. As a result, today criminal networks are seduced by the same game. Secrecy plays an important role too. By denying citizens access to public information and a say in accountability, impunity continues a culture of silence. It obstructs public debate about crimes that have been committed, and their impact on development and wealth.

Declassified documents released the last decade shed a light on secret impunity agreements between governments and political leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries in the region during the seventies and eighties. From Operation Condor to the dirty wars in Central America, many covert actions affected the future of the region, undermining their rule of law, dividing societies, silencing dissenting voices, and facilitating the creation of corrupt networks and a culture of secrecy and impunity. The region, in fact, is an example of how secrecy and the discretionary use of force can harm an entire society to only benefit of few.

As Joseph Stiglitz once wrote: “Life is never black and white. Just as there is no ‘one size fits all’ policy for economic development, there is no such policy for fighting corruption.” That is why different approaches to fighting corruption, improving governance, and incentivizing citizens to become active actors of change can show us different ways to tackle corruption, with the help of our new interconnected environment.

The power of documents: Projects promoting the access to public information in Latin America

Transparency and access to information empower individuals to make more informed decisions. Without access to public information and transparent practices from the private sector, civil society lacks objective input to monitor government effectiveness, spending, and public procurement. While access to information is important for everyone, it is particularly relevant for those working toward transparency and accountability. Without such access corruption flourishes. When a citizen needs to access information that is in the hands of the government, and it refuses to grant access, corrupt alternatives such as buying it or leaking it after contact with clandestine networks can replace clear institutional channels. Access to Information laws are important for a country. However, we must question premature celebration on the passage of Access to Information laws if such a tool is not used by citizens or is not effective in its objectives, as has been alleged in Guatemala. Laws and mechanisms if not used and enforced, are useless.

The ProAccesso Coalition in Venezuela aims to encourage public demand of information in the hands of the government since greater transparency is one of the most effective antidotes against corruption. ProAcceso Foundation in Chile combines its on line portal with offline legal clinics and workshops. There you can find information about access to information rights and the mechanisms to enforce them. There is also information about relevant legal cases at the local and Interamerican system and the organization's contribution to the landmark case Marcel Claude Reyes et al. v. Chile, which is important and relevant for all the Latin American states seeking a right to access public information. In Brazil, there is the Information is a right! movement. More information, More Rights in Colombia follows the regional trend, educating citizens about the important role they play by requesting public information. Mexico Informate! And the Peruvian Working Group Against Corruption coordinated online campaigns and developed tools to make it easier to request public information. Both projects also forged alliances with print media, and are working closely with journalists to provide them with the tools to inform citizens about their rights. Journalism and Access to information also works with journalist to explain how to use legal mechanisms to improve their investigative reporting.

Freedom of Information laws must be tied to issues that people care about in order to be effective. The Mexican initiatives, Rural Agricultural Subsidies and the Environmental Frontier Project in Tijuana are examples of efforts to pressure local governments to be more transparent about their spending in particular sectors. The Local Integrity initiative in Ecuador, Peru and Argentina provides a comprehensive database and peer reviewed research. CIMTRA (“citizens for transparent municipalities”) is a group of 20 NGOs working together to promote a culture of accountability among local governments.

Access to information, transparency and security issues are not incompatible, as demonstrated by Just the Facts, which provides data, analysis and links to better understand the role and motivations of U.S. assistance to the region, including military and economic aid, military and police training, arms sales, and troop deployments. It is an example on transparency in security issues.

Projects that use technology to open debate around political processes

According to the Inter American Democratic Charter, transparency in government activities, morals, responsible public administration on the part of governments, respect for social rights, and freedom of expression and of the press are essential components of democracy. It is not only credible and independent elections that matter.

Systemic corruption of political processes is far more dangerous and complex than fraudulent elections. It covers public policies, public management and procurement systems, political and administrative structures. Only a consistent effort to watch each actor and understand the weak points of each stage in such processes, and then combine different data to offer a clear picture on how the influence of lobbyist groups, criminal networks, and entrenched interests negatively affect democracy. Various projects by the Poder Ciudadano Foundation (“Citizen Power Foundation”) are helping citizens from Argentina understand the interests behind their politics and beyond elections. They also created a tool to monitor media and its role in politics. Since 90% of political campaign expenses are spent on media, it is crucial for political process to understand the relationships between media and politicians in a given country. The investigation, Mapping the Media in the Americas, provides such information and helps citizens understand the media's role in a democracy.

Civic monitoring of political processes is key to preserve them from institutional corruption. Without such engagement it is almost impossible to fix a failed system. Elección Visible in Colombia and Guatemala Visible are putting the spotlight on the selection process of six key public office nominees and appointments. The objective is to keep corruption out of all political processes, including political appointments. There are several efforts to preserve the integrity, transparency and legitimacy of the day of elections Cuidemos el Voto provides tools to monitor and map misconduct in federal and municipal elections in Mexico. Vote Bien take a similar approach in Colombia. In Chile, Vota Inteligente created an important tool to better inform voters during the last presidential elections, and they are keeping an eye on the performance of the elected president by following up on his campaign compromises.

The activities of Congress and its members is yet another important component of the democratic process to keep an eye on. Various efforts like 500/500 and Legislativo a tu alcance in Mexico, Democratic Reflection in Peru, Congreso Visible in Colombia, and Congresso Aberto in Brasil are helping citizens understand the importance of taking an active role in monitoring those who approve laws and the dynamics behind their decisions. The project Parlio, which monitors the Basque Parliament in Spain, might be an interesting model to follow because it takes the activity inside Congress to another level by providing information on why every topic discussed at parliament.

Emerging forms of civic participation and the evolving role of interconnected citizens

Movements are taking action simultaneously on several fronts, combining global and local issues in Latin America, influencing local politics, such as #internetnecesario did in Mexico or global politics, such as the Open Acta movement to demand transparency in the negotiation of international, bindind treaties. Other examples include “I am not a criminal” in Peru, and a sister project in Chile. Environmental activists are integrating their efforts online more and more to promote transparency and accountability related to extractive industries, such as mining.

Citizens are also organizing efforts to map criminal activities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and, in the case of Mexico, specific maps to report drug dealing.

What should be done?

  1. Multilateral anti corruption efforts and global standards: A global effort to foster transparency and accountability must design a system to hold wrongdoers accountable and investors aware of the consequences their investments on others’ lives. New technologies allow citizens in any country to compare the behavior and monitor the statements by companies in different countries. Most of the countries with funders that are financing efforts to contribute to transparency, accountability and good governance, are not doing enough to regulate foreign corrupt practices in the region by the companies and nationals of their own countries. That is why it is important to encourage donors to respect a global, uniform standard against corruption. Legal instruments such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act should lead to a rise in anti-corruption prosecutions. As an example the World Bank has listed ineligible firms to be awarded a World Bank-financed contract for a period of time because they were found to have violated the fraud and corruption provisions of the Procurement Guidelines.
  2. Transparency for Technology Commons: Following the model of Open Educational Resources, donors and NGOs should create guidelines to incentivize shared practices, encourage the sharing of information and databases, software and models to inspire citizens across the continent to start their own efforts. Tools need to be localized and adapted for particular, local needs. Donors should incentivize the use of free software, open formats and open content to allow others build upon the tools, contents and data that have already been gathered in other contexts and places. Shared practices and information will lead to greater transparency of projects, more efficient expenditure and better understanding of the regional context. They may even allow researchers to detect patterns and follow corruption across national boundaries and areas of interests.
  3. Protecting the rights of those investigating and denouncing corruption: Journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and witnesses of serious corruption acts are under constant threat in Latin America. It is important to consider that the 1999 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders includes anti-corruption activists within the list of individuals that the UN must protect. With the increased use of the Internet and new technologies to spread information about corruption, digital surveillance and control of the Internet will likely increase too, and projects should be prepare to face new challenges. Violence against those promoting transparency and accountability is also a threat. All projects promoting transparency and accountability should consider training and strategic plans to provide
    participants with tools to circumvent censorship, and protect their collaborators and sources.
  4. Congruency: Donors should encourage projects aiming to map those wrongdoers, to combat secrecy in investments involving development projects and funding for development and encouraging prosecution and cross country investigations of companies, no matter how necessary for local economies they are.
  5. Accountability and visibility: Only by bringing the corrupt to court can one reestablish the rule of law, restore trust in the political institutions, and rebuild a common sense about ethical values among the citizens. Only by equality before the law can the perception of corrupted networks as untouchable be challenged. And we can use the power of ideas and the possibilities on the Internet to spread a powerful integrity message. The Internet has become a game-changing tool in the growth of anti-corruption awareness and accessibility to information, especially via social networking tools. It is important to support accountability efforts and tools to make such efforts visible. Latin America has prosecuted many former presidents and high rank officials, but only the Fujimori Trial provides such open information on the trial for citizens. Tracking Impunity also offers an interesting example of what can be done in the region with corrupt networks and legal procedures related to access to information and accountability.
  6. E-Learning of complex topics: Sophisticated economic crimes and complex white collar crimes require high levels of expertise in order to detect, investigate and prosecute. Paradoxically, such countries are often those most affected by corruption. Technology offers a unique opportunity to share knowledge, practices, and to train people. Many of the people I spoke to lack the tools to analyze such phenomenons, gather the evidence and build a strategy to prosecute the corrupt.
  7. Divides: Internet access remains unaffordable for many countries in the region, while others are still struggling with illiteracy rates. Elders and many workers lack the expertise to connect or the time to search for a website. It is important to consider a combination of online and offline tools – and multilingual materials – to reach those who are offline and invite them to take an active role in these projects. For example, a project using technology can connect with offline participants by printing and translating reports to broadcast via community radios. Or a local newspaper might use an article or data provided by an elections monitor. A couple of months ago I was at a conference taking place in a five stars hotel in Guatemala City: the speakers were discussing corruption and corrupted networks. Instead of a book they distributed digital copies of the work. Most of the attendees were members of NGOs living in urban areas, they owned a computer, and are literate in their mother language, Spanish. It is important to remember that the most corrupt practices in the region are taking place out of sight of the public eye, offline. How relevant is technology for transparency and civic engagement if such tools are out of reach of the people who is affected the most by corruption? How effective is civic engagement is most are excluded by default? How legitimate is an effort to promote accountability and transparency where donors are largely unaccountable for bad decisions made inside their institutions, which go against its mandate. Are cool technology projects just a placebo, an illusion to create the perception that we are actually game-changers creating a global culture of anti-corruption?
  8. Integral approach against corruption without exceptions: The ability of criminal networks to protect themselves from prosecution produces a continuous loss of trust in the justice system, and institutions in general. Without accountability there is no possible way to restore the credibility of political and legal institutions. Without transparency and access to information, accountability might be hard to achieve. The region needs an active network of citizens to fight against corruption in all its forms, including embezzlement, trading in influence, abuse of position, illicit enrichment, and obstruction of justice. It is necessary to involve broad coalitions of actors in making law, influencing foreign affairs, and making international law effective.

The Latin American projects I reviewed on the Technology for Transparency Network show actions by ordinary people, many of them working on their own time and dime, organized into various and ever-changing groups and networks. They reveal how technology is a tool to ensure rights of those affected by corruption, obscurity and impunity. And in the future, such networks of ordinary citizens, using any tool available, again and again, until it is not necessary anymore, will demand justice, transparency and accountability. To make change depends on citizens; technology is just a tool whose impact will only increase if practices and skills are shared across the region, taking advantage of the possibilities and potential of networks, and including the voices of those offline, the ones who are most affected by corruption and invisible to the public eye.

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