Publication Date
May 1, 2012

"By providing greater access to public information and promoting transparency, Latin American countries seek to improve social oversight, inform citizens about government policies and programmes, advance other human rights, reduce corruption and enhance overall accountability."

This guide analyses the role played by civil society and the contextual factors that enabled the design and adoption of transparency policies and practices in the Latin American region. The document comes from  Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA).

Adopting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that guarantees citizens’ right to information and transparency is a route for governments to enhance access to public information and government transparency, key elements promoting accountability, citizen participation in decision making, and social equity. "Yet enacting a FOIA is just the first step....This guide describes the access to information initiatives that Latin American countries have carried out, spurred on by vibrant civil society movements." The four types of initiatives/guiding principles are:

  1.  "Consolidating the legal and institutional framework including:
    • Regional standard on transparency and access to information
    • National FOIAs
    • Government responses to information requests
    • Court decisions at the regional and country level
    • Regional and national networks monitoring implementation of laws
  2. Reducing corruption through transparency
    • Electronic procurement platforms
    •  Platforms publicizing information about public officials’ personal assets
  3. Providing relevant information to improve citizens’ lives
    • Targeted transparency policies
  4. Advancing social justice and promoting accountability
    • Social auditing using the right to information"

Civil society organisations (CSOs) have advocated to push forward legal frameworks, including through a regional network, the Regional Alliance for the Freedom of Expression and Information. For example, In Mexico, journalists, CSO members and academics of Grupo Oaxaca drafted and pushed forward a FOIA. Similar groups are active in El Salvador, Uruguay, and Ecuador.

Cases brought to regional and national courts, such as groups that bring charges of torture, disappearance, and genocide committed by governments and military, are examples of ways to move forward to obtain information and push for transparency. For example, in 2010, "the Inter-American Court ruled that the Brazilian Amnesty Law was incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights and lacked legal effect. The court also issued a number of important guidelines on the question of access to information about past human rights violations. Thanks in part to this ruling, in October 2011, Brazil created a Truth Commission to investigate human rights violations and to ensure that the families of victims know what happened during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985."

Using information and communication technology (ICT), Latin American countries have created online platforms that make information on management areas like procurement transparent and available, making it easier to identify and sanction corruption. Targeted transparency policies that enable timely publication of public sector information affecting citizens can enhance the quality of public services or access to public programmes, as well as offer protections such as food labelling or information on pollution levels or information to evaluate bank loans, insurance, mortgages, and credit.

"Throughout Latin America, CSOs are demanding accountability and advancing social justice by carrying out social audits, meaning independent assessments of the implementation and outcomes of public policies and programmes. To get the information needed for these assessments, CSOs are using the right to information guaranteed by FOIAs, national constitutions or Court decisions. Through these exercises, civil society has highlighted mismanagement and inefficiencies in public policies and successfully pushed for reform, especially to ensure that policies benefit socially excluded groups."

Lessons learned include the following:

  • "Court rulings at the national and regional level acknowledging governments’ obligations to enforce the right to information can provide the legal support..."
  • CSOs can help to introduce the issue into public discourse, push to get FOIAs approved, and monitor effective implementation once enacted.
  • Once FOIAs are enacted, there is a need for other elements such as capacity building for public officers and citizens, and adequate enforcement mechanisms.
  • "Governments’ initiatives for providing relevant, timely and easy-to-use information can enhance citizen participation in policy processes, access to social services, and overall accountability."
  • "The right to information can be an effective tool for undertaking social audits, and most importantly, achieving concrete improvements in public policies, including to benefit socially excluded groups."
  • "Providing greater access to information on procurement or public officers’ personal assets can reduce corruption and enhance government accountability and legitimacy."

ELLA website, June 1 2012. Image credit: Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona