Right to Information in Tanzania: now the real work begins

President Kikwete made a bold promise last week, to enact a law that obliges the Tanzanian government to provide any information requested by citizens, with the exception of information relating to national security. You can see this for yourself, in this YouTube video posted by the President’s press office (the key section starts at 8mins 40 seconds):

This was one the main headlines to come out of the Open Government Partnership Summit, along with UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s significant promise on greater transparency in company ownership structures and the response of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to a pointed question on NSA surveillance from Indian right to information activist Aruna Roy.

Those two issues made the front pages here in the UK. President Kikwete’s announcement made it to a rather more obscure corner of the Guardian website – the “Global Development Professionals Network” – where I was given the opportunity to post some thoughts of my own:

“This commitment represents a big step forward for access to information and open government in Tanzania. As always, however, the real test is delivery.”

“Having listened to what President Kikwete said in London, I am excited by the prospect of a step change in access to information in Tanzania. But experience still teaches me to be cautious. Those of us with an interest in Tanzania and in open government now need to keep up the pressure. Because even politicians sometimes forget that actions speak louder than words.”

Just after sending that off to the Guardian, I had the privilege at the summit to speak to Aruna Roy, the activist who had made John Kerry squirm. I asked her for advice on how Tanzania should make the most of this opportunity. She should know, having worked for over twenty years on the same topic: first advocating (successfully) for the Indian government to pass a Right to Information Act, and then working to support rural communities to make good use of that law.

I will blog in more detail on her response and that of her colleagues at MKSS shortly, but it can be summed up as follows:

  • Details matter – a bad law on right to information can be worse than no law
  • Keep the focus on the grassroots – build a popular movement around the cause, to make sure the law is designed to work for the poorest, and then make it work that way in practice
  • It’s a long game – patience, pressure and persistence matter
  • It really works – in India, the right to information law has transformed the relationship between people and the government

“The President’s statement means that you have a great opportunity in Tanzania,” she said, “but you have a long way to go. Now the real work begins.”

"Whose money is it anyway?" MKSS play on right to information

“Whose money is it anyway?” MKSS play on right to information, performed at #OGP13, Nov 1, 2013.