Keeping an Eye on Global Transparency

The focus for this blog is access to information at international organizations, an under-reported issue and a long-standing interest of mine.

The need for such transparency has been described by UN special rapporteurs, activists and transparency experts.

“The workings of international organizations, including the United Nations, are deeply opaque to most people,” began David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in a 2017 report.  UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai in a 2014 report called on multilateral organizations to be more transparent and inclusive because they exert “a profound impact on the lives of ordinary people across the globe.”

I first wrote about transparency at international financial institutions (IFIs) in a series of articles about opacity at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, published in 1998 by my previous employer, now Bloomberg BNA, from which I retired in 2014.

After publishing those articles, I moved in a more activist direction by helping the Bank Information Center, a Washington NGO, create an ambitious “matrix” comparing 11 IFIs against more than 200 objective indicators of transparency.

In addition, I helped found the Global Transparency Initiative (2005-2013). This alliance of civil society organizations effectively lobbied IFIs for more access to information based on an important foundational statement, the Transparency Charter for International Financial Institutions.

I continued reporting on IFI transparency as a contributor to FreedomInfo.org, published by the National Security Archive, an exceptional Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization. One nerdy claim to fame is winning a case brought before the World Bank independent appeals body, the first victory in that forum by a requester.

After becoming the editor of FreedomInfo.org in June 2011, I wrote mainly about freedom of information acts (FOIA) worldwide, but also about transparency at a wide range of international organizations. See the IFTIWatch section at FreedomInfo.org.  Lack of funding caused FreedomInfo.org to suspend publication in June 2017, but the site is still up. I serve on the steering committee of the FOIA Advocates Network, an international alliance promoting FOIA and facilitating dialogue among activists.

This blog will mainly concern transparency at international organizations, but may still touch on national FOIA issues. After several decades in which the number of FOIA laws proliferated, the new challenge is implementing them, as recognized every day by frustrated requesters and acknowledged at a global level by the inclusion of FOIA in Section 16 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I’m interested in how this goal gets measured.

My current position is as Director of Research for the Global Investigative Journalism Network. Among other projects, I put together a resource page on FOIA, hoping to aid journalists’ use of FOIA.

My interest in transparency has roots back to my days as a cub reporter in Lawrence, Kansas, where almost every Wednesday I attended the pre-meeting lunches of the city commission, all very much off-the-record, and quite revealing. Later, as a reporter with BNA, a publisher of specialty newsletters, I covered federal agencies and the White House. A side interest was following FOIA legislation. I filed FOIA requests and instigated several open government lawsuits. BNA in 1990 published my book, “Federal Information in the Electronic Age,” an incredibly poor-selling volume on the constraints limiting the use of government data.

My only other book is almost as obscure, “Apple Picking, Tobacco Harvesting and General Lee.” It describes the Depression-era murals at my local US Post Office, and the unusual, spiritual artist who painted them, “Apple Picking, Tobacco Harvesting and General Lee.”

I will be tweeting about this blog and other things @tobyjmcintosh.