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                          Access to Information: Transparency

Access to information is the cornerstone to any anti-corruption and transparency effort, and is increasingly recognized as a fundamental human right. Since 1999, The Carter Center has supported the establishment of an access to information culture, beginning with a project in Jamaica that focused on ongoing legislative efforts to pass an access to information law. The Center's current project models itself on the success of its work in Jamaica, including promoting participatory lawmaking through informed debate and facilitating new partnerships between government and civil society. The project assists access to information initiatives throughout the Western Hemisphere with particular emphasis on Jamaica, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

The Need for Access to Information

Democracy depends on a knowledgeable citizenry whose access to a range of information enables them to participate more fully in public life, help determine priorities for public spending, receive equal access to justice, and to hold their public officials accountable. Inadequate public access to information allows corruption to flourish, and back-room deals to determine spending in the interests of the few rather than many. Access, however, must be balanced with protection of personal privacy and narrowly defined state interests.

Passage and implementation of an access to information act has become a trend throughout the world, particularly in developing nations. More than 50 countries have passed such legislation in the last decade. International funding institutions are, likewise, recognizing the importance of such legislation and in some cases, are including the ratification of such an act as a condition for funding or debt relief.

In the Western Hemisphere, countries are at widely divergent stages in their development of such legislation. For example, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act was signed into law in 1966 (with important reforms in the early 70s), and Canada provided citizens a right to access to information in most of its provinces by the early 1980s. While many Latin American and Caribbean countries recognize a right to information within their constitutions, they are only now beginning to pass legislation.

Passage of an access to information act, however, is only the first step. Following the promulgation of legislation, governments must adequately implement and enforce the laws, otherwise, it becomes simply a "check the box" exercise and does not increase citizen trust or government accountability. Thus, appropriate emphasis must be given to the three phases of developing an access to information culture: passage, implementation, and enforcement.

The Carter Center's Access to Information Project

In partnership with government and civil society, the Center's access to information project focuses not only on the passage of legislation but also encourages effective implementation, enforcement, awareness, and use. Establishing a vibrant access to information culture is the responsibility of both government and civil society. While governments must pass comprehensive legislation and implement the necessary procedures, civil society also must play a leading role, such as by making information requests and pursuing appeals when requests are denied.

The Center's access to information project seeks to:

  • consult and inform legislators and citizen groups during the debate relating to content and drafting of the new law, based on the emerging international standards
  • convene meetings of the relevant stakeholders to provide greater legitimacy and acceptance of the lawmaking process and implementation efforts
  • enhance government officials' capacity to implement the legislation
  • promote and enhance civil society's ability to request information and monitor government compliance
  • advance effective enforcement of the law through increasing civil society capacity to seek judicial redress and the judiciary's ability to respond, and
  • work at the hemispheric level to share experiences and provide additional support

Hemispheric Work

In addition to long-term engagements in Jamaica, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, The Carter Center supports access to information initiatives in other parts of the region. In Peru, Center staff provided technical assistance to the Congressional Committee charged with drafting the law. In Costa Rica, Argentina, Mexico, and Belize, The Carter Center shared international experiences related to passage and implementation of access to information laws. The Center also has advised civil society organizations in Guatemala and Ecuador and provided input to missions of the Organization of American States, which culminated in the recent General Assembly Declaration for Access to Information.

The Carter Center has made presentations at many international conferences including Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina. Publications include Access to Information, A Key to Democracy (Acceso a la Información, La Llave para la Democracia) and articles related to the best standards and lessons learned in the passage, implementation, and usage phases of an access to information law.


In 1998, Prime Minister Patterson requested The Carter Center undertake a project in Jamaica, with the intent of transforming Jamaica into a model country for the Caribbean. The Center, in consultation with the government, identified access to information as an important step toward transparency.

Passing the Act

The Carter Center supported the drafting of the Access to Information Act and organized activities to involve a variety of stakeholders in this process. The Center cosponsored seminars to stimulate debate among Jamaican parliamentarians, citizen groups, media, and the private sector and advised government officials and citizen groups on how to fully utilize this tool. To inform the debate about the draft access to information law, the Center commissioned papers from international and local experts and produced two guidebooks entitled "Combating Corruption in Jamaica" and "Fostering Transparency and Preventing Corruption in Jamaica." Carter Center staff and consultants provided technical assistance to legislators tasked with drafting and revising the law. In July 2002, the Access to Information Act was passed, and implementation began in January 2004.


The Carter Center has focused on supporting the Jamaican government's implementation efforts. To increase awareness of the law, the Center's project has facilitated workshops for civil servants, civil society organizations, religious groups, the media, and the private sector. Meetings with high-ranking officials have served to outline priorities and obstacles and identify feasible solutions to ensure an effective Access to Information Act. The Center's efforts related to implementation also include its presence on the Access to Information Act Stakeholders Committee to provide technical assistance when requested. The Center also supports Jamaicans for Justice in their monitoring of the Access to Information Act's use and government response.


A right is only as powerful as one's ability to enforce it. In the event that a request for information is denied, the requestor has the option to appeal the decision. For this reason, the Center, in collaboration with the Jamaican Bar Association and the Independent Jamaica Counsel for Human Rights, has facilitated the creation of a Volunteer Attorneys Panel of law professionals willing to take test cases pro bono. The availability of free representation will ensure access to courts for indigent persons and nonprofit civil society organizations. The Center has also provided technical assistance to the Jamaican Access to Information Appeals Tribunal in its analysis of various enforcement models and regulations.

Use of the Law

Without a vibrant constituency of users, the access to information law could quickly atrophy. For that reason, the Center project works with local civil society organizations and relevant stakeholders to raise awareness of the right to information and to encourage the law's use. Activities have included supporting the establishment of a civil society network of users, assisting in the recognition of International Right to Know Day in Jamaica, and a workshop on use of access to information in investigative journalism. Read Laura Neuman's "International Right to Know Day" speech, delivered Sept. 28, 2004, in Jamaica.

Field Presence

In March 2004, the Center opened a field office to provide programmatic continuity during the implementation and enforcement phases. This office serves as an in-country resource to government and civil society partners. (Return to top of page.)


A Time for Access to Information

Bolivia is experiencing a unique time in its history, one in which dialogue will be necessary for democracy to survive. Much of the unrest and violence that plagued Bolivia in 2003 has been attributed to a lack of trust in politicians and a dearth of transparency in decision-making. Citizen insecurity increases when the only information available is based on rumor or innuendo. For the success of future policy initiatives, Bolivian citizens must be fully and accurately informed.

The Commitment to Access to Information

President Carlos Mesa has demonstrated a commitment to bringing the right of access to information to the citizens of Bolivia. Since President Mesa took office in October 2003, he and Presidential Anti-Corruption Delegate Guadalupe Cajias have worked with the Center to meet the shorter-term goal of disseminating information and longer-term goal of establishing a comprehensive information culture. In addition, Congressional leaders have, likewise, committed to placing access to information legislation at the top of their agenda.

The Carter Center is supporting the government of Bolivia in its efforts to implement a voluntary openness strategy before the Transparency and Access to Information Law has been passed. The government has adopted this strategy to create a platform for a formalized access to information regime. The Center has provided technical assistance to and convened meetings with select pilot ministries that voluntarily will begin to open their doors to citizens interested in government-held information. Through publishing information and responding to information requests in a voluntary manner, these ministries will begin the process of transforming a culture of secrecy into a mindset of transparency within public institutions.

Strengthening Consensus for the Right to Information

The Carter Center is working with the government, Congress, and civil society to support drafting and passing an Access to Information law that meets emerging international standards. The project manager and consultants have traveled to Bolivia to provide expert advice to the government of Bolivia and civil society regarding the international experience.

To strengthen the involvement of civil society in the decision-making process, The Carter Center creates a forum for dialogue by convening meetings among the various stakeholders. Numerous meetings with key stakeholders from civil society, the church, the media, and the private sector have yielded greater awareness and interest in access to information. To help inform the debate, the Center commissioned papers that are being distributed as a guidebook; and as Congress begins to debate the draft law, the Center will encourage public hearings.

Once the Law is Passed

Implementation of an access to information law is the most challenging phase and requires commitment from all constituencies. Proper implementation may include appointment and training of information officers, developing archives, publishing guides to where information is housed, and training the judiciary.

Once the law is passed in Bolivia, the Center will support the government's efforts to implement it and civil society's efforts to make use of it. Some proposed activities include: offering additional technical assistance to the responsible government agencies on issues such as information archiving, retrieval, and publication; presenting models and ideas in the drafting of regulations; convening a workshop for civil servants and civil society to identify obstacles to effective implementation and discuss potential solutions; supporting efforts to raise public awareness of right to information; and providing training to local civil society groups on monitoring and evaluation of government implementation.

Field Presence

In May 2004, The Carter Center opened a field office to provide programmatic continuity during the passage, implementation and enforcement phases. This office serves as an in-country resource to government and civil society partners.

Read La Promocion de la Democracia a Traves del Acceso a la Informacion: Bolivia (PDF)

(Return to top of page.)


The Carter Center has played a major role in strengthening democracy in Nicaragua since 1989 when the Center sent an election observation team to monitor the presidential election. The 1989-90 election marked the first peaceful transfer of power between the governing party and the opposition in Nicaragua's history. The Center has continued to work with the government of Nicaragua to help improve the electoral process and has observed the presidential elections of 1996 and 2001, as well as municipal elections in 2000. President Carter also helped mediate an agreement on property ownership in 1995, overcoming an impasse that resulted from the nationalization of homes and farms by the Sandinista government.

The Center's Access to Information project in Nicaragua is beginning with project staff and consultants conducting assessment missions and providing observations related to draft legislations. Once under way, the project's work in Nicaragua will seek to include activities similar to those in Bolivia, such as a voluntary openness strategy by select pilot ministries, consensus building among civil society and the government, and technical assistance to legislators tasked with drafting the access to information law. President Bolaños' government is highly committed to implementing an access to information regime, and civil society groups are focusing efforts on access to information projects, recognizing that their organization's interests, whether human rights, democracy, environment or labor issues, are not being met due to a lack of information.

Building relationships and fostering consensus among key stakeholders is critical to the success of this work. A strong constituency that supports the right to access information is important. To this end, project staff will work in collaboration with the government and political parties to generate political will to promote the passage of legislation; support government agencies and civil servants in developing the mechanisms to implement right to information laws; and, coordinate with civil society partners to join with the government in enforcing such legislation. (Return to top of page.)

Beyond the Western Hemisphere

In June 2004, the access to information project extended its work across the Atlantic Ocean by joining the Carter Center's Global Development Initiative's mission to Mali. The mission engaged government officials, civil society representatives, and the media in reviewing international experience with access to information and appraising Mali's readiness to pursue an access to information regime of its own. One result of this trip is a report presenting analyses and recommendations that will serve as a guide for the government and other stakeholders in their access to information strategy.

For additional information about the Center's Access to Information Project, contact Laura Neuman at


Promoting Democracy, Election Monitoring - Carter Center Democracy Program

  Promoting democracy and monitoring elections around the world, the Carter Center Democracy Program works to give people control over how they are governed:

  • Conducting international election monitoring with teams of election observers
  • Strengthening the capacity of civic organizations to participate in government policy making, and
  • Promoting the rule of law.

In promoting democracy, the Democracy Program incorporates a commitment to the protection and advancement of broad-based human rights values, upon which former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter founded The Carter Center. To learn more about how the program helps struggling democracies, read a Q&A with Democracy Program Director David Carroll.

President and Mrs. Carter observe the Mozambique elections in December 1999.

While elections are an essential part of the democratic process, elections alone are not enough to make a democracy. One free election does not change the political culture of a society overnight. And election monitoring is only a part of the process of promoting democracy.

Responding fully to the will of the people and building self-government to ensure citizens continue participating in the political life of their nation requires much longer-term work. Nonetheless, one of the most profound trends in world history today is the spread of democracy.
President and Mrs. Carter observe the Mozambique elections in December 1999.

The Center believes people can improve their lives when they are empowered to exercise control over how they are governed. The Democracy Program works with other Carter Center programs, such as the Global Development Initiative and the Conflict Resolution Program, to realize this goal. The involvement of other Center programs creates the comprehensive, long-term strategic approach needed to help nations build peaceful, just, and economically viable societies.


Promoting Democracy through Election Monitoring

Effective election monitoring begins long before voters cast their ballots.

The Carter Center requires an invitation from the country's electoral authorities and a welcome from the major political parties to ensure the Center can play a meaningful nonpartisan role.

Election observers analyze election laws, assess voter registration processes, voter education efforts, and the openness of campaigns, focusing on competitiveness, unhindered participation in the election process, and access to the media.

These assessments begin months in advance. The presence of impartial election observers reassures voters they can safely and secretly cast their ballots and that vote tabulation will be conducted without tampering. Thus, election monitoring deters interference or fraud in the voting process.

Monitoring Elections Around the World

Village Elections in China

China has moved toward open competitive elections at the village level in the last decade. In 1997, the government invited The Carter Center to help standardize village election processes.

China initiated elections in some 700,000 villages to help maintain social and political order in the context of unprecedented economic reforms. Through improved electoral procedures, the Center has helped strengthen confidence in local self-government.

The Democracy Program, in cooperation with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, has advised on better procedures, trained election officials, and educated voters about their rights under a new election law.

Building upon these achievements, the Center is working with the National Peoples Congress to design electoral guidelines for higher levels of government as well. Electoral processes will be an important part of political reform in China: "democracy with Chinese characteristics."

The Carter Center has observed 59 elections in 25 countries on four continents (May 2005 totals). Access list of elections monitored by the Center.

Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone held presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2002 following the end of a 10-year civil war. The Carter Center was the only U.S. based organization that monitored the elections, which election observers found were peaceful and relatively well managed. The delegation commended the voters of Sierra Leone, political party agents, and polling station workers for their impressive commitment to peaceful voting under very challenging conditions. The Carter Center noted the need for increased transparency in election rules and decisions by the Election Commission and improved voter registration and voter education process.

Mali: In support of democratic development in Mali and the rest of West Africa, the Center observed both rounds of Mali's 2002 presidential elections. Overall, Carter Center election observers found the elections characterized by a peaceful, tolerant, and competitive political climate, although both rounds were characterized by widespread procedural irregularities. Perhaps most importantly, the winning candidate, Amadou Toumani Touré, appears to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the Malian electorate and the international community.

East Timor: Monitoring its third election in East Timor since 1999, The Carter Center commended the new country on its 2002 presidential election that met international standards for freeness and fairness. The Center monitored the violent 1999 referendum vote for independence from Indonesia and the 2001 vote for the Constituent Assembly. In its statement, the Center said democratic development would be needed at all levels of government if East Timor is to succeed as a democratic nation.

  Observers David Pottie and Georgina Chikoko watch a Zambian polling official count ballots. Photo by Victor Nyambe.

Zambia: The Center lauded the large and peaceful turnout in Zambia's presidential and parliamentary elections in December 2001. The Center's delegation, co-led by former Nigeria Head of State Abdulsalami Abubakar, former Benin President Nicéphore Soglo, and former Tanzania Prime Minister Judge Joseph Warioba, also reported vote-counting procedures sometimes were chaotic and tabulation of results in constituency centers and at the Electoral Commission was not fully transparent. The governing party candidate, Levy Mwanawasa, won just 29 percent of the vote and narrowly defeated a divided opposition, which lodged claims of vote rigging.

Promoting Democracy by Strengthening Civil Society


A Carter Center-sponsored workshop on legal empowerment for women in March 2003. Photo by The Carter Center.

The Center works to strengthen the capabilities of nongovernmental civic organizations so that citizens have a clear avenue to participate fully in the political process. A politically active civil society plays a critical role in deepening democratic institutions, but in most emerging democracies these civic organizations lack full working knowledge of democratic principles and human rights standards.

The Center trains media in the responsibilities of a free press, facilitates dialogue and reconciliation among competing national groups, and provides useful working tools to improve the effectiveness of human rights monitors and advocates. Priority is given to supporting the political participation of traditionally marginalized segments of society, such as women, indigenous peoples, refugees, and youth.

  • Following its observation of Zambia's contentious elections in December 2001, the program worked with civil society groups and newly elected national legislators to improve their working relationships and channels of communication.

  • Before East Timor's first presidential election in April 2002 since gaining independence, the Center helped local communities evaluate programs to improve relations between police and citizens.

  • The program worked in Guyana from 2000-2004 to strengthen civil society, thus helping the country overcome conflictive ethnic divisions. With training from the Center, local civic organizations focusing on women, youth and Amerindians increased their advocacy and participation in public policy. Read one man's story of working to improve the status of Guyana's youth.

  • After the civil war in Liberia ended in 1997, the Democracy Program worked with the government and civil society organizations to help strengthen democratic institutions. The Center trained human rights monitors and paralegals, held workshops on incorporating human rights principles into school curricula, and trained media in the roles and responsibilities of a free press.

Promoting Democracy by Strengthening the Rule of Law

Poll workers count ballots on election day in Sierra Leone (May 2002). Photo by Ashley Barr.

Sustainable democratic governance depends upon a legal system that protects people's individual rights and property. The judicial system must enjoy public confidence and be seen to resolve disputes efficiently and administer justice fairly. Many countries in transition from authoritarian rule are plagued by corrupt or inefficient judicial systems.

  • The program enhanced the expertise of judges, court personnel, and lawyers in Guyana, a young democracy. Activities with the bar association and legal aid groups informed citizens of their rights under the law. New court rules and procedures and a new code of ethics were drafted through working groups of concerned citizens, also a demonstration of the important role of civil society.

Promoting Democracy by Protecting Human Rights

One of the founding principles of The Carter Center is a commitment to human rights. The Center advocates for stronger international human rights systems, sends human rights monitors on election observation missions, helps new democracies establish human rights laws and institutions, and intervenes on behalf of victims of human rights abuses. Under the auspices of the Democracy Program, the Center's initiatives are supervised by a human rights attorney and are accomplished by staff in each of the Center's programs.

National institutions and laws protecting human rights are essential to deepening democracy. The Democracy Program helps emerging democracies incorporate human rights precepts into institutions, such as human rights commissions, educational systems, and the judiciary. Staff have provided training to police officials, judges and lawyers, the media, and local nongovernmental organizations and have reported on human rights issues during election observation missions in Nigeria, Indonesia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone.

Strengthening the international human rights system also contributes to democratic transitions around the world by setting and enforcing standards for governments' behavior toward individuals and groups. For example, the Center held a series of four consultations with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to define the office's mandate and to improve coordination among various parts of the United Nations' human rights program, such as U.N. human rights offices and human rights investigators like special rapporteurs.

Refer to
Activities by Country to learn where else the Center is waging peace and building hope. David Carroll is director of the Democracy Program.



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