Transparency: key to development [Archives:2004/755/Viewpoint]

July 15 2004

From the experience I have gained as the editor of Yemen Times, and from the many relationships I have had with local organizations, government officials and Yemeni individuals, I have come to conclude that one of the major obstacles to the progress of Yemen as a nation is lack of transparency.
I have come to understand that Yemeni society, and perhaps Arabs and people of other developing countries, have the habit of secrecy on almost everything. Perhaps the reason is that mentioned in the Arab Human Development Report 2003, i.e., lack of proper access to information and knowledge. This of course is attributed to strict laws and regulations, and sometimes to a culture that prevents the flow of information and adds a lot of restrictions to information that is in other countries widely available, the revelation of which is essential according to the law.
Transparency is very limited in private companies as well as governmental offices. From the minister down to the regular worker, the culture of hiding information is widely observed. I have received information about cases in which the deputy minister cannot handle the minister's affairs when he is away because of the many unclear or obscure transactions and communications he has with others.
Some claim that this is the bureaucracy that was inherited decades ago from experiences of Egypt and other Arab countries, which were strict in revealing information. On the other hand, we are a society that is conservative, and such a combination could create a stubborn culture that cannot be moved easily.

What is the solution?
The problem of lack of transparency in Yemen can be dealt with in a number of ways. Firstly, in the governmental domain, there should be very clear laws that identify the very few classified areas of information and the rest. In many cases, this will take time. But it doesn't hurt to start the process. Secondly, the press should play a vital role in revealing information to the public. The Yemeni constitution and laws are truly marvelous in guaranteeing the right of the citizen to know and the right of the journalist to gather information. In fact, there is even a clause in the Yemeni Press and Publications Law that grants journalist and newspapers the right to gather information from their sources.
Article 14: “A journalist has the right to obtain information, news, data and statistics from their sources”
Article 49: A newspaper may obtain information, data and statistics from its sources”

However, there is no mention of any punishment or response to government officials who deny journalists the right to access information. There should be a clear punishment or procedure that needs to apply in such circumstances for information to be accessible and hence transparency to be promoted.
On the non-governmental and individual levels, using force would not be appropriate, but rather long-term strategies should be adopted. Educating children of the importance of transparency should be promoted in schools and through awareness campaigns.
In brief, the essence of democracy is the right to know, and that the right to know is a means to build transparency in any country, and no doubt, transparency is a major factor for development. That has been proven many times in the past for the developed world. I am sure it would be prove right in our case too.