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The Transparency Law That’s Opening Up Pakistan

A Pakistani girl stands under the national flag at the Minar-e-Pakistan, the historic monument for the struggle for independence. © Arif Ali/Getty

In January, the News International reported that in Pakistan’s Punjab province, over one-third of the Basic Health Units—clinics that provide primary care to underserved areas—were operating without a doctor. It was a startling revelation, as the province’s ruling party had campaigned specifically on strengthening the Health Units. In certain Punjab districts, over 80 percent of the clinics lacked a single doctor.

This critical revelation might never have come to light if not for Punjab’s Transparency and Right to Information Act.

The public’s right to information—a right that has historically eluded citizens in much of the developing world—is shaping up to be one of the great challenges of the 21st century. Pakistan took a big step toward meeting this challenge on October 1, 2013, when the assembly of one of Pakistan’s four provinces passed the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2013.

The act was passed in the Khyber Pakhtunkha (KP) assembly, which represents Pakistan’s northwestern province, thanks to the advocacy of the 30-member Coalition on Right to Information (CRTI) supported by the Foundation Open Society Institute–Pakistan. CRTI aims to create demand for the enactment of right-to-information laws according to international best practices and provides a platform for civil society groups to help implement such laws.

Although a right-to-information law was passed in Pakistan at the federal level in 2002, it fell short of its advocates’ expectations because of loopholes and a lack of public awareness. So CRTI launched a sustained advocacy campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkha in the runup to the 2013 elections. The coalition worked to convince and enable various political parties to incorporate RTI into their party manifestos. Later the network provided full assistance to the Khyber Pakhtunkha government to draft the legislation.

Meanwhile, the Center for Peace and Development Initiatives, a partner of the Foundation Open Society Institute–Pakistan, in collaboration with CRTI, created pressure groups in the federal and provincial political corridors, intervened during critical lawmaking phases, and launched a vigorous social media campaign for the enactment of effective RTI legislation.

After the law passed, the next challenge was encouraging people to use it. The Center for Peace and Development Initiatives again extended its support and helped Pakistani citizens to mobilize their requests. It established district-level commissions and launched a helpline. The statistics reflect the success of these efforts.

All in all, 540 information requests were submitted in Khyber Pakhtunkha—40 at the provincial level and 500 at the district level—for all sorts of information, from use of government assets to details about hiring processes. In Punjab, 988 information requests were submitted—79 at the provincial level and 909 at the district level.

The passage of the law was a huge victory. “The KP’s RTI ordinance contains all the features that are vital for a strong RTI law,” said Toby Mendel, head of the Center for Law and Democracy, a Canadian organization. “This is why it is positioned at the top of global RTI rankings.”

The achievement has become an example of how civil society and government can work together toward a common cause. For the first time, an independent commission has been formed in Khyber Pakhtunkha and Punjab to introduce and monitor the system that ensures implementation of the bill. The commission oversees staff training, receives and evaluates applications, raises awareness around RTI issues, and reviews anti-RTI laws and procedures.

The RTI law has the potential to improve the lives of all Pakistanis. But there is still a long way to go. The Sindh and Balochistan provinces, as well as the federal government, still lack effective RTI legislation, and implementation of the new KP and Punjab laws still needs to be ensured. Implemented properly, the law will lead to increased accountability, more transparency, and good governance at various levels.

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