A Rejoinder to ‘Pro-Poor and Pro-Development Transparency’


This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD resource platform for practitioners and policy makers Linking Social Protection and Human Rights. This blog is part of a collection of expert contributions and commentary from advocates, practitioners, policy makers and academics sharing practical guidance and thought-provoking commentary on their experiences with a human rights approach to social protection. This post was originally published on the UNRISD website

A Rejoinder to ‘Pro-Poor and Pro-Development Transparency’

Issa Luna Pla’s article Pro-Poor and Pro-Development Transparency Laws and Policies makes well-founded points about the limited use of access to information laws by poor people, who are marginalized by restricted access to information technology. It identifies other key factors underpinning poor people’s marginalization as:

  • high costs of accessing information technology;
  • low education and literacy levels;
  • weak knowledge of, and trust in, government activities;
  • constraints on physical access;
  • lack of research ability;
  • the absence of a voice.

Pla suggests strengthening macroaccountability and transparency in public spending on social programmes and in aid funding to achieve pro-poor access to information legislation. She also recommends that government information should be brought to poor people in ways that are sensitive to their physical and intellectual information needs.

While Pla’s reasoning is compelling, and makes an important contribution, it only provides part of the solution to the challenge of making access to information on social protection pro-poor.

Pro-poor transparency laws and policies to end poverty

Any pro-poor transparency laws and policies must have ending poverty as an underlying objective. Pla touches on this by identifying the positive impact that sharing government information with poor people can have: “It is likely to trigger pro-development empowerment in individuals,” and “economic poverty is linked to information poverty.” But I would go further and suggest that social protection and access to information must be fully recognized as rights that poor people can invoke to exit poverty.

Access to information should be treated not only as a necessity but as a fundamental human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, identifies access to information as a right under Article 19. Access to information increases people’s ability to:

  • exercise their rights;
  • participate meaningfully in decisions that affect them;
  • hold governments and other actors to account;
  • improve service delivery;
  • reduce corruption.

The link between social protection, human rights and development

Social protection should also be recognized and prioritized as a human right, and is strongly linked to, and underpinned by, access to information. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the link between social protection, human rights and development. It includes articles on:

  • the right to equal treatment (Article 1);
  • social security (Article 22);
  • work for a fair wage in a safe environment (Article 23);
  • an adequate standard of living and medical help for illness (Article 25).

Article 22 recognizes the right to social security, stating that: “Everyone … has the right to social security … through national effort and international cooperation.” Article 25 enshrines the right to an adequate standard of living affirming that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security.”

Yet the uptake of social protection policy and programming by developing country governments has been slow. This is largely because it has not been understood as a human right. There is a widespread tendency to associate human rights with issues relating to physical abuse, such as torture, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, execution, and attacks on and ill-treatment of civilians. While responding to these types of human rights abuses and bringing perpetrators to justice is critical, it is equally important to recognize and respond to other (non-physical) human rights abuses, such as denied access to social protection and information.

Meeting the MDGs?

Challenges faced in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) highlight that further progress in ending extreme poverty will be difficult without a greater focus on social protection and access to information. While there has been significant progress in meeting the MDGs, illustrated by the fact that poverty rates have halved between 1990 and 2010, there are still 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty. The goal of achieving universal primary education for all is unlikely to be met if current trends continue. Although there has been some progress in promoting gender equality and empowering women, much more needs to be done to ensure that practical results are achieved. For example, while the incidence of HIV is declining steadily in most regions, at least 2.5 million people are newly infected each year.

Improvement in public services have been achieved through the MDGs across many sectors, such as the improved provision of healthcare and education services and equal access for men and women through the promotion of gender equality. But many poor people in developing countries have failed to access these services. This is partly because they did not know about them as a result of inadequate or inaccessible information. In addition, and as recognized by Pla, the uptake of services by poor people can also be undermined by a variety of other factors, including:

  • the cost of travel;
  • cultural barriers;
  • low education and literacy levels;
  • mistrust in government.

Access to information and social protection are therefore critical to meeting global goals on ending poverty.

Access to information and social protection and post-2015

Access to information and social protection should form a central focus of the post-2015 development agenda. The High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s timely proposal to “leave no one behind” aims to put sustainable development at the core of any post-2015 settlement, transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth, and build effective and accountable institutions for all. To achieve this, and make continued progress in achieving an end to extreme poverty, social protection and access to information should be considered as human rights and a central component of the post-2015 development agenda.

Stand-alone post-2015 development goals should be included on:

  • Access to information: This empowers citizens with choice and control over the decisions that impact their lives, and obliges governments to take practical steps towards honouring citizens’ rights to freedom of information through legislation. The goal would address the power imbalance between governments, society and the private sector and act as a proxy against which progress on transparency, participation and empowerment can be measured.
  • Basic income guarantee: all national governments should commit to a basic income guarantee supported by an international architecture that acts as a catalyst and backstop. This would support livelihoods and ensure that when livelihoods and self-insurance measures fail, the most vulnerable people are empowered through social protection schemes to better manage risk, make modest investments and take up opportunities.