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Freedom of Information is Not Enough

It would be impossible to identify all the decisions to be made by governments that will affect the environment in different places in the coming years. Some of the more obvious ones include national legislatures deciding on energy policy, city zoning boards choosing the sites for roads and factories, and state governments maintaining air quality monitoring stations.

People have the right to participate in these kinds of decisions - decisions that affect their environment. To exercise this right they need access to the information that drives those decisions, and the chance to voice their opinions and to influence choices.

Meaningful participation is guaranteed by "access rights": the rights of

  • public access to information, to
  • public participation in government decision-making, and
  • access to justice.

WRI's new book Voice and Choice: Opening the Door to Environmental Democracy looks at the progress governments have made in providing access to environmental decision-making. In the hope of accelerating this progress, it also identifies hurdles and suggests how to overcome them. The book continues the conversation begun in WRI's 2002 book Closing the Gap: Information, Participation, and Justice in Decision-Making for the Environment.

Voice and Choice captures the research findings and practical experiences of The Access Initiative (TAI) - The world's largest civil society network working to ensure that people have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.

Voice and Choice finds that governments have generally made significant progress in establishing the legal infrastructure of rights and opportunities for "access." Constitutions and laws now guarantee freedom of information in more than 69 countries. Many governments have enacted administrative processes, such as environmental impact assessments, that mandate public participation. Progress toward the implementation of these policies has, however, been slower, reflecting the great change necessary to achieve a level of openness in which governments and civil society share a commitment to environmental democracy.

In the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 178 governments pledged to open environmental decision-making to public input and scrutiny. Access to information, public participation, and access to justice are keys to more transparent, inclusive, and accountable decision-making in matters affecting the environment-what we call "environmental democracy."

Access to information motivates and empowers people to participate in an informed manner.

Participatory decision-making enhances the ability of governments to respond to public concerns and demands, to build consensus, and to improve acceptance of and compliance with environmental decisions.

Access to justice enhances the public's ability to enforce the right to participate, to be informed, and to correct environmental harm. In turn, access depends on governments and civil society having the capacity to operationalize these rights.

Voice and Choice found that framework laws for freedom of information are more widespread than framework laws on public participation. Assessments from the TAI network demonstrate that more countries have bedrock framework laws on information than framework laws supporting public participation. Only 1 of 20 countries evaluated lacked a basic freedom of information law. Yet, of the countries evaluated for framework laws on participation, one quarter received weak rankings.

Voice and Choice also found that implementation of information and participation laws has lagged far behind legal reform. Surveys by TAI partners revealed a difference between law and practice in 26 countries. Causes for these differences vary. Implementation of framework laws may be hindered by a lack of detailed administrative rules and operational policies. In other cases, laws may be in place, but public capacity to use the laws or official capacity to carry out the laws may be absent.

The Access Initiative is continuing its efforts to turn assessment of law and practice into meaningful reform in countries around the world. To facilitate exchange of information and planning of strategies to create change, TAI is also launching a new website.

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