â€śEvery morning I get up and thank God that he never made me an expert on the Middle East,â€ť a famous journalist once remarked to me. That was pretty much my view, too. As a journalist and later as a politician, I generally steered a wide circle around matters Middle Eastern for the very good reason that reform seemed a lost cause. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Arab spring have changed that.Â A narrow window has opened in countries with little or no living memory of democracy and which in most cases do not have properly functioning parliaments.Â For this reason I recently found myself on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea at a conference organised by Global Partners for MPs from Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Object of exercise: to share insights and experiences of parliament with particular reference to the standards expected of elected representatives and the level of service they should be expected to offer their constituents. The participants were for the most part sophisticated, capable politicians, whose skills would see them easily adapt to life in a well-established parliament such as Westminster, Ottawa or Paris, but alas a wide gulf separates those worlds. Iraqi MPs, with the notable exception of those from Kurdistan, are mainly confined to the so-called Green Zone, the heavily fortified administrative bloc in the centre of Baghdad.Â He or she can only venture out with armed bodyguards and even then the risks are high.Â Only recently an Iraqi MP attending a function outside the Green Zone was embraced by a stranger who sung Godâ€™s praises â€“ and then blew them both to smithereens.Â One cannot but admire people who put themselves up for election in these circumstances. Egypt remains in turmoil.Â Parliamentary elections are due in the coming months, but already there is talk of an opposition boycott.Â Â Citizens have unrealistic expectations of what they can expect from their MPs â€“ decades of pent up demands have suddenly been unleashed and one task of any elected representative will be to dampen expectations. And Jordan is trying to establish parliamentary democracy in a very tough neighbourhood.Â Syria, Iraq and Israel are its immediate neighbours. None of these countries have a long-term history of multi-party democracy or governments that can be held to account.Â The concept of a loyal opposition is unknown. All of which suggests that the learning curve will be steep, progress will be slow and there are likely to be disappointments along the way.Â Hopefully, however, a few seeds were sown which, in due course, may turn into green shoots. Chris Mullin is a former minister. He was a British member of parliament from 1987 to 2010Â Â Â
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This May, the Brazilian government took an important step towards openness and transparency as its Access to Information (ATI) Law came into effect.* Two months into the implementation process, Brazilian public bodies had received over 17,000 information requests and the Office of the Comptroller-General (CGU) â€“ the regulator responsible for its implementation â€“ reported that over 83% of requests had been processed and answered. These numbers are extremely positive (comparatively, Argentinian executive received only 2,543 requests in three years), and highlight the Lawâ€™s potential to create new space for dialogue between the Brazilian government and its citizenry. However, the law faces many challenges.Â We know very little about the quality of the answers, and public agencies have been accused of using legal loopholes to avoid providing information. Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is tackling the deeply-engrained culture of secrecy and state control within Brazilâ€™s government.Â For such laws to work, public servants need to be committed to its ideals, journalists need to understand how to use its provisions and, with civil society, need to be raising public awareness about their rights. To help with this process, Global Partners has been commissioned by UNESCO in Brazil to develop and test an M&E framework with a set of tools to assist the Brazilian government and the CGU in tracking the progress of implementation of the Law. Over the next 2 years, we will be following and evaluating the governmentâ€™s efforts to implement the Law and its impact on the Brazilian society. * Access to information laws, sometimes referred to as â€śsunshine lawsâ€ť, regulate right of, and procedures for, the public to request and receive government-held information. At the moment, over 90 countries have in place some form of ATI legislation.
Global Partners is travelling to Egypt at the end of this month to kick off its Transparency and Open InformationÂ project, funded by the Arab Partnership Initiative under the FCO. GPA will be working the its project partner AFAÂ (the Arab Forum for Alternatives) to help set up an information taskforce. The task force will be made up of civilÂ society, academics and public officials. They will draw on experiences from the Global South, specifically KenyaÂ and South Africa, to draw up an action plan around access to information and open data systems for Egyptians.