Stumbling blocks to accessing information in the times of COVID-19

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health officials recently warned that 10 million people might have contracted the Covid 19 virus in the country. With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire, the Afghan Government has taken measures to allocate resources including funds to the provincial governments to respond to this situation. However, there are widespread allegations of corruption such as smuggling of ventilators to a neighboring country, misuse in bread distribution in Kabul, and MOPH employees involved in bribery. Despite this, these allegations and many more have remained unresolved as access to information is facing road blocks despite the fact that Afghanistan’s Access to Information Law is considered to be the best among similar laws in other countries.

The Access to Information Law is a potential very good anti-corruption tool, especially during the times of COVID-19 when arbitrary decisions are made without much transparency. However, the Afghan Government must address the following road blocks for the Access to Information Law to achieve its full potential:

  • Restrictions on movements due to lockdowns and fear of spread of the coronavirus: With an under-developed postal system, limited office hours, and entry restrictions in government offices, citizens are discouraged from sending in paper requests for information.
  • Weak government responsiveness and the lack of a culture of accountability to the public. This is especially a problem in the provinces where governors mostly do not feel accountable to the public, for instance, the Provincial Government in Kapisa Province refused an access to information request by civil society representatives.
  • Weak information management and publishing: Although the government has developed a section about COVID-19 on its procurement portal, the portal is missing a lot of information such as invoices and other contract documents. Out of hundreds of contracts, only partial information about 46 contracts has been published. This shows not only a lack of publishing information but also a weak system of information management.
  • Lack of awareness about the law and the online system: Despite awareness raising efforts by the Access to Information Commission (AIC) and civil society and also while there is now an online access to information request system developed by Integrity Watch and the AIC, there is little awareness about the law in general and about the online system in particular.
  • Lack of whistleblower protection: Although there is a Whistleblower Protection Law in place, many of those who are aware of the Access to Information Law, do not use their right to access to information fearing a reprisal from officials especially in the provinces. One governor even intimidated an Integrity Watch representative who was pressing the local government to provide information relating to COVID-19 expenses.
  • Weak support to the appeal process: Lack of respect for AIC decisions by some institutions such as provincial governments and even central agencies such as the Central Statistics Office challenges the entire access to information regime.

The Afghan Government must take the following actions to address the above-mentioned roadblocks:

  • Improve compliance with proactive online disclosure: Improve proactive online disclosure of COVID-19 related expenses and sanction those institutions, including any governors’ office, that fails to upload information in a timely, comprehensive and accurate manner to enhance citizens engagement as required by the Open Data Charter. For the long-term, all procurements should be made online to automate all of the information on procurement management including having full disclosure by default.
  • Promote the online (https://www.askforinfo.af) system: The online system to request for information is a critical step forward but people are still not familiar with it. The government should launch a media campaign to raise awareness about the online system.
  • Hold government institutions accountable against requests made for information: Holding all institutions to account in relation to the use of the online access to information system in relation to how they respond to information requests is key to making the online system work. The AIC can take steps such as publishing response rates of public institutions by creating a league table showing best and worst performers. Such initiatives can create a positive competition between institutions trying to “race to the top.” It can also be used to “name and shame” the institutions that are not responsive. Aside from this, administrative action should also be taken against institutions that consistently fail to respond to information requests.
  • Ensure implementation of the AIC decisions: The AIC is doing what it can do despite limited resources and the fact that it is only newly established. However, if government institutions do not implement and enforce its decisions, the AIC’s potential to effectively regulate access to information cannot be realized.

Access to information does not only have the potential to prevent corruption and hold government institutions to account, it also has the potential to build trust between the state and the citizens by clarifying corruption allegations such as those related to COVID-19 and allowing citizens to play an important role in the fight against corruption. Therefore, the government can turn the challenge of COVID-19 into an opportunity to promote transparency and accountability, fight corruption, and build trust.