Think Tanks and the Right to Information

Guest blogger Michael Karanicolas explores the applicability of the right to information to think tanks. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

The right to information is internationally recognised as a human right which lies at the core of democratic accountability. Since State institutions are funded by public money, it is only natural to expect that the people have a right to know how their resources are being spent. In a democratic society, access to information held by the government is vital to ensuring that the electorate is fully and accurately informed, and can properly engage in the decision-making process. The right to information also fosters trust in government, and promotes efficiency through robust public oversight.

The right to information is not limited to State institutions. International standards hold that the right to information should apply to any private organisations that receive State funding or perform a public function to the extent of that funding or function. It is clear that, where an NGO – a category that includes most think tanks – is substantially funded from a State budget, a duty of transparency should apply.

However, many think tanks and other NGOs are not supported by State funds, and here the question becomes more difficult. Most right to information laws do not apply to NGOs, but there are exceptions. Indonesia’s Public Information Disclosure Act applies to NGOs which receive funding from public donations or from foreign sources, as well as any that receive money from the State budget. South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 allows for requests to any private organisation, including NGOs, if the information is required for the exercise or protection of any right. Sierra Leone’s Right to Access Information Act, which was passed in late 2013, includes a similar provision.

Several countries also impose additional transparency requirements on organisations which claim charitable status. This makes sense as charitable status is, in essence, a tax subsidy provided by the State.

Transparency is generally a good thing. However, there are legitimate reasons why NGOs may be wary of these requirements. For one thing, many smaller or developing world organisations lack the resources to respond efficiently to access to information requests, particularly if their records are not digitised. Another issue is that NGOs will sometimes require a certain amount of space to operate. Advocacy strategies, for example, will often need to be kept under wraps in order to ensure their efficacy. Although it is conceptually dangerous to start expanding the legitimate limits of exceptions to the right to information, these ideas require development to be properly applied to the NGO sector. 

But beyond the legal requirements of what NGOs must publish, there are legitimate operational reasons to want to push more information into the public domain. If an NGO seeks to pressure governments or corporations into being more transparent, while simultaneously guarding the secrecy of its own documentation, it runs the risk of being labelled a hypocrite.

Good advocacy means practicing what you preach, even if this may lead to some operational difficulties. Strictly speaking, the right to know does not generally extend to information that is held by NGOs. But if an NGO seeks to be an effective voice for transparency, it may need to lead by example.

Michael Karanicolas is the Legal Officer of the Centre for Law and Democracy, in Halifax, Canada.