The impression of accountability

Tags: Op-ed
The impression of accountability
RARE RESULTS: Providing lots of information on a disparate range of government interventions — some of which benefit foreign commercial interests and many that do not — can, it seems, merely give the impression of accountability
The struggle to make rulers accountable goes back centuries, if not longer. Typically, at first, nobles tried holding sovereigns to account. Later, the franchise widened and, in many jurisdictions, entire adult populations can now determine whether to throw out the rascals that rule them. Action, however, typically follows from knowledge — and where does that come from?

In many countries — including India — investigative journalists and the media have played decisive roles, covering the promises, results, and misdeeds of our rulers. For sure, some so-called media barons have used their newspapers to influence events. Still, the advent of wide circulation newspapers was a major step forward for governance.

Twenty years ago, the spread of internet was said to presage further oversight of their rules by an active and engaged citizenry. Armed with greater information, often submitted by governments obliged to reveal their actions under domestic laws and international treaties, it was argued that citizens — directly or indirectly through watchdogs — would ratchet up pressure on rulers to do the right thing.

That was the theory, at least. What happened in practice? I was taken back to these arguments — which I first came across as a young World Bank official in the late 1990s — as I read the latest batch of reports on contemporary protectionism from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other international organisations.

The promise of greater accountability and transparency in national policy choice were said to be goals of the WTO membership. When the WTO came into effect in 1995, its members — national governments — agreed to comply with numerous notification requirements. Those notifications were made public on what is rightly regarded as one of the best websites of any international organisation. Vast amounts of information are available freely to anyone with access to the internet.

The WTO’s role was further enhanced when the global economic crisis hit and the G20 governments asked it and other international organisations to monitor whether pledges to eschew protectionism had been met. The WTO dutifully produces half-yearly reports which garner quite a few headlines around the world.

Leaving aside the obvious concern that the WTO staff might pull their punches when reporting on the very governments that essentially oversee them, deeper worries emerge. Providing lots of information on a disparate range of government interventions — some of which benefit foreign commercial interests and many that do not — can, it seems, merely give the impression of accountability. How information is aggregated and presented are key and here, the WTO is falling down on its job in ways that affect us all.

How so? Well, the headline numbers in WTO reports on protectionism relate only to government policies that restrict trade. So if you’ve ever been hassled by foreign visa restrictions or limits on investment abroad, they don’t get counted in the WTO’s totals. In essence, the WTO is selective in what it chooses to highlight. Worse, the WTO only reports on trade restrictive measures that it finds during a given half yearly cycle. If a measure comes to light after a reporting cycle has closed, it is not taken into account when the next WTO report is prepared.

Two perverse incentives are created by the way the WTO chooses to hold governments accountable. First, by focusing on easier-to-spot trade restrictions, the WTO provides government with an incentive to impose other forms of (often murkier) protectionism. And, second, governments have a strong incentive to hide or at least not to notify the WTO of their actions until a reporting cycle is over. It’s not just that piecemeal reporting provides a distorted picture of conditions facing exporters, importers, overseas workers, foreign investors and the like, rather such reporting potentially distorts policymaking in the first place.

I’ve been hard here on the WTO, but they’re not alone. The United Nations is supposed to monitor national policy changes towards foreign direct investment, yet no attempt is made to combine systematically its findings with those of the WTO. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the rich countries’ club in Paris, collects masses of data on different types of trade policies, yet that information is not incorporated into a data-driven, comprehensive assessment of national resort to protectionism.

Organisations that make masses of information available ought to provide thoughtful, transparent ways to aggregate that information so that the governed can make overall assessments of steps taken by governments. Sometimes aggregating information may involve adding apples and oranges but, on net, better to do that transparently than not at all; or worse, in a selective and piecemeal manner.

Mind you, effective reporting on government actions is only a prerequisite for true accountability. Citizens, non-governmental organisations and businesses need to deploy that information in national policy debates if governments are to be held to account. Information that is awkward for governments may well be awkward for certain special interests. Plus, those providing awkward information should not expect bouquets of roses. Worse, the very accessibility of certain communication tools, such as the internet, may be deployed to overwhelm citizens with masses of apparently contradictory information. The cat and mouse game between rulers and the ruled continues.

(The writer is a professor of international trade and economic development at University of St Gallen, Switzerland)

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