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Closed Democracies in Latin America? Openness at a Crossroads

¿Democracias cerradas en América Latina? La apertura en la encrucijada

Democracy is facing challenging times globally and especially in Latin America. In the region, only three countries are considered full democracies and democracy is backsliding overall. ILDA’s recently published open data barometer for Latin America and the Caribbean shows that open data and transparency are stagnant. How transparent are Latin American democracies in the digital era? To what extent can transparency strengthen democracy in the region? 

A decade ago, the open data movement put forward the idea that data openness by governments would bring about political, social, and economic benefits. Still, the results are far from what developed countries or open data leaders achieved. Examples include openness of datasets of company beneficial ownership, which has progressed very slowly in the region despite being discussed in action plans and included in anti-corruption commitments. Disclosure of these kinds of data will allow for better control of lobbying, conflict of interest, and corruption across the region. 

Average of company registry in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2013 to 2020. Graph created by ILDA.

Overall, the impact of data use for policymaking has been limited. Although it has consistently grown in the leading countries, this growth is far from ideal. Several reasons lie behind this. First, data use requires investments and skills that are not fully distributed across the region. Second, greater availability does not equal good quality. Finally, there are structural factors related to inclusion, freedom of expression and accountability that prevent open data from having tangible impacts on accountability. Transparency is a requirement – but does not guarantee – plural, full democracies. 

The way forward is uncertain and there is no silver bullet. However, we believe that transparency and openness are essential elements of solid democracies. Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean can make better decisions to improve democracies in challenging times. To this end, they must put transparency and openness at the center of democracy-related discussions in the region. It is about encouraging high-level political will to renew efforts by the government and society in this agenda. Without this commitment and clear leadership from countries and organizations, progress will be difficult to achieve. 

Average of political impact of open datasets from 2013 to 2020. Graph created by ILDA.

At the technical level, attention must be placed on data infrastructure to allow citizens to control those in power. Public contracts, budgets and beneficial ownership data can improve significantly; these have already been used by journalists, civil society organizations – and even governments – to control and improve societies. Finally, we need to encourage a new generation of activists, researchers, companies and governments that use the available data to improve the lives of societies, scarred by inequality and exclusion. This year, over 100 members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) have the opportunity to co-create, together with civil society, commitments to improve data infrastructure, transparency, quality and governance. 

Democracy can only thrive when governments are accountable, which largely depends on the information they generate and disclose. In the digital era, democracies that lack transparency cannot be considered full democracies. But data disclosure by itself will not make a difference unless there is a joint effort to build and strengthen democracies in the region. 

Check out the barometer results at barometrolac.org

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