Academic journal article Global Governance

Transparency, Accountability, and Global Governance

Academic journal article Global Governance

Transparency, Accountability, and Global Governance

Article excerpt

Few concepts have come to enjoy more popularity in international policymaking circles than transparency. It has become the international community's standard response to accountability concerns at international institutions, appearing in the pronouncements of government and international officials, corporate executives, and activists alike. If "democracy deficit" is the catchphrase for global governance's problem, "transparency" is its buzzword solution.

Much of this rhetoric is simply a faithful recitation of the good governance canon. Most policymakers who advocate transparency do so from a general sense that "sunshine is the best disinfectant." Few can specify how--or even if--openness and disclosure actually alter the behavior of global actors to promote accountability.

Such knowledge would not be needed if transparency were nothing more than jargon, but the reality is that transparency mechanisms are used as substantive policy tools in a surprising range of areas. (1) They have a long history in the domestic realm; as Mary Graham has noted, governments have used transparency to regulate corporations at least since the creation of the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 1933. (2) Today, national and local governments in the United States and elsewhere--even in relatively closed political systems like China--require entities like companies, schools, and hospitals to publish a host of figures, covering such diverse topics as student test scores, medical accidents, and the release of pollutants. (3)

Transparency is also used by inter- and nongovernmental organizations (IGOs and NGOs). The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have sometimes made clear and accurate fiscal reporting a condition of their aid packages. The European Union requires candidate countries to adopt transparent policymaking procedures as part of its efforts to ensure that member countries meet certain democratic standards. NGOs, for their part, have pressured corporations into monitoring and disclosure arrangements in an attempt to improve companies' environmental and social conduct, a phenomenon some observers have dubbed the "NGO-industrial complex." (4) They have also demanded similar information from IGOs and nation-states. For example, in response to environmental and social concerns, the World Bank created an independent watchdog that investigates allegations of Bank wrongdoing and publishes its findings as factual records. The North American countries have, through the environmental side agreement to their free trade zone, created an international organization that investigates and publicizes countries' failures to enforce their own environmental laws.

Critics contend that transparency mechanisms like these are too "soft" to create real accountability, arguing that bad publicity is insufficient to make global actors change behavior. While such critiques often highlight important deficiencies in current governance arrangements, they assume that formal regulation generates higher compliance than informal arrangements. At the global level, however, this line of argument is often a dead end; the world is unlikely to see "hard" command and control regulation or administrative law applied transnationally in the near future. (5)

Given that policymakers and activists consistently advocate transparency, use it for important governance tasks, and are unlikely to replace it with more formal arrangements in the foreseeable future, it is surprising that we understand so little about how it works to promote accountability. The first goal of this article is to contribute to filling that gap by analyzing whether--and how--transparency is able to change the behavior of global actors, especially in situations where information users have no formal control over disclosers, and indeed may be significantly less powerful.

The first section borrows from Andreas Schedler to conceptualize accountability as the linkage of two components: the ability to know what an actor is doing and the ability to make that actor do something else. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.