International law scholars highlight transparency as a key building block for fostering greater accountability within international institu- tions. Despite wider acceptance of the norm of transparency in govern- ance, international institutions continue to diverge sharply in their approaches to transparency. For example, the World Bank dramatically expanded its level of transparency in recent years while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been slower to open itself to outside scrutiny. Given the shared history, shared membership, and similar governance structures of these two institutions, existing theories cannot easily explain this divergence between the World Bank and the IMF. This Essay identifies an alternative explanatory model and concludes that the vulnerability of international institutions to external pressure from civil society actors, through the mechanism of conditional transparency, is central to explaining institutional transparency. Ultimately, the impact of expanded transparency on the accountability of international institu- tions depends upon the existence of effective intermediaries who can translate the increased information flow and catalyze reform.
Calls for greater transparency are becoming an increasingly fre- quent demand on national governments and international institu- tions alike. Legal scholars have turned to transparency as a key mechanism for reforming regulatory processes in a wide range of fields.1 Within international law, institutional transparency2 is viewed as a key building block for fostering greater accountability3 within international institutions.4 Yet we know relatively little about what leads institutions to become more transparent. A bet- ter understanding of the underlying mechanisms that catalyze insti- tutional transparency can offer insight into the wider challenge of fostering accountability in the twenty-first century.
Transparency has been viewed for many centuries as a central ingredient for fostering more accountable public institutions. In ancient Greece, Aristotle called for transparency with respect to public finances and argued that in order to ensure "public prop- erty is not stolen, then, let the handing over of the money take place when all of the citizens are present, and let copies of the accounts be deposited with the brotherhoods, companies, and tribes."5 In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant advocated for transparency in the international arena because he viewed the "capacity for publicity" as "the transcendent formula of public right," and he concluded that "all actions that affect the rights of other men are wrong if their maxim is not consistent with public- ity."6 In the early twentieth century, Justice Louis Brandeis identi- fied "sunlight" as one of the "the best of disinfectants" and called for greater publicity as a social remedy.7 More recently, interna- tional relations scholars have highlighted the importance of trans- parency in reducing uncertainty and fostering international cooperation.8 Across these eras, transparency has been viewed as a powerful catalyst for creating more accountable governance.
The norm of transparency in governance became more widely accepted after World War II as the idea that public access to infor- mation was not just a prescription for good governance but also a right of citizens began to gain currency. In 1946, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) determined that freedom of information was a fundamental right.9 However, the International Covenant on Freedom of Information was later abandoned and was never ratified.10 In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights included only an ill-defined right to seek and receive information.11 Nonetheless, the number of countries in the world with freedom of information laws increased eleven-fold in recent decades, from just eight in 1980 to eighty-nine by 2011.12 In 2011, the Open Government Partnership was launched with fifty-two countries committing to support greater transparency in their own governance. …