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The Right to Information: A Boot Camp for Young Activists in Bangladesh

May 8, 2024

By Sanjida Akhter and Jannatun Nahar

In November 2021, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, a young Bangladeshi named Joy Sarker filed a right-to-information request with the Primary Education Office in Rangpur. He wanted to know if funds had been allocated to clean primary schools during Covid, and whether those funds were being properly spent.

His seemingly routine request for information met with unexpected resistance.

Joy Sarker preparing to submit his RTI application. (Photo: MRDI)

In a democratic society, where an elected government is accountable to voters, the public’s right to information—about budgets, about policies, about the activities of their officials—is a fundamental principle. In Bangladesh, the landmark Right to Information Act of 2009 enshrined this principle in law. It has been used by social activists, civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens to bring transparency and accountability to the government’s management of the people’s business.

But the right to information (RTI) is, by itself, just a tool; someone must pick it up—an organ of the press, a crusading CSO, or a private citizen like Joy Sarker—and wield it in the service of democracy.

This was the impulse behind the RTI Boot Camp, a four-day residential training program in 2021 for young activists, offered by the Media Resources Development Initiative (MRDI), a leading news media training organization in Bangladesh known for its work on the right to information. With support from The Asia Foundation’s South Asia Governance Fund, the boot camp, known formally as “More Information More Accountability,” introduced 33 young men and women from the districts of Rangpur, Barishal, and Jashore to the nitty-gritty work of retrieving public information from their own local governments.

A role-playing exercise on the challenges of pursuing a right to information application. (Photo: MRDI)

After four days of training, the young activists went out to put their new skills to use. Many of them found that, regardless of the law, extracting information from the government often calls for a considerable perseverance. This February, they reconvened for a phase II training program and reunion, in which they shared their tales and devised strategies for the future. These are some of their stories.

Joy Sarker’s inquiry about funds for cleaning the schools during Covid quickly drew push-back from local officials. The officer to whom he handed his RTI request bombarded him with questions, as if the whole enterprise were suspicious. Then he told Joy that the information he wanted didn’t exist, because there had been no budget allocation for pandemic cleaning in the schools. When Joy asked for this answer in writing, the officer told him there would be a fee of two taka, but he never told him how to pay.

As part of their resources for journalists, MRDI runs a telephone helpdesk. After consulting with the helpdesk, Joy resubmitted his RTI application by mail. This time he received a reply from the Primary Education Office, but they still didn’t send him the information or a valid method of payment, even though the RTI Act requires that requested information, or a valid reason for nondisclosure, be provided within 20 working days.

But Joy pressed on determinedly. On December 30, he lodged an appeal with the divisional deputy director of the Primary Education Office in Rangpur, who serves as the appellate authority. His persistence paid off, and he received the information he’d requested on January 5, 2022.

Meanwhile, fellow boot-camper “Babul,” part of the group from Jashore, got interested in the health clinic in the Maheshpur subdistrict: why did they still have to send serious cases to hospitals in Dhaka or neighboring cities instead of treating them at home? Babul and his team wanted two pieces of information: the health complex’s FY2020 budget, and a list of the clinic’s medical equipment showing its operational status.

Again, how public monies are allocated and spent is at the heart of the democratic right to information.

When Babul handed his RTI request to the clinic’s information officer, he was peppered with questions, like Joy, but he never got a formal response to his application. He lodged an appeal with the civil surgeon, a top medical administrator, but still he got no response. Then he filed a complaint with the Information Commission, again to no avail. At the hearing for his complaint, neither the presiding authority nor the designated information officer showed up, leaving him in the dark about the status of his complaint and still without the information he had requested.

Failure? Looking ahead

Despite his failure to pry loose this ostensibly public information, Babul was sanguine. He noted that some improvements had been reported at the clinic following his inquiries about conditions there. Asked what he had gained from his first, unresolved RTI experience, Babul replied, “the courage to hold the authorities accountable.”

Recalling these experiences with one another at the February refresher, the boot-campers resolved to press on. Umme Kulsum and her group of activists from Rangpur said they planned to spread the lessons of the boot camp to their peers in the community and include RTI awareness in their field programs. The group from Jashore, composed mostly of cultural activists, pledged to carry on RTI awareness campaigns through cultural activities in school programs and community “courtyard” meetings. Apurba Krishna Roy and his group from Rangpur spoke of working for a future in which transparency and citizen engagement would be the norm.

This small project to nurture the flame of civic participation is now complete, but investing in Bangladeshi youth and inspiring them to exercise their democratic rights in the public square remains an urgent necessity. A World Bank survey on the tenth anniversary of Bangladesh’s Right to Information Act found that just 7.7 percent of the general public was aware of the RTI Act. Democratic self-governance cannot survive without transparency and accountability in public bodies. Training a new generation to love and practice their right to information is the way forward.

In February, the participants, facilitators, and organizers of the Right to Information Boot Camp reconvened for phase II training and a reunion. (Photo: MRDI)

Sanjida Akhter is a program associate with The Asia Foundation’s South Asia Governance Fund, and Jannatun Nahar is the program coordinator for MRDI’s “More Information More Accountability,” both in Bangladesh. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Bangladesh
Related programs: Good Governance

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