All around the world, every single day, countless people are having their lives made more difficult or ruined because a tiny number of people in positions of power are keeping information secret that should, by rights, be open and transparent.
The scale of the problem has become headline news in recent years. Wikileaks has been a game changer; by providing an outlet for whistle-blowers, it has single handedly helped expose elite wrongdoing on a massive scale. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have been the most prominent, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. We really have no idea how widespread the problem is in areas like surveillance and security. And whereas some secrecy is of course necessary, the scale has tipped in favour of default secrecy when it comes to government and corporate behavior, and ever more encroachment into individuals’ privacy.
In the last thirty years, corporations have used veils of secrecy to amass shocking amounts of wealth. Work by the likes of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has unearthed tens of thousand of cases of tax evasion, all previously, and very deliberately, hidden. Wikileaks has also brought to light documents that prove the massive tax evasion schemes by Barclays Bank that led one Financial Times commentator – someone who had previously considered themselves “a supporter of the finance industry” – to conclude that “these people belong in jail, and companies like Barclays deserve to be bankrupt. They have robbed every one of us, every single person who pays tax or who will ever pay tax in this country (and other countries!), through both the bailouts and schemes such as this ”.
But the problem isn’t confined to any one industry. In fact, the whole business of international trade is shrouded in secrecy. Even as we speak, negotiations for immense, world changing deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are being conducted out of sight of both the public and the legislative branches of governments (Congresses and Parliaments). Other than negotiation teams and Heads of State, the only people allowed to take part are corporate lobbyists.
There is no question that all these forms of secrecy drive inequality and poverty all around the world. Global Financial Integrity has estimated that illicit financial flows – i.e. “unrecorded [secret] private financial outflows involving capital that is illegally earned, transferred, or utilized,” – are “the most devastating economic issue impacting the global South”. In 2012, it amounted to about $1 trillion and, most worryingly of all, it is growing at a staggering 10% a year.
Unfortunately, there is no single solution to this problem. It’s been a problem throughout human history: wherever there is money to be made or power to be grabbed, there will be people hiding information to ensure they have an unfair advantage. We can no more put a permanent end to this behavior than we can put an end to greed itself.
But the news isn’t all bad. As well as the great service done for us all by organisations like Wikileaks, Transparency International, Global Financial Integrity and the ICIJ, there have been some important moves from governments in recent years. The Open Government Partnership, “ an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens” has been steadily growing and the number of countries with Freedom of Information laws has gone from just 40 a decade ago to 95 today.
This will always be a cat and mouse game, with the hoarders and the liars constantly trying to get around whatever rules exist to ensure transparency. But it is a game we must engage in if we want to tackle the root causes of global inequality and poverty.
We believe that the big solution is to reverse the trend of recent years, where elite processes have become more secret, and private information has become more public. We start from the principle of “if in doubt, disclose” and believe it should be applied across all financial, economic, land and natural resource decision-making processes. This would help us move from an international norm in which states and business enterprises operate in secret, to one in which they automatically disclose all information, unless it can be proven beyond doubt why such disclosure would not be in the public interest.
This will not be an easy fight, or one that can be won overnight, but bigger fights have been won in the past. We can change the rules.