Monday, December 14, 2015

Six points about UK govt report on Bangladesh elections

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On Sunday, Al Jazeera published an article on the report commissioned by UK's Department for International Development concerning the integrity of the 2014 national and local elections in Bangladesh and the role of the Election Commission.

DfID had tried hard to keep the report secret, claiming at one point that it's disclosure would "cause significant offence to the Government of Bangladesh" and make it difficult to continue its programming operations in the country. However, on request from the independent Information Commissioner's office, DfID finally released the report.

The report is a must read for anyone interested in Bangladesh elections and the role of the election commission, and the full report can be downloaded here

There are a number of points to be made about the report.

  1. This report was an important factor in the US Aid, UK Aid, the European Union and UNDP stopping funding of their five years $14 million support to the Election Commission, and also meant that for the first time in years, there is no donor aided support to the Election Commission.
  2. The report was written by an independent expert providing an objective assessment of the Election Commission. She cannot be accused of having any particular axe to grind in relation to Bangladesh.
  3. It sets out clearly the international law obligations on Bangladesh in relation to holding free and fair elections, and what is required for elections to be deemed free and fair.
  4. It specifically states in relation to the January 2014 national election that since they "were not based on broad participation," the "international law commitments related to a genuine process … are very subject to question."
  5. In relation to the subsequent upazilla elections, the report sets out in detail the concerns about the neutrality and effectiveness of the Election Commission - which is the crucial institution necessary for holding free and fair elections in Bangladesh. 
  6. Unless significant reforms are made to the election commission, which do not look like they are coming, it will be difficult for the Bangladesh government to claim with much credibility that future elections organized under the commission are legitimate - though no doubt they will try to do so."
As to DfID, although the UK government department did its best to block disclosure of the report, one needs to give it credit for its general system of transparency.

DfID does makes public on its Development Tracker website far more information on its projects in Bangladesh (and in other countries) than any other donor organization - and if it was not for DfID's 'annual review' of it election-related projects (available on that website) where a short section from the consultant's report was extracted, one would not even have known that a consultant had been commissioned to write this report.

And in the end of course, though clearly under pressure from the Information Commissioners Office, DfID did disclose the report.

Process of obtaining the report
Dfid had done its very best not to disclose the full report.

I first came across mention of it in an annual review of DfID's funding of election related work including a UNDP-managed project supporting the work of the election commission, which was available on DfID's very useful Development Tracker website.

This annual review mentioned that a report had been written on the election commission and quoted three sentences from it. This resulted in this article at New Age.

In May, I made a request for a copy of this document under UK's Freedom of Information Act 2000. After many time extensions, on 30 July DfID sent a letter refusing a copy of the document. The letter stated:

"DFID holds a copy of this report which we are withholding under the exemptions at Section 27 (1) (a) (b) (c) and (d) (International relations) and 40 (2) (Personal information) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. ....

"Section 27 (1) (a) (b) (c) and (d) provides that information is exempt if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice the relations between the United Kingdom and any other state or international organisation, or the interests of the UK abroad, or the promotion or protection by the United Kingdom of its interests abroad.
In applying this exemption we have had to balance the public interest in withholding the information against the public interest in disclosing it.
Factors in favour of disclosure include the strong public interest in transparency and accountability.  There is also a clear public interest in raising awareness and understanding of how the UK government works at a country level and in how we aim to engage with partner governments and international organisations in seeking to reduce poverty.
Factors against disclosure include the strong public interest in ensuring that DFID and the UK Government are able to promote international development and protect UK interests abroad.  To do this there must be good working relationships with other governments and international partners based on confidence and trust.  Disclosing sensitive information relating to the Election Commission Bangladesh would be likely to damage the UK’s relationship with the Government of Bangladesh, harm the ability of DFID to work with and influence other donors in eradicating poverty and undermine the UK’s ability to respond to international development needs.  Releasing the information requested could also damage the UK’s ability to deliver government policy and to protect and promote UK interests.  This would not be in the public interest.
We have concluded that the balance of public interest in this case favours withholding the information."
I then appealed this decision and on 1 September obtained this response:

"Thank you for your e-mail dated 2 August 2015 in which you asked for an internal review of the decision to withhold a report commissioned by DFID in March 2014 following elections in Bangladesh.  I have carried out this review and am now writing with the outcome. 
 DFID’s response, dated 31 July 2015, withheld the report primarily under section 27 (1) (a) (b) (c) and (d) (International relations) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  It set out the public interest arguments for and against disclosure in relation to this qualified exemption.
 I have now reviewed the withheld information and reconsidered our application of the exemption and public interest arguments for and against disclosure.  I am satisfied that the exemption was correctly identified and that the balance of public interest favoured withholding the information you sought. I am therefore upholding the decision. I have set out some additional points below which I hope you will find useful.
 DFID accepts there is a clear public interest in disclosure, including the points you make in your e-mail regarding DFID’s public comments on this issue, the use of taxpayers’ money and the decision not to continue to provide support to the Election Commission.  To help meet this public interest, DFID has, as you know, published summary information of the report’s findings, including critical analysis of the elections and the Election Commission, in the Annual Review of the Strengthening Political Participation project.
 However, disclosing the more detailed information contained in the full report would be likely to cause significant offence to the Government of Bangladesh.  This could harm the trust between DFID (and the UK Government more widely) and the Bangladesh Government and so reduce the likelihood of open and effective dialogue in future.  Such dialogue is absolutely essential to ensuring effective programming and to enable both governments to respond to the development issues faced in Bangladesh. Disclosure in such circumstances would not be in the public interest.
 I consider that it would not be appropriate to release the full report simply because summary information – albeit frank and critical - has been published.  The language used in our public communications is carefully chosen so as to make points clearly but not in a way that would cause offence or undermine international relations with the Government of Bangladesh.  In my view, DFID’s decision to publish some relevant information on this sensitive issue has helped to achieve the right balance between competing public interest demands while at the same time maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of international relations. "

I then appealed to the Information Commissioners Office, which is an independent body. On 30 November, I then got a letter from DfID.
"At the request of the Information Commissioner’s Office, DFID has reviewed the information which we withheld from disclosure in our response to your Freedom of Information request reference F2013-154.

I am now writing to inform you that we have concluded that the information should be released. I, therefore, attach a copy of the report “DFID Election Programming Assessment” dated March 2014. Please note that this is an independent expert report commissioned by DFID Bangladesh to review support to the Election Commission and make recommendations. The views in the report are the expert’s own views and do not represent UK government policy.

While the assessment was primarily for internal use, DFID has, in the spirit of transparency, proactively published significant information in relation to the issues raised in the report, including key extracts from it. In light of this, and information which is otherwise in the public domain on this issue, we now consider that the public interest in this case favours release of the report. I would, however, explain that, as required, DFID deals with FOI requests on a case by case basis. As such the decision to disclose this report should not be taken as a precedent for releasing reports relating to other governments and overseas partners more generally."