Transparency builds solid grounds for Democracy and that’s the only way to fight back COVID-19

Trasparenza base della democrazia e rimedio al Covid-19 – Artigo originalmente publicado em “Transparency Week”, newsletter semanal da Transparency International Italy

These days the social function of the State has become more relevant than ever. The welfare state seems to have been reborn largely as a result of COVID-19, protecting citizens and saving them from the coronavirus, but, unfortunately, neither the State nor the citizens seem to be willing to learn from the crisis.

Everywhere in Europe, and in Portugal, recent times have brought a growing distance, dramatic in many cases, between the citizens and the State, with the levels of trust in public institutions and political decision-makers reaching minimum degrees. In my country, the perception of corruption measured by TI’s CPI is usually bellow the European average, and the abstention rate has been around 40% since 2009 (in last year’s Parliamentary elections it exceeded 50% and in the EU Elections 69.27%). Particularly for the younger generations, the vote seems somehow pointless or unnecessary.

We tend to look at the State and its institutions with no real interest nor empathy, and with the exception of those sections of the population that need the help of the State to survive, a large percentage of citizens and companies opt to maintain a relationship with the State quite disconnected and/ or merely functional.

The serious economic and financial crisis that hit the country between 2010 and 2014 has aggravated these feelings, as well the citizen overall apathy towards the affairs of the State. But also thanks to a political and institutional culture that undermines the role of civil society, and public decision-making processes based on omissions, innuendos, and a system of closed-circuit information sharing.

The State and its institutions are not proactively transparent, often choose to omit the data needed for public scrutiny, and the consultation mechanisms are treated as any other detail in a procedural checklist. With that our democracy has lost much of the robustness and enthusiasm since the Carnation Revolution that ended Dictatorship in 1974.

For example, in public procurement, emergency measures dictated the flexibility of the rules inscribed in the Code to allow the purchase of medical supplies and equipment to combat the virus. The need to arm the Health Sector against this huge threat is unquestionable, but we should not prevent ourselves from questioning why we need to completely dismiss transparency and accountability in public spending because of COVID-19.

The extraordinary times we face cannot justify the violation of the citizens’ right to be duly informed about the level of public expenditure, nor should the companies be deprived of their right to fair competition and equal treatment in the public supply chain. That is why, at Transparency International Portugal, we are campaigning to motivate and to mobilize active citizenship in times of the pandemic and spreading the word about powerful tools such as the Integrity Pacts and the Open Contracting Data Standard. The same way we are requesting the government to fully report and share epidemiological data.

We ought to oversee the Government’s performance in this emergency the same way we evaluate governmental decisions outside the crisis because that’s critical for Public Health and for the health of our Democracy.

Unfortunately, many of us seem to be numb by the blow of the crisis and comforted by the quick response of the authorities in providing financial support to families and companies. This will come with a price: making ourselves comfortable with low transparency and accountability standards right now means resigning from citizenship in the future to come.

Life goes on despite COVID-19. We should make sure to build solid grounds where to live it.

Por Karina Carvalho, Diretora Executiva da TI-PT