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In 2005, Mexico’s Federal Freedom of Information Institute (Instituto Federal de Aceso a la Información Pública, IFAI) requested a grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to develop the Proyecto Comunidades (the Communities Project). It sought to give marginalized communities an understanding of the right to information as a way to empower their residents vis-à-vis the authorities.
The project’s activities ran from the last quarter of that year through the end of 2007, and twenty civil society organizations and marginalized communities in nine Mexican states participated. The main result of the project was the identification of effective strategies for raising public awareness about the right to information in communities that were clearly isolated from the government decision making that affects them.
In Mexico, a small group that, in reality, already has the power to access public information currently enjoys the right to information (RTI). The average person rarely exercises this right, and people whom progress has left behind almost never use it. We are convinced that it is possible to raise public awareness about RTI among the country’s most disadvantaged citizens. Indeed, this is absolutely necessary in order to improve the conditions in which those people live and their ability to defend themselves independently against government officials.
This report describes the experience of the Comunidades Project as a successful case of social advocacy. We have written it principally for those people who are interested in understanding and applying effective mechanisms for the adoption of this basic right and for social empowerment.
One of the project’s features, which set it apart from any other substantive IFAI activity, was its ongoing assessment by external evaluators—distinguished researchers from UNAM’s School of Political and Social Sciences. Among other things, this independent evaluation allowed us to correct the project’s course as we proceeded with its implementation. It also highlighted various lessons learned from the experience. For example, we know that marginalized communities can be empowered to employ the right to information.
However, as a right that is difficult to assimilate and effectively exercise, it falls outside traditional forms of mass—and costly—promotion. In particular, for beneficiaries to adopt the RTI, there needs to be an environment of trust, a pedagogy that is suitable for their conditions, and a monitoring during the process. According to the evaluators, the participation of civil society organizations that understood their strategic role in the effort helps account for the favorable results of the project activities to promote the adoption of the RTI.
Those organizations managed to build, or take advantage of, trust within their communities in order to stimulate and maintain the communities’ involvement throughout the project. The participating organizations connected the exercise of the RTI to addressing a community’s particular problems, and they adapted learning dynamics to the beneficiaries’ profiles and the communities’ infrastructure. In other words, they customized their work for each community and gave it a practical purpose.
Among other things, they conducted specific exercises to teach people how to submit requests for public information, and they managed to connect the right to information at the federal level with the right to information at local levels (primarily municipal). Based on this experience, we can state that the right to public information acquires meaning and utility when people understand it as a useful tool for preserving other basic rights and for addressing specific needs.
With that focus, it is possible to increase communities’ ability to get involved in the public arena and to improve their own environment. That imbues this fundamental right with intrinsic value. In summary, carrying out the Comunidades Project allowed us to identify appropriate strategies and methodologies for encouraging the adoption of the RTI in marginal communities. This has at least one consequence that is worth greater consideration: the living conditions of people who are distanced from government officials and their policies can be improved, their poverty can be overcome, and the ability to get involved in their own environment can be developed, all based on obtaining information and then taking the consequent actions.
Unfortunately, because of bureaucratic politics, in January 2008, most of the IFAI’s commissioners decided not to continue the Comunidades Project, even though this posed the risk of wasting the lessons learned during two and half years of work. However, for other agencies committed to effectively raising awareness about this right, the project’s lessons remained valid: it is possible to broaden the use of the RTI in marginalized communities, if the public institutions charged with this responsibility involve intermediary agencies that are able to build trust and talk persuasively to residents of these places. This document is testimony to that fact.