Guatemala: Congreso Transparente brings Open Government to remote areas

Global Integrity
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–This is the first entry in the “No Hash Tag blog series: Low-Tech Approaches to Open Government and Transparency.”

Despite being a country still reeling from decades of civil war and abuses of power, Guatemala is making its way, haltingly, towards open government and citizen participation.

The country is not only a member of the Open Government Partnership, but also has worked with several organizations, including Global Integrity, on various initiatives to increase government transparency and accountability.

But to spread the message, there are challenges galore.

In this Central American nation of 14.7 million, only 2.2 million have access to the Internet, according to Internet World Stats, and of those, only 200,000 have access to a broadband connection. With infrastructure destroyed by years of civil war, multiple languages spoken by the different indigenous communities, and lack of education, bringing open government to everyday Guatemalans requires an extra effort.

Local NGO Congreso Transparente is helping Guatemalans become more involved in the working of their government by helping citizens overcome logistical and technological hurdles, while at the same time working with the nation’s parliament to push for greater transparency.

The organization, started by its director Jorge Luis Rodas (pictured above with OpenGov Hub manager Christina Crawley during his recent visit)  and his law school classmates Jorge Gabriel Jiménez, Sara Larios, Daniel Marroquín and María del Rosario Yaquián, seeks to connect members of congress and citizens to bridge the information gap on the lawmaking process. “We want to promote discussion and analysis of the performance of our congress – we want to act as a tool to increase the knowledge of citizens about the lawmaking process, thus strengthening our democracy,” Rodas, 25, said.

“We are focused on bringing the idea of open government and transparency to every corner of Guatemala,” he added. “We want to reach everyone, including those in areas lacking Internet and telephone access.”

Through its website, blog, and media and community outreach initiatives, Congreso Transparente keeps busy at one of their main goals: to empower citizens, Rodas said. “We are working to change Guatemala. How? First by using our knowledge of the judiciary and government and sharing it, thus starting a process that could create a change and nurture the notion of citizenship, of [civic] participation.”

To spread their message, the organization has teamed up with local community development non-profits around the country, including “Petén soy yo” (I am Petén), an NGO based at the northern department [region] of Petén, Guatemala’s biggest and one with a significant indigenous population.

“With them, we are carrying out community workshops in the most remote places to explain to locals how the Guatemalan Congress works,” Rodas said. “At the workshops, which are free and open to the public, we also try to educate people about how important it is to participate, and how easy is to exert their rights as citizens thanks to open government principles.”

This experience also serves as a warm up for Congreso Transparente as they prepare to bring this workshop to the rest of the country in partnership with local government entities known as the COCODES, or community councils, he added.

At the same time, the organization continues to work on open government issues at the national level. Together with a new batch of law students from different Guatemalan universities, Rodas and his team are working on several initiatives, including closing loopholes in the country’s tax code and highlighting violations of the Constitution in the appointment of government officials, among others.

“We want to go beyond Congress,” Rodas said. “We want to push transparency in all branches of government.”

A difficult task, for sure, especially in a country plagued by a myriad of socio-economic and political problems, including poverty, corruption and a chronic lack of personal security.

“We want this country to move forward,” Rodas said. “Opening up our government is the first step to reach sustainability. That’s what we are aiming for.”

— Text and photo by Julio C. Urdaneta.

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