Sunlight is a widely used metaphor that highlights the great benefits of opening up information to open scrutiny. But for all its powerful energy and capacity to "disinfect," sunlight can do harm if the information it illuminates is ill-used. With powerful new information tools unfolding each day that shed light in dark crevices everywhere, we need to be aware of benefits and risks and act to use sunlight as a force for good.
Every two years there's a large international gathering that assembles various global networks working against age old ills, with increasingly modern methods: the International Anti-Corruption Conference. It addresses the world of crime and illicit financial flows, bribes, nepotism and the like, because they endanger justice and progress everywhere. The IACC took place earlier this month in Brasilia, with some 2,000 determined and earnest corruption busters and advocates for justice. It's a diverse bunch: judges, civil society activists, journalists, academics, government officials and the occasional business leader. The common theme is fighting corruption, large and small, everywhere.
A group of younger participants brought a special energy to the event. They were visible in a "hackathon," promising to use new technologies to solve a host of problems, from public procurement to "making data fun." The more established networks looked on in awe but also with some concern. The idea that any information is accessible these days raised eyebrows: the question, we were told, is not whether a bright not so nerdy youngster can get into your computer accounts but simply how long it would take them. And some of their proposals need some thought. What would it be like if, as they suggest, all bank transactions, yours included, are public? All tax payments? With lightening speed this kind of information perfectly feasible to provide. With a jolt many realized that all of us need to get used to quite different notions of privacy in the Internet age.
If there's one place where you'd expect religious actors engaged in force, surely it's at a global event about integrity. Surprisingly that was not the case. A leading force in the global anti-corruption movement is Transparency International (TI), the Berlin-based worldwide network that is one of the most exciting and successful civil society movements of our time. From the start TI has been shy about moralizing. Its ethos is practical, centered on tools and on evidence. But there is plenty of anger and indignation about what corruption does to hurt the poor. And that anger is matched by passionate sermons and mobilizations involving a host of religious traditions about the evils of corrupt governments. Surprising as it may see, there are surprisingly few linkages and alliances among the civil society integrity networks and their religious counterparts.
Some answers as to why are fairly obvious answers. TI is part of a civil society movement that is brushed with a rather European secular language and culture. What they see as the absolutism of religious language puts them off. They are uneasy when integrity is taken to mean sexual morality as much as financial probity. And religious communities have not always welcomed enthusiastically the very idea of full transparency of information: surely not us, they might argue. In some places religious institutions are symbiotically linked to the governments whose practices are in question. Some religious communities share a not uncommon frustration that the hue and cry about corruption seems to be shining the light most on corrupt poor country officials, downplaying the responsibility of the bribe paying companies, much less what they see as wider injustices like war and slick business practices. But all over the world religious voices are constantly raised against the evils of corrupt practices, above all when they undermine faith in the common good and in the welfare of poor people and communities.
So it's time to knock down the barriers and build stronger alliances. Religious communities also are being transformed by the information revolutions and transparency and sunlight are shining in, willy nilly, on religious communities everywhere. Among its other powers the technology revolution makes it possible to connect unlikely or unfamiliar allies, young and old, secular and religious, national and international. So it's time to use the energy of information to let the light shine in, and to use its power and potential to make a common cause in fighting evils in the world, corruption, poverty and unequal opportunities among them.
More than ever before, strong and creative advocates and allies need to translate the power of information into a greater power for good. Miracles can come from the information revolution and its capacity to bring sunlight to topics that were long obscure. We should, soon, have the power to know where violence is taking place in the world, instantly, how many women are at risk of dying tomorrow in childbirth, how many young girls are about to be married before they are mature, which teachers did not show up today for class, who is trafficked and to where. With that information can come huge power and new tools to do something about the ills, locally most of all but also from distant places. That's why we can't afford to let the barriers to creative alliances for good stand in the way. Let the sun shine in.