A Brief History of The Access Initiative

By Jonathan Talbot (Posted: June 1, 2008) 

In early 2000, bad decisions around the world were hurting the ability of the natural environment to support human communities, and also harming people’s health. A team at the World Resources Institute tried to determine what single change would most improve the quality of decision-making around the world. The answer: public participation.

The team decided that a person’s ability to know about the quality of their environment or trends in environmental degradation should not depend on what country you live in. People should be able to participate in decision making that affects their environment or the quality or availability of natural resources and people should be able to have access to justice, either through an administrative or a judicial proceeding to appeal decisions a government has apparently made incorrectly, either on a procedural or substantive basis in managing the environment.

The idea emerged to develop a set of indicators to assess government performance in both law and actual practice to make sure that access to information, participation and justice – “access rights” – were implemented effectively and consistently everywhere in the world. This idea eventually became The Access Initiative.

In February 2001, WRI developed the first version of a research tool that would determine what specific actions a country needed to take to improve the ability of the public to participate in environmental decisions. The tool included both specific questions about law on the books, such as whether a country had a freedom of information law. The tool also had instructions for performing case studies of actual decisions, such as how the government worked to protect public health after a toxic spill. The tool examined both law and practice.

WRI then recruited partner organizations from the United States, Mexico, Chile, Hungary, Uganda, South Africa, India, Thailand and Indonesia. In each of those countries, a coalition of civil society groups was assembled that applied these indicators to both the quality of law and the quality of practice.

The results showed some pretty clear patterns. Governments almost everywhere had put into place environmental regulations after the Rio Earth Summit that required public consultation during environmental impact assessments or disclosure of certain kinds of environmental information. Yet there was a huge gap between what the law said on paper and what actually happened in the case studies.

There were also patterns in the quality of implementation. For example, in most countries, the development of access to information about the environment was much better developed than access to justice in environmental decision making. Access to public participation in decision making was somewhere in between. Access to information about private sector activities, for example reports of emissions from individual manufacturing installations, was hard to come by almost everywhere. The tool picked up consistent patterns across countries in existence and quality of law, and the degree to which the practice of implementation followed the law.

Building on lessons learned from the pilot studies, the international team revised the tool, and began recruiting partners in new countries.