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In the Spotlight: Director Passionate About Information

Over a decade ago, Laura Neuman attended a gathering in one of India's poorest states to watch colleagues read public documents aloud to villagers.

One of the documents said that the government had given the local health clinic 16 beds.

"People stood up and said, 'Well, we don't have any beds. We have been to the clinic, and there are no beds,'" said Neuman, who directs the Carter Center's Global Access to Information Program. Actually, the beds had been stolen by the staff, and now the truth was out. "Later, behind the gathering, you could see nurses, people who worked at the hospital, bringing back the beds. You saw a parade of beds."

That, she said, is the power of information.

Neuman spent the early part of her career practicing law with Legal Action of Wisconsin, working with poor clients. Then a one-year sabbatical in the Dominican Republic indirectly led her to The Carter Center. Soon after she arrived in 1999, she gravitated toward a new effort to push for access to information as a way of exposing and curbing corruption.

"When I practiced law, we used the Freedom of Information Act and state records law all the time to understand government policy and why some clients were getting benefits and not others, or how decisions were being made around extension of benefits, or how schools were being run," she said. "I saw how we were able to use these kinds of laws to get clients help."

One of her early assignments at the Center was helping the Jamaican government craft anticorruption and freedom of information laws. Later, she began working with governments across the globe, including in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mali, and China. The program has been particularly active in Liberia, where Center staff supported the passage and implementation of a freedom of information law and continue to advance its use.

The Ebola outbreak there has put the program's scheduled work on hold. But the Ministry of Information has asked Neuman's team to help it more effectively gather and disseminate accurate, timely information about Ebola-related government spending, quarantines, distribution of food, and the like.

Neuman addresses an audience in Liberia in celebration of International Right to Know Day. She heads the Carter Center's efforts to strengthen laws around the world granting citizens access to government information. (Photo: The Carter Center/ M. Darrough)

In addition to assisting in Liberia, Neuman and her staff are focused on two ongoing projects.

The first is the Center's Access to Information Implementation Assessment Tool. The tool helps countries examine what Neuman calls the "plumbing" behind their information laws. It measures how well an agency is doing on items such as structures, rules, and training using a stoplight model: green (good), yellow (so-so), and red (bad). The goal is to help public agencies identify concrete, fixable problems.

The tool has been piloted in 11 countries and is now being applied in additional locations. The program's other major priority involves women and their right of access to information. The team recently conducted studies in Liberia and Guatemala that confirmed their suspicions that women don't have the same access as men.

"We witnessed women being ignored or derided, men being attended to before women," Neuman said. "And government employees themselves questioned why women would need information and whether they were coming just to flirt or find a husband."

Neuman is working with local partners to conduct a similar study in Bangladesh. Upon completion of the studies, Neuman will work with government and citizens to find creative solutions to assure that women can equally enjoy the benefits and power that information provides.

Women make up 70 percent of the world's poor and about 67 percent of its illiterate, so they especially need information that can empower them.

Neuman is looking forward to helping them get it. For her, the mission is somewhat personal.

"I have a 10-year-old daughter," she said. "I want her, when she grows up, to not just believe she is equal to men but to actually be equal."

Published May 12, 2015.

Carter Center Roadmap Drives Better Access to Information

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