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$314 per dead child.  Just $16,374, or $314 for each of the 48 children killed in last month’s collision between a school bus and a train in Assiut, Egypt, would have paid for safety upgrades to the deadly railway crossing.  The 5.5 million Egyptian pounds that was earmarked by the Egyptian government in 2012 to improve railway crossings should have helped prevent this tragedy.  However, the independent media  in Egypt reports  that it has been unable to locate where this money has been spent or find any evidence of any improvement or renovation projects to railways. 

Immediately following the train accident, the Transportation Minister resigned and President Mohamed Morsi initiated an investigation to find the responsible culprit. On the surface, these actions may appear to be sincere steps towards accountability.  However, without further systemic reform that unlocks the doors of secrecy on government spending and administration, these resignations are merely empty symbolic gestures.  To find all those that are responsible for Assiut’s accident and to prevent future loss of life, it is imperative that Egypt adopt freedom of information laws that call for widespread transparency of government spending and transportation safety data and publish such information in a format that is accessible to the Egyptian people. 

Freedom of Information laws (FOIL), also known as access to information or right to information laws, give citizens the right to access all information in the government’s possession, unless there is a compelling reason to prevent disclosure.   FOIL is founded on the democratic presumption that information about the country belongs to the people and that the people should use this information to monitor their elected representatives.   To date, over 90 countries have adopted such laws. 

FOIL has already been successful in informing citizens of unsafe railway conditions and in preventing corrupt and/or improper use of government funds. For example, in India, citizens use the country’s Right to Information Act to identify railway crossings with frequent accidents. The citizens publish this information to inform Indians of high danger crossings and to pressure the government to address unsafe conditions.  In the United States, the federal government automatically publishes investigation reports of major train accidents online that can be accessed by anyone.  Again, this informs the public of the details surrounding train accidents, and allows them to lobby their governments for change if deemed necessary.

FOIL laws have also been used in other government sectors to stop the misuse of government funds.  A recent report by the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, “Freedom of Information: A Cornerstone of Egypt’s Democratic Transition”, outlines how transparency in government spending in Uganda detected and put an end to major corruption in the education sector.  The Ugandan government suspected that local officials were stealing money earmarked for public education.  In response, the government decided to publish the amount of money it gave to schools and required that the schools publish their receipts.  It was then revealed that 80% of the money earmarked for schools never reached the intended recipients.  This prompted school principals and parents of school children to inquire where the money was going.  As a result of these inquiries, less money was stolen and within a few years such corruption was turned on its head; 80% of the funds found its way to the schools.

Currently, Egypt has no freedom of information law.  Shockingly, it actually has several laws preventing the disclosure of information related to government spending.  Moreover, there is no law that ensures that Egyptians will have access to the results of government “investigations” into transportation disasters. 

The good news is that Egypt’s new Constitution does recognize a fundamental right of citizens to access information in the government’s possession.  To give life to this right, Egypt’s next parliament should adopt a robust freedom of information law that guarantees citizen access to spending and safety data.  With more than 5,500 train accidents reported in Egypt between 2007 and 2011, access and monitoring of this information could literally be a matter of life or death.

Kristin Debs is an Egyptian-Canadian lawyer providing consulting and program evaluation services to the non-profit sector and government. Ms. Debs is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association (EARLA).