How to Start Development’s Gutenberg Revolution

by | May 16, 2013


As a schoolboy I was troubled to learn about medieval Europe where a narrow elite maintained unaccountable power by controlling access to information; and I delighted in the heroic story of how Johanes Gutenberg’s humble printing press began a revolution that brought an end to the unchecked control of knowledge and power by a few. I loved stories of the fearless folk who refused to accept, even under torture, that information was best kept hidden, and cheered the fall of the men who thought that ordinary people were best left ignorant.

Then I ended up as a development worker, asking governments how much they were spending on health, education and hunger. And alongside the late, incomplete, and plain wrong answers that followed, I felt I could hear faintly the all-powerful medieval cardinals of my school history classes laughing at me.

We sometimes talk of how people in power “fail” to put out timely and accurate information. But just as failed states are often terribly lucrative for those in charge of the failing, so too a cynic might ask what incentives there are for elites to fix “information failures” which prevent citizens from seeing what they’re doing.

We need another Gutenberg Revolution – not just the technology of online whizzes (Printers 2.0) but the kind of free-thinking insubordination that made the renaissance and reformation possible. To exhalt the humble, we’re going to have to humble the exhalted.

That’s why charities are so focused on getting the G8 to deliver on transparency in land investments and in taxation – because knowledge is power, because stealing is harder in broad daylight. The G8 would, no doubt, prefer if we only asked them to beneficent. But we’re insisting, most of all, that they are transparent, and end their role in providing shadowy corners for shady characters to hide their dodgy deals.

For development to succeed in ending extreme poverty and extreme inequality, transparency will be needed not only from the governments of rich countries but from the governments of developing countries too. That’s why it’s such important news to see the launch today of Government Spending Watch which monitors spending in 52 low income countries, an NGO initiative that provides the most up-to-date and comprehensive data we’ve ever had. It reveals, for example, that fewer than a quarter of countries are spending what is needed to deliver education for all or to meet targets on water and sanitation; that declining aid is leading to rising borrowing and increasing debt burdens; and that the global rhetoric on investing in social protection and gender equality is backed by very little actual money. But most importantly, it helps puts power in the hands of citizens to know what their governments are spending, and to hold them to account. There’s a lot of money in keeping people ignorant. Which is why we need to know.



  • Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of ActionAid. Previously, he worked for Oxfam in the UK. He has lived and worked in four continents and 10 cities including New Delhi and Washington DC, as well as with children in poverty in East London. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid.

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