Close to a thousand delegates from the African continent and beyond are descending on Cape Town for the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) Africa Regional Summit from 4 - 6 May 2016. At this grand market of ideas, African countries will take stock of how they have fared in promoting transparency and accountability in the conduct of public affairs and management of scarce public resources. Delegates will consider such tools as open budgeting, open contracting, open data and access to information, and the common theme throughout will be how these tools of accountability are used to ensure inclusive and sustainable development.
But at a more fundamental level, the principle underlying the OGP is a partnership between governments and civil society, so basic questions will have to be asked regarding how such a partnership is possible in the context of ever decreasing civic space for engagement.
According to Civicus, the global civil society coalition, significant violations of civic space were recorded in over 100 countries in 2015. Civicus Secretary-General, Dr. Danny Sriskandarajah, noted recently at International Civil Society Week conference, that the demonization of civil society does not only emanate from “corrupt politicians and officials, unaccountable security forces, unscrupulous businesses and religious fundamentalists” but has also become normalized in in mainstream political discourse. Sriskandarajah points out that the crackdown on civil society is not only coming from authoritarian governments but also democratically elected ones. This is true even for OGP governments.
OGP is currently reviewing the conduct of two of its member states that have introduced policy and legislative measures that have an effect of limiting the operations of civil society organisations.
And the global trend of shrinking civil space is not one to which Africa has been immune. Governments across the continent are openly suspicious of civil society organisations working in the human rights and governance sectors. These organisations are often regarded as “agents of regime change” or illegitimate because they receive funding from western governments - the very same governments that have been supporting, and continue to support African countries, through foreign aid. This is untenable discourse.
True partnerships between governments and civil society formations in OGP countries need to be established, as this is the basic tenet of the initiative. It cannot be that they remain part of OGP while continuing business as usual by clamping down on public dissent and civic space. Joining OGP should mean a change of step, a new recognition that civil society organisations are partners in this effort. Civil society organisations should not been seen or see themselves as invited guests at the OGP table.
As open government champions from all over the continent converge in Cape Town to craft ideas and plans for how to make their governments more transparent, accountable and responsive, therefore, the very real question of increasingly strained government/civil society engagement on these very matters will no doubt remain a major focus – and rightly so.