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Citizens’ Call to Action: Opening Plenary Remarks at OGP Asia-Pacific Meeting

Sanjay Pradhan|

Remarks by Sanjay Pradhan at the OGP Asia-Pacific Regional Conference 2018

Warm greetings to all!  Our huge gratitude to the Government and Civil Society of South Korea for hosting us.

So we are gathered here from near and far, from Afghanistan to Yerevan, from developing to developed countries. We are, in many ways, diverse.  But as the OGP community, we are also bound by a common cause – by one transcendent idea that underlies OGP that brings us together.  And that is the shared aspiration –  and call – of all citizens that government serve them not itself. This was also the original goal of OGP, as articulated by one its founders, US President Obama.  And so we are joined together to advance this goal, answering this call of citizens through OGP’s unique combination of engaged citizenry and committed reformers, working together to make government more transparent, participatory and responsive to citizens.

Across Asia, this citizens’ call for action has become all the more pressing.  Even though the region has enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity, progress has been uneven. Those left behind want inequities in education, healthcare and employment addressed. And those who have prospered now demand more voice and responsiveness from government because economic growth increases citizens’ demand for better governance.

Across Armenia, Pakistan and South Korea, citizen movements have brought down corrupt governments.  Just blocks from here, in Gwanghwamun Square, millions of citizens protested in a candlelight revolution to bring down a government that was failing them and instead serving its cronies.  Importantly, upon coming to power, the new Moon government immediately partnered with citizens, inviting citizens back into Gwanghwamun Square to shape policies that addressed their needs.

This spirit behind that revolution is also the spirit of our Partnership. It is the spirit, at once simple and spectacular, that citizens should have a say in decisions that affect them. And that this exercise in democracy must not be limited to the ballot box, but rather, practiced every day by citizens shaping and overseeing policies and services that impact their lives. Because this work is too important to be limited to a few people, or to only one day when we vote.

Just this morning, the Afghanistan Minister Yama Yari shared with me a very touching story – a polling station in Afghanistan was bombed but then citizens, including the disabled, returned to the station to vote.  But then how do we meet such deep expectations of citizens beyond elections.  We vote but then are disappointed when elected leaders fail to deliver.  How do we sustain and channel civic engagement beyond elections, so it delivers results for citizens?

This is where OGP comes in.  So let me share with you three frontiers across OGP through which citizens are being empowered to shape and oversee government – between and beyond elections.  Three ways in which citizen voice is amplifying and enhancing the traditional role of bureaucracy, legislature and oversight institutions.

First frontier: citizens shaping policies and services. Gwanghwamun enabled citizens to shape policies to respond to their needs.  In Mongolia citizens are providing feedback on public services, serving as eyes and ears of government. Government then responds to citizen feedback, improving, for instance, access to water and sanitation and citizen satisfaction by 28% in just three months. In this spirit, I am heartened by plans in Australia to involve citizens in a review of its public service, in South Cotabato to broaden citizen participation in local legislative processes.

Second frontier: opening government to all, including the historically excluded.  I applaud Afghanistan for committing to develop protection policy for women in conflict and emergency situations, and Seoul for improving the accessibility of its subway system for persons with disabilities.  Elsewhere in OGP, reformers and citizen groups have empowered indigenous communities in Costa Rica, women in Buenos Aires, youth voices in Tunisia.

Third frontier: citizens monitoring corruption.

  • In Ukraine, open contracting enabled citizens to search procurement contracts and report violations, saving the government US$1 billion in two years, with 82 percent of private sector report reduced corruption and a 50 percent increase in new private companies bidding for contracts.  46 OGP countries, including Indonesia and Mongolia, have committed to open contracts.
  • Armenia, Indonesia and Mongolia are joining OGP peers like the UK in creating public registries of who owns companies to track illicit funds.

These are inspirational reforms but they are also too few.  We need to scale these up across the region and beyond.  For this we also need to protect citizens’ ability to freely speak, associate and assemble – which unfortunately is itself under assault in 100 countries, including majority of countries in this region. Yet, in Asia only 16 out of 525 commitments address civil space.  We need more countries in the region to make commitments to protect and enhance civic space as Canada, El Salvador, and Latvia are doing.

And even as we scale up ambitious commitments, we need to credibly implement them.  Right now, only 34% of commitments are fully implemented in our region – below the global average. And only 5 percent of transformative commitments are completed.  We must make good on our word, so we deliver to citizens.  We must tackle underlying obstacles – deficits in capacity and collective ownership.

To tackle these we need to expand our coalitions across government and civil society.  In governments, ownership of OGP is often siloed in the lead ministry or point of contact.  We need to broaden ownership in cabinets, so ministers see open government as integral to achieving their sectoral goals.  And we need parliaments to play their vital roles as enablers and partners.

We also need to join forces across countries to collectively push back against the most significant rise in authoritarian leaders in half-a-century. We need to challenge head-on claims of these strongmen, in Asia and beyond, that democracy is an impediment and dictatorship expedient to delivering results to citizens.  Let us join forces to forge a countervailing force to reinvigorate democracy – between and beyond elections. Let our Partnership be a bulwark, beacon and bastion for all those who are fighting to ensure that government is worthy of public trust.

In facing these daunting challenges, let us remember we are not alone.  Just look around this room. Our community is full of courageous civil society leaders, government reformers and, yes, rebels – all working tirelessly on the frontlines. Now, if we join forces, we will multiply our collective strength against formidable obstacles and deliver on ideals of our partnership, of that candlelight revolution.  We can answer the call of citizens that government serves them rather than itself.  Together, we can deliver on that precious, precious promise of democracy – “a government for the people, of the people, by the people”.

Thank you.

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