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Empowering the People – Our Antidote to Authoritarianism

Sanjay Pradhan|

Opening Plenary, OGP Global Summit, Georgia

This blog is adapted from remarks made by Open Government Partnership CEO Sanjay Pradhan at the Opening Plenary of the 2018 Global Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 18, 2018.

Since our 2016 Global Summit in Paris, our world has gotten even tougher, and our imperative to step up more pressing.

Democracy, human rights, and civic space are under attack as never before, as documented by Freedom House and Civicus. Trust in government is at an all-time low, measured by the Edelman Barometer. A toxic wave of xenophobia, nationalist populism, and authoritarianism is sweeping the world.

We face similar challenges in OGP, even after Hungary, Tanzania and Turkey have exited and Azerbaijan has been suspended.

Despite these challenges, OGP represents a hopeful path forward because across several OGP countries, committed reformers are opening government to citizens in areas where they are closing elsewhere. In Armenia and South Korea, citizen movements have removed leaders mired in corruption. We have courageous reformers risking their safety to push for openness, such as Hungary’s Sandor Lederer and the imprisoned Ali Idrissa in Niger. Others have skillfully navigated reforms through political transitions, as in Liberia and the Philippines.

At this Summit, when our partnership nears one hundred national and local governments and thousands of civil society organizations, we have the opportunity and imperative to show an alternative – a brighter, more hopeful path for the world. A path that puts citizens first – at the heart of government, that empowers citizens to shape policies that impact their lives.

So what should we do differently to achieve this vision?

To begin with, at a time when one hundred countries are closing civic space, let our partnership of one hundred instead enhance civic space. For this, let us inspire each other by sharing evidence on how people’s ability to freely speak, associate and assemble enables them to shape better policies, generating dividends for governments and citizens alike. For instance, village audits in Mongolia saved ten percent of the budget; participatory budgeting in Brazil improved health outcomes. To achieve such results, let us make OGP commitments that enhance and expand civic freedoms as Canada and Serbia are doing; let us tackle new weapons in the authoritarian playbook by regulating online political ads to curb misinformation, by protecting journalists and human rights defenders, by expanding media freedoms and digital rights as in Mongolia.

With this enabling environment, our central focus must be on empowering people to shape policies and services that impact their lives.

For this, we need to make three key shifts in OGP to rebalance our dominant focus on government transparency: first, let us make a big push on improving services like health, education, and water that touch people’s lives, including at the local level; second, let us systematically mobilize direct citizen participation and feedback, smartly leveraging technology; and third, let us ensure government response to close the feedback loop and win trust back.

  • In Kaduna, Nigeria, when an audit unmasked ghost hospitals, government partnered with citizens to become its “eyes and ears.” Using a mobile app, citizens are uploading photos and feedback directly to the Governor’s office and the State Legislature, catalyzing record completion of five hundred schools and two hundred hospitals, improving maternal health and safety.

  • In Madrid and Paris, governments have set aside one hundred million euros for citizens to fund projects that respond to their needs. Madrid’s citizen engagement platform is being emulated in more than ninety governments.

By empowering all through mechanisms like these, we can show an inclusive alternative to populism that empowers not only the aggrieved majorities, but also the excluded minorities. Let us scale up inspirational OGP examples like empowering indigenous communities in Costa Rica, migrants in Germany, and the homeless in the city of Austin in the United States. With our next OGP Co-Chairs, the government of Canada and Nathaniel Heller, let us scale up OGP commitments that empower women, such as those combating gender-based violence in Sierra Leona and Colombia.

Empowering citizens must also enable them to monitor and curb corruption to ensure government is serving them rather than itself. We have a transformational opportunity to shape new global norms. Forty-seven OGP governments have committed to disclose contracts to citizens. These need to be credibly implemented. Ukraine’s DoZorro is noteworthy for empowering citizens to report violations in contract implementation – in two years, the system has recorded 14,000 reported violations, with half resolved, savings of one billion dollars, and 82 percent of entrepreneurs reporting reduced corruption. Another sixteen countries are disclosing company ownership, so that citizens can follow the money. At the same time, only Chile and Ireland are empowering citizens to monitor lobbyists to curb influence peddling.

Advancing such norms will encounter stiff political resistance. We need to strengthen our coalitions to push forward.

At the global level, we are fortunate to have new world leaders taking the baton of open government forward — in OGP’s Steering Committee new government leaders are stepping up from Canada, Argentina, South Korea, and Nigeria, and there is new civil society leadership from Civicus’ Danny Sriskandarajah and Transparency International’s Delia Rubio.

But given the growing momentum of authoritarian leaders, we need OGP leaders to forge stronger, more cohesive coalitions to push back. At a time when leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban proudly proclaim the end of liberal democracy, we need more OGP heads of state, ministers, and mayors to speak out in democracy’s defense, prevent backsliding in peer countries, and challenge head-on claims from strongmen that unravelling democracy is the only way to deliver results.

We similarly need stronger coalitions at the country level. 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. We also need to make our civil society community more inclusive to those advocating for services like health and education. And we need to mobilize citizens and citizen movements, because whatever their goals – gender equality, health, or otherwise – empowering citizens with voice and information will be vital to achieving them.

Given attacks on check and balance institutions, we also need to forge stronger coalitions with the media, parliamentarians, judiciaries, and the private sector.

All these stakeholders are represented here in Tbilisi. But we must candidly ask: are we simply two thousand disconnected lonely warriors fighting individual battles? How can we become a joined-up force, multiplying our collective strength, supporting each other against formidable headwinds?

So let us forge a powerful, collective force that reinvigorates democracy and pushes back against closing governments, that empowers people to shape and oversee government, to deliver on the precious promise – “a government for the people, of the people, by the people.”

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