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Faces of Open Government – Catalina Uribe Burcher

Catalina Uribe Burcher|

Tell us a little bit about IDEA. What work is IDEA doing, and how is it supporting democratic change around the world?

International IDEA is the only intergovernmental organization whose sole mandate is to support democracy worldwide. As such, we strive to create a world in which democratic processes, actors and institutions are inclusive and accountable, and deliver sustainable development to all. We do this by supporting the building, strengthening and safeguarding of democratic political institutions and processes at all levels. More concretely, and as detailed in our 2018–22 Strategy, the Institute focuses on supporting and strengthening electoral processes; constitution-building processes; and political participation and representation more broadly.

Regarding electoral processes, we particularly look at the quality of the legal and institutional framework for elections; the capacity of electoral authorities to implement their mandate; and inclusive participation in electoral processes. Regarding constitution-building processes, on the other hand, we are most interested in the processes as such, its quality and inclusiveness; constitutional design; and contributing to constitutional awareness. Lastly, regarding political participation and representation, we pay special attention to the integrity of political parties and legislatures, and how these may become more inclusive, responsive and accountable; new forms of citizen engagement in public decision-making; and the influence of money in politics.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a number of populist governments elected around the world – governments that are cracking down on media and civil society. How can we counter this movement? What is IDEA doing to meet this challenge?

Populism may vary across time and place; depending on whether democracies are old or young, consolidated or not, and on whether economies are affluent or developing. International IDEA looks at populism from a global perspective. In June this year, we are organizing a global conference on “Representation in the Age of Populism” together with five partner organizations. It will bring together leaders from politics, civil society, academia, democracy assistance and media from across the world to shape a Global Agenda for the Renewal of Representation. We want to inspire new thinking to embrace the opportunities created by populism and confront its challenges.

Populism also shows that citizens are demanding a more influential voice in the decision-making of authorities, especially at the local and urban level. International IDEA helps political parties and parliaments to innovate and adapt to changing realities and to find new ways to reconnect with larger groups of citizens. Many political parties, for example, struggle with using new technologies in their work, whether it is online fundraising or mastering innovative outreach and communication channels. Through online tools like International IDEA’s Digital Parties Portal, parties can more easily find the right tools to support different party functions. Our film Power in our Pockets: Social Media, Money and Politics in the Digital Age also shows the important role that digital technology and social media can play in enhancing the accountability and transparency of political processes.

How is IDEA working to empower marginalized communities (indigenous peoples, LGBTQI+, the impoverished, women) through democratic processes?

International IDEA’s very notion of democracy is anchored under the principle of inclusive political participation, paying special attention to the participation and inclusion of women, minority groups, socially, economically and culturally disadvantaged groups, and other marginalized groups. As such, all of our democracy support work (be it through strengthening electoral processes, constitution-building processes, or political participation and representation) incorporates and mainstreams this basic principle.

In relation to gender equality, we have a deep commitment to ensure that this notion is integrated in democracy-building and, therefore, are working hard to support Sustainable Development Goal 5 (achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls). In the past, we have focused on this through the production and promotion of knowledge resources that advance gender equality. Good examples include our new report on “Gender-Targeted Public Funding for Political Parties”, as well as the 2016 “Framework for Developing Internal Gender Policies for Electoral Management Bodies” and “A Framework for Developing Gender Policies for Political Parties”. That year we also developed a workbook to analyze a constitution or draft constitution from the perspective of the substantive equality of women.

However, we are probably best known for our Gender Quotas Database and our contribution to the platform iKnow Politics. Also notable is our documentary film “LGBTI Political Inclusion Journeys”, which showcases strategies for political inclusion of LGBTI people as a principle of democratic participation in public life. We must say, however, that our work goes beyond knowledge products and seeks to support in-country democratic processes from a gender and inclusion perspective. In Tunisia, for example, we facilitated a “training of trainers” programme for women in parliament. Similarly, we have worked on the development of a democracy curriculum for young people, piloted in 2017, and which has now evolved into the Youth Democracy Academy. International IDEA has also worked in Peru with members of parliament and the Ministry of Culture to strengthen the capacity of indigenous communities to participate in consultations on issues affecting their rights and interests. More details about these and other initiatives can be found here.

How do you think IDEA and OGP can work together to empower citizens and strengthen democratic institutions?

The spirit of the Open Government Partnership – to promote transparency, empower citizens and fight corruption – is an excellent match to International IDEA’s push to support accountable, transparent, and responsive political institutions. We see a number of opportunities for International IDEA and OGP to collaborate, learn from each other and support each other’ strengths and expertise. In the area of transparency and new technologies, for example, we are supporting the adoption of digital tools for reporting and disclosure of political finance. Spearheaded by our recent guide on the matter, collaborating with OGP would allow both institutions to put the topic on the “open government” agenda and offer concrete avenues to prevent and mitigate some of the most pervasive threats posed by money in politics. And at the regional and country level, sharing our expertise and networks on critical issues, like political finance, using resources like our political finance database and handbook, are achievable goals that could yield quick and notable results.  

From an electoral processes perspective, we are also very interested in open data and have a related publication on “Open Data in Electoral Administration.” In IDEA’s work with Election Management Bodies on ICTs, we frequently highlight open data as an important transparency measure that deserves more attention and more widespread application. This seems a good match with OGP’s open data theme and may be another area for OGP-IDEA cooperation.

What should democracy-watchers look out for over the coming year? What should the world pay attention to?

There are a number of threats and opportunities arising in the democracy field that all actors working in this area should pay attention to. We have been documenting some of them in our recent report on the Global State of Democracy, which is based on a set of democracy indices by the same name. For example, we observe transnational phenomena, like climate change, as potential catalysts of increased conflict dynamics around the world. Other acute challenges also rise from the increased levels of inequality and exclusion, coupled with the negative role of “big” money in politics and its ability to capture state institutions and facilitate corruption; for democracy, the threat centers on how this hollows out political representation and voice.

We also see, with great concern, how democracy is increasingly challenged “from within,” by political (often populist) leaders who—among other things—manipulate electoral results, constitutional term-limits, or libel regulations in order to accumulate power and get rid of the checks and balances that keep them at bay. And all of these threats ultimately concentrate to increase the levels of public distrust and voter apathy in relation to traditional political institutions, like parties.

These are just some of the most pressing issues that democracy-watchers need to keep on their radar this year. But having said this, we must not forget that democracy-supporters are pushing back against these threats. Indeed, it’s important to keep in mind that, over the past 40 years, at a global level democracy has significantly grown and expanded around the world, and this is likely to continue happening in the coming years, if perhaps at a slower pace. As such, democracy supporters should pay special attention to how we can continue channeling the usage of new information and communications technologies to spread information (and avoid misinformation). We should also continue leveraging on the multitude of democracy innovations happening around us, not least at the local level.

Open Government Partnership