Faces of Open Government – Danny Sriskandarajah
You’re the Secretary General of CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations. What drew you to this work, and how did you get where you are today?
I have been involved in civil society since a young age – from organising community fundraisers to working for NGOs. What interested me about CIVICUS in particular was its global reach. We are a member-based alliance with members, big and small, in 180 countries. One of the most fulfilling things we do is to support and connect activists and organisations around the world that promote a more just, inclusive and sustainable world. And, in the face of massive global challenges, democratic decline and the rise of populism, it seems we need a strong and independent civil society more than ever.
You contributed to OGP’s new publication, “Trust: The Fight to Win It Back.” What made you decide to contribute? Why do you think trust in government is an important issue?
Falling levels of trust in institutions can be a double-edged sword. In some cases, frustration with the status quo can lead to innovation and the creation of more decentralized and direct solutions. The internet is constantly driving new forms of disintermediation. Unfortunately, when it comes to falling levels of trust in government we have seen populist and reactionary forces that question the legitimacy of public institutions but very few examples of creating new institutions or new mechanisms for channeling citizen voice. I saw this publication as a chance to think about constructive ways of rebuilding trust, as opposed to the often destructive trends we have seen recently.
The CIVICUS State of Civil Society report has shown worrying trends in authoritarianism and closing civic space. What concerns you the most about these trends? How is CIVICUS working to fight these issues?
We think there is a global emergency on civic space. Fundamental freedoms are being threatened in far too many countries around the world, and there is widespread demonization of independent civil society. This year we focused our State of Civil Society report on the relationship between business and civil society. We’re undoubtedly seeing the rising influence of business. According to advocacy organisation Global Justice Now, 69 of the world’s top 100 economic entities by revenue are now corporations not governments. It’s certainly concerning to see that businesses are too often discarding the human rights of activists, including indigenous environment defenders. Our report called on companies to work with civil society to uphold the rule of law, human rights and people’s rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
If you asked most people to define civil society, they’d have trouble doing so. What is civil society, and why is it important to empower individuals and groups within it?
Our usual definition at CIVICUS defines civil society as the arena, outside of the family, the state, and the market, which is created by individual and collective actions, organisations and institutions to advance shared interests. We really see civil society as encompassing, but also going beyond, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), so that also means activists, whether they are acting as individuals, loosely affiliated movements, or through formal, registered organisations.
In “The Participation Revolution,” you argued that only three percent of the world lives in a place where civic freedoms are truly respected. What can the ninety-seven percent do to make the world look like that three percent?
It can be hard to be optimistic in 2017. Democratic principles are being eviscerated across the board, even in democracies we would have once regarded as established. In my essay I mentioned some notable positive exceptions, including El Salvador and Estonia. But in the last few weeks alone we’ve seen new attacks on civic freedoms, including the shutting down of the Catalonian independence referendum in Spain and Iraq’s decision to block the Kurdish independence vote. In both cases, there were underlying economic anxieties so one way to begin, as Oxfam have continued to highlight, is by addressing growing economic inequality. We’re also seeing new technological challenges to democracy present themselves, including recent allegations of hacking in the Kenyan elections. Fortunately the Kenyan Supreme Court has stepped in, again reinforcing the importance of trust in our institutions.
OGP is a partnership of 75 national governments and thousands of civil society organizations. As a convening power for global civil society, are there any lessons you’ve learned from looking at and learning from the OGP process around the world?
We have valued our partnership with the OGP movement for at least two important reasons: it is heartening to see the role of civil society recognized as a central pillar of the commitment to openness, and even better to see civil society so integrally involved in the leadership of the OGP. We hope that other multi-stakeholder initiatives learn from this example. One frustration though is that relatively few civil society actors know about, let alone engage with, the OGP. If want OGP to thrive we need a more diverse and more local actors to see its value, as a space for dialogue and as a set of principles to hold governments to account on.
In your essay, you write that organizations like OGP and CIVICUS have been at the forefront of the “openness revolution.” Who needs to join this revolution to make it truly transformational?
Everyone! In recent months there’s been increased focus on the role that tech giants like Google and Facebook are playing in our democracies. The reality is, that the relationship between people and their governments are changing, and often this is not for the better. We need the new powerful players in the corporate world, to also show a commitment to openness. Also, of course the openness revolution would not be possible without the media. We all need to think about how we can safeguard the media’s independence and diversity, so that it can continue to play its vital watchdog role. Finally, it’s important for the “openness revolution” to involve all of civil society, and that means looking beyond the usual well-resourced international NGOs in the Global North.