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Faces of Open Government – Fredline M’Cormack-Hale

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale |

 

 

How did you get involved in working in the transparency and accountability field? Was there a driving force behind your interest?

 

 

I am originally from Sierra Leone, and as you know, this is a country that has been through a lot. In the wake of the civil war, I was interested in questions around how to (re)build the country, to create institutions for accountable governance, and provide platforms wherein citizens could constructively engage with the state. In the early days of post-conflict recovery, citizens were provided the tools to articulate their problems and issues, but there was little responsiveness, and the feedback loop was not being closed. I am interested in understanding how best to close this feedback loop and whether and how this builds trust in the state, a vital component in sustainable peace.

 

 

These questions have again emerged following the Ebola crisis of 2014-2015, and more recently following a mudslide in August 2017, in which at least 500 people died. At the root of all these issues, I find that the question of transparency and accountability continually re-surfaces.  How are citizens involved in agenda-setting for development? How can they make their complaints known about poor services? If they complain, what will be done about it? Sierra Leone is a beautiful, resource-rich country, but the majority of people are not benefitting from these resources. I am driven by a desire to understand how the poorest among us can access a better life and I believe greater transparency, accountability and honest, ethical governance are keys to this. I work on these issues through the courses that I teach at Seton Hall University, as well as at a practical level through my contributions to a local think tank working on governance issues in Sierra Leone. Projects have included the design and implementation of a service delivery index in Sierra Leone, as well as research around governance and accountability issues such as the incidence of police bribery for traffic offences.

 

 

 

You’re a member of the International Experts Panel (IEP), the advisory body of OGP’s independent monitoring mechanism. How would you explain your role to those who might not know what the IEP does?

 

 

 

I find that quite a number of people I interact with are not aware of the OGP, and the IRM, let alone the IEP. Once I explain these different organs, I tell them that the role of the IEP is to ensure that reports from IRM country researchers assessing governments’ progress on open government commitments are independent, credible, fair and of high quality. I tell them that we conduct rigorous peer review of researcher reports in a quality assurance capacity to ensure that they are as accurate as possible and truly reflect government and civil society efforts to open up government. Through our work, we strive to ensure that the OGP monitoring processes are independent and fair, and reflective of the context of each of the countries.

 

 

In your time on the IEP, what are some of the trends you’ve noticed in the reports you’ve reviewed – thematically, politically, and overall?

 

 

Many “young” democracies are showing diminishing or stagnant public arenas, with increasing controls of the media and reducing political and civil rights, while proclaiming internationally their commitment to openness.  New technologies are equally useful to link and organize civil society, but also to monitor, control and violate their rights.

 

 

Thematically, I have noticed that there appear to be a growing number of commitments, but that these commitments lack depth, with little substantive impact on accountability issues.  For example, starred commitments have gone down which seemingly indicates that countries are becoming less ambitious in open government goals.

 

 

What is it like to be a woman in the transparency and accountability field? Have you found it to be open and inclusive, or do you think there’s more work to be done?

 

 

This is a tough question. For me personally, I have found the field to be open and inclusive – I have been able to speak in meetings and not felt that my viewpoints and perspectives were marginalized because of my gender. Nevertheless, I still find in meetings, conferences and workshops, women are still less likely to speak up and contribute.

 

 

In the “field” so to speak, at the community level where questions of transparency and accountability come up, women still remain the least likely to speak up about difficulty accessing services, for example in health-care, education and justice. Spaces and opportunities for interaction remain limited, even for men; processes remain complicated, and women continue to lack opportunities to articulate their grievances in contexts where their time is constrained and review processes demand some level of literacy. Additionally, traditional leaders are predominantly men, and so it is difficult not just for women to get a hearing, but for them to get their issues on the table, and their concerns addressed.

 

 

Much of your research has focused on women’s political participation. How do you think women can become more involved in politics – and do you think institutionalized mechanisms for women’s participation can be successful?

 

 

A whole dissertation can be written on this! This is a multipart question, and given time constraints, I will have to treat it quite superficially. Women face many obstacles to their participation, both at the level of formal barriers to entry as well as personal barriers that they place on themselves or are placed on them. In many African countries, women who want to compete for politics face violence, including physical and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment; culturally rooted patriarchal attitudes that see politics as the domain of men and financial constraints, often with less access to sources of funding than men. Women are also overburdened as they often serve as primary caregivers in their communities. At the same time, there are many expectations placed on women; gendered beliefs about women, particularly as care-givers, mothers, etc. mean that people believe women will be more likely to be sympathetic and they are often asked to help pay for things like hospital fees, scholarships, and the like, all of which are well beyond their remit as parliamentarians.

 

 

I think having more protection for women in the political arena, including stiffer penalties for political violence, as well as tangible funding support in the form of lower or no nomination fees for running, and dedicated public funds for their campaigns will help, alongside traditional methods like leadership training and equitable access to education.

 

 

Also important is greater positive coverage of current women leaders to help counter the widespread perception that politics is a man’s world and to normalize the idea of women in politics. Institutionalized mechanisms for women’s participation can be successful if, and this is a big if, they are supported by legislation that institutes punitive measures for non-compliance. Constitutional guarantees for a minimum threshold for women, or party and legislative quotas are only as effective as the laws that ensure compliance. Without sanctions for parties that fail to meet these thresholds, it can be difficult to institutionalize change.

 

 

Thresholds are important, however, because research has shown that a critical mass of women is key to women becoming a force for change within politics. At the structural level, there needs to be a shift in cultural attitudes, perspectives and practices regarding the roles that women can and should play in society (by both women and men), which is not an overnight process. At the same time, it appears that attitudes are shifting and there is some openness to women in leadership. Earlier this year, citizens in conjunction with civil society organizations recently developed a Citizens Manifesto. Among the demands in this manifesto is for parties to commit to giving at least 40 percent of seats to women.

 

 

You’ve done a lot of work in Sierra Leone, one of several West African countries that participate in OGP. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for open government in both Sierra Leone and the region?

 

 

Sierra Leone submitted its letter of intent to join the OGP in 2013. Since that time much has been done, although challenges remain. Open government can address some of the key issues that the country faces, and are also relevant in the region. Although Sierra Leone is a resource-rich state, many people believe that these benefits do not accrue to the average person, and are instead managed in the interests of an elite few. Open government provides an excellent opportunity for citizens to take a more prominent role in the management of revenues and rents from the mining sector; to raise questions about mining deals, including tax exemptions and to contribute to the discussion on how such revenue should be spent.

 

 

Another area of concern has been around questions of transparency and accountability regarding donor funds. This issue came to the fore again during the Ebola outbreak. Transparency around donor funding, the ability of citizens to monitor and track both donations and expenditures provides an excellent opportunity for aid accountability at both national and international levels.

 

 

Access to justice, particularly for women, is another area of concern in Sierra Leone and surrounding countries, particularly as it concerns justice for sexual gender-based violence (SGBV). Open government in this sector could help decrease levels of violence against women and girls if properly implemented.

 

 

Many of these issues feature prominently in the Sierra Leone’s second National Action Plan, including a commitment on foreign aid transparency around Ebola funds (which is important not just for Sierra Leone but the sub-region as well), in light of the scale of the outbreak. Commitments around improved management of public resources, the provision of an enabling environment in which perpetrators of sexual violence are successfully prosecuted and victims receive justice, as well as aid transparency, are all avenues through which the feedback loop between citizens and the state can be closed. Civic participation, transparency and public accountability are key principles that can help mend the breach in citizen-state relations, foster accountability, and build trust in the State, and these areas provide excellent avenues in working toward these goals.

 

 

You’ve also done research on the role of international organizations in the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-15.  How do you think open government can make an impact in traditionally “closed” sectors like security, emergency response, and conflict management and resolution?

 

 

I think open government is absolutely fundamental in these sectors. Recently, the Red Cross apologized for losing $5 million of Ebola funds to fraud. Much has been made of the role of the Sierra Leone government in pilfering funds meant to address the Ebola outbreak; less however, has been done regarding the complicity or role of international organizations in the same. International and local organisations such as OxfamAmerica, One Campaign, and the Society for Democratic Initiatives (Sierra Leone), have had difficulties in tracking Ebola funding from pledges made at the UN to actual delivery of funds, while others have reported difficulty in tracking how received funds were actually used. Even when organisations comply with the mandate to release information on funding, this information is not necessarily disaggregated at the micro-level. For example, what percentage of money sent to fight Ebola was spent on salaries of international experts? How much was spent on procurement? What steps were put in place to make sure that overheads were appropriate? How much of monies promised was already committed and simply re-purposed to fight Ebola?

 

 

Too often in emergency response, the urge to spend results in failure to conduct due diligence on said expenditures. International organisations must be equally accountable in the work that they do, and open government can play an instrumental role in helping to track aid flows to make sure that they are used for the purposes for which they are ostensibly given. Through ensuring mandatory aid disclosures and facilitating citizen tracking of international aid, among other measures, open government can help make sure that citizens benefit from international assistance.

 

 

What is your “open government pitch” – how do you make people understand and identify with the idea?

 

 

My open government pitch is to link open government with transparency and accountability, as these are easy for the layperson to understand, internalize and relate with. Open government provides citizens with the opportunity to participate in development processes in their country, to access information that they can use to hold government accountable, and to provide a platform for citizens to engage with policy makers for improved service delivery. Open government can provide an opportunity to build trust between citizens and the institutions and actors that govern their lives.