From Mechanism to Movement: An OGP Call to Collective Action

Speech by Sanjay Pradhan at the OGP Americas Meeting, Uruguay
1 June 2016

Thank you, Uruguayan government and civil society, for hosting this wonderful conference and for welcoming us so warmly on this cold morning.

It is an extraordinary pleasure for me to be here because the Americas represent the vibrant center – the heart and soul – of OGP.  And this vibrancy comes from the hard work and energy of committed stakeholders who have rallied together to make change happen through OGP.  This conference represents a microcosm of this diverse ecosystem: journalists speaking truth to power, human rights defenders, committed government officials fighting for openness against formidable odds. 

This vibrancy and commitment is a key asset to leverage in the next phase of OGP.

The UN General Assembly in September this year will mark five years since the launch of OGP. There have been significant initial accomplishments: In just five years, 69 countries have joined OGP alongside thousands of civil society organizations.  Together they have generated thousands of commitments which are being independently assessed through OGP’s Independent Review Mechanism or IRM, to ensure governments are living up to their commitments.  In several countries we are seeing transformative commitments such as Paraguay providing citizens unparalleled opportunity to participate in local decision making, or Ireland’s legislation to regulate lobbying and curb influence peddling that contributed to its financial crisis. 

Yet the success of OGP over the next five years will be measured not by the number of countries, the number of commitments. The measure of our collective success will be instead whether we have used OGP to deliver transformative impact in the lives of citizens. 

This is the major challenge for the region. OGP’s independent reporting mechanism assesses that while Americas are on par with the worldwide rate of implementation of their action plans, they have a relatively low share of commitments that are potentially transformative – only 12%. 

So the principal challenge for the region is to raise the collective ambition and transformative power of OGP to collectively tackle the biggest societal challenges, like inequality, grand corruption, youth crime and violence, human rights violations, and failures in service delivery.  These are the harsh realities many of you confront in your countries.  And from what I can tell, OGP has not often delivered on these, but where there is an alignment of stars, of activists and reformers coming together, we have glimpses of what is possible. 

Building on these glimpses, as we look at the next five years of OGP at this pivotal conference, I would suggest that we can challenge ourselves, with determined collective action, to together tackle big societal challenges by leveraging the transformative power of the OGP platform.

Take high-profile corruption scandals in the region, including the Panama Papers. 

  • Two weeks ago, OGP was positioned as the ambition, implementation and accountability arm for the London Anticorruption Summit. So concretely what this would mean for the Americas is, for instance, for this conference could serve as a call for action for countries in the region to join OGP peers like UK and South Africa to raise their collective ambition in beneficial ownership transparency – OGP as the ambition arm, put these commitments in their OGP action plan – OGP as the implementation arm, and then progress would be assessed through IRM and civil society – OGP as the accountability arm.  Let us challenge ourselves in this room to work together towards a shared goal of ensuring that in five years, there are no anonymous companies to stash stolen assets, that all countries embrace open contracting standards so all government contracts are open in five years.
  • Similarly Mexico and other countries can leadership by passing the Tres de Tres law where civil society managed to get the support of over half a million citizens demanding that their public officials declare their assets, taxes and conflict of interest.
  • And to tackle the impunity of corrupt officials, the next phase of OGP can forge new partnerships between investigative journalists, civil society organizations, law enforcement officials and justice ministries to introduce commitments on open, credible enforcement of anticorruption in OGP action plans.

These are ways in which the next five years of OGP can start to tackle grand corruption.

Take another big challenge in the region - youth crime and violence.  Can OGP help?  Let me take you to the Middle East, where the biggest challenge is violent terrorism and the radicalization of youth.  I was working on this agenda in my previous role as Vice President for the World Bank and we found that the root of radicalization is not poverty but the exclusion that youth experience and lack of responsiveness by the state to their grievances.  As we started to work on in the Middle East, OGP processes in the Americas can put youth at the center – involving youth groups in co-creation as well as in monitoring of implementation to ensure action plans respond to their grievances. 

Or take attacks on human rights: OGP countries can set new standards to protect and enhance civic space, exemplified in the OGP Steering Committee decision last month to list Azerbaijan as inactive.

Finally, take the challenge of OGP helping ensure better delivery of basic services for citizens. Here OGP needs to make a big leap forward in including more sectors like health and education in OGP which at present account for only 2.5 percent of commitments each – this will also broaden the base of CSOs as well as line ministries in OGP.  A great example comes from right here in Uruguay which won the first prize in last year’s Open Government Award by providing unparalleled access to citizens on performance indicators of health providers.  It is important to go beyond transparency which accounts for 70% of commitments to now embrace much stronger focus on civic engagement and accountability.  The city of Maldonado has created a remarkable app to enable citizens to complain and track government response. In the Philippines, the government is disclosing spending data on major programs such as post-typhoon disaster relief, on digital platforms geo-coded to the local level, using which civil society is carrying out social audits on whether they received the money, and governments are then responding to this feedback, closing this feedback loop which is the real promise of OGP.  We can collectively commit to scale up these innovations across the region so civil society amplifies the voice of the voiceless, which governments then respond to, generating dividends for politicians and citizens alike.

These are the truly transformative changes that OGP can deliver: changes that have a real impact in the lives of citizens; changes that tackle corruption, clean up politics, engage youth and give citizens a central role on improving the services that they depend on.

Of course to make all this happen is our biggest collective challenge. What gives me hope is the vibrant energy I see displayed in this room, which is where I began.  But to translate that energy into results requires a genuine co-creation of actions between government and civil society.  Unfortunately though 13 out of 17 countries have created permanent dialogue mechanisms, we also know that the actual degree of co-creation is quite uneven and there is also set back in one or two countries. 

But instead if courageous and committed government leaders and civil society activists can join hands across stakeholder groups, across countries, they can leverage the OGP mechanisms set up in the first five years to unleash an inexorable, collective movement for change.  If they can genuinely join hands within and across countries, we can transform OGP as a mechanism to OGP as a movement in the next five years. 

You may say this is impossible.  But to leave you with the hope and a visual that this is possible, let me take you to an example from nature which demonstrates the power of collective action to overcome formidable odds.  This is a phenomenon called murmurations.  What you see here are starlings – these are small birds that are vulnerable to prey by the falcon which is a big predatory bird that can swoop and prey on the starlings. 

Starlings live in chaotic colonies – they are small and atomized.  But at dusk time, they start to make a formation.  So if bees have swarms and fish have schools, starling form murmurations for the sound they produce.

These murmurations have a purpose: to ward off the falcon.  This is the falcon.  But behold, the same starlings that were individually so vulnerable make a formidable collective strength to ward off the falcon. 

Ordinary citizens and the poor are like starlings – they are vulnerable to the falcons of grand corruption, crime, violence, impunity.  What power does the ordinary citizen have to ward off the falcons of corruption, crime and arbitrary state action? 

But if citizens join together through civil society organizations and networks of civil society organizations, they increase their strength to ward off the falcons.  For the starlings to form their murmurations, they need space – just as civil society needs civic space to form, associate and amplify the voices of citizens, the voice of the voiceless.

Similarly on the government side, reformers in government need to join hands across ministries and across branches of government. 

In OGP countries, if reformers in government join hands with civil society to form their collective murmuration, they can make company registers and contracts transparent which civil society can monitor.  Civil society can amplify the voices of citizens on whether teachers and textbooks are showing up in schools or whether they are receiving conditional cash transfers, and governments can respond to this feedback. 

In Guatemala in 2015, confronting the falcon of high-level corruption citizens joined hands, forming their own murmuration and formed a larger murmuration with the state Commission Against Corruption and Impunity and the Prosecutors Office to together ward off the falcon of grand corruption and bring down the President. 

OGP provides a platform for reformers from civil society and government to form ever larger murmurations – within and across countries – to ward off falcons of corruption, crime and impunity.  But this requires the collective energy and egoless leadership of the starlings, just as we need the collective energy of the eco-system in this room to join together to ward off the falcons and challenges facing the region.

If this conference and other events to follow can inspire such murmurations, we can ward off the falcons of grand corruption, crime and human rights abuses.  If we can do so, we can go home to rest at the end of the day and say our efforts and our lives would have been worth it.  Thank you.

Authors: Sanjay Pradhan
Filed Under: Champions