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Open Response + Open Recovery: Conversations with Asia-Pacific’s Open Gov Community

Respuesta abierta + Recuperación abierta: Conversaciones con la comunidad de gobierno abierto de la región Asia-Pacífico

Asia Graphics

On July 7, over 100 open government reformers across the Asia-Pacific region convened for the conversation “Open Response + Open Recovery: Inclusive Participation and Civic Space in Times of Crisis”. The discussion focused on how reformers in the region are working to maintain inclusive civic participation and protect and expand civic space during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is what we heard.

Across the Asia-Pacific region and the world, emergency measures to protect public safety and health during the pandemic have significantly affected progress on open government. Restrictions on civic space are disrupting civil society organizations’ ability to organize, assemble, and protest and harming the ability of activists and journalists to hold governments accountable. 

During the regional conversation, government and civil society reformers shared challenges the pandemic has created for their open government work and opportunities to leverage the OGP platform to ensure transparency, accountability, inclusion and participation in the response and recovery from the pandemic.

Watch the recording here:

Tackling Open Government Challenges

Civil society organizations across the region are struggling to operate in deteriorating environments, with a diminished capacity to fulfill their role of influencing social change and holding governments accountable, at a time when these functions are most needed. 

In countries like Afghanistan, Mongolia, the Kyrgyz Republic and the Philippines, governments are enacting legislation that effectively restricts the registration and activity of non-governmental organizations, often under the premise of promoting open data and transparency, fighting fake news and misinformation, or countering money laundering and terrorism financing. 

Independent media, a key pillar of civil society, is under duress in many places, with substantial shortfalls and restrictions on normal funding streams, censorship, and obscure use of legislation to criminalize or delist mediapersons and media outlets. A culture of fear is also leading to self-censorship in many places,  further diminishing the important role of the media. 

Even in the small handful of countries in the region where there are few direct threats to civic space, inadequate resourcing of the sector is making it increasingly difficult for civil society to mobilise and organize effectively.  In a number of countries, politicisation of charitable tax concessions is jeopardising funding and limiting the capacity  of civil society organisations that participate in advocacy. Throughout the region, as civil society groups increasingly fill gaps in public service provision or complement government efforts, many are finding it challenging to maintain their advocacy and watchdog role without these activities being adequately resourced. 

As research from groups like Access Now shows, digital inclusion and security have become mainstream issues during the pandemic – from questions around who has access to the internet, to digital security threats, and illegal surveillance and attacks against activists. And it’s increasingly clear that issues across society are impacted by issues of digital access and rights, and security– from governance to human rights to participation. Rise in digital authoritarianism and use of laws on cyber crime, cyber security and fake news and disinformation laws, being used for purposes beyond their stated purposes, to chill critics of governments in many places, including Bangladesh, Thailand, and the Philippines, amongst others. These challenges are exacerbated during the pandemic when remedy mechanisms like courts are harder to access for most people, as are legislative processes to influence changes in laws.

Claiming Space and Collaborating with Government

As the OGP community works through closing civic space challenges in the region, it’s clear that protecting civic space is a common responsibility of both government and civil society. Throughout the region, reformers noted that many governments run the risk of using civic engagement as a box-ticking exercise, where civil society and citizens are invited to submit proposals and ideas but then have little influence, or even visibility, of how ideas are further developed. OGP countries in particular need to do better, and uphold the principles enshrined in the Open Government Declaration they all signed up to. 

As South Korea prepares for their OGP Steering Committee co-chair year, the government amplifying its  support to local, national, regional and global efforts to protect and expand civic space comes as a welcome move. As the Government of Korea noted,  their experience shows that civic space does not have to be at risk during the pandemic. In South Korea, the response had been stronger because they partnered with civil society and citizens. Their much lauded Mask App, which showed mask availability in neighborhood pharmacies in early days of the pandemic, was the result of collaboration between government, public health professionals and citizen groups.

Even in difficult contexts, we’re seeing examples of civil society finding allies in government and forging strong collaboration to preserve and expand space and participation opportunities. For example, in Afghanistan civil society groups are working with the Ministry of Health on social audits of health centres and sharing information to improve coordination on the pandemic response. In Indonesia, the government and civil society have worked together in adapting Lapor!, their public complaints handling mechanisms for receiving public complaints and feedback related to the pandemic response. In Wellington, New Zealand, the government has run a trust model to identify partners in the community and support public debate on the pandemic response, using open data and shared data infrastructure in doing so. The government of South Cotabato, in the Philippines, has opened up their internal audit process to external evaluators, including civil society groups. They have also agreed on clear  sunset clauses and retention policies on data gathered by the government for contact tracing to ensure privacy. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has compiled even more examples of positive civic space actions around the world in this briefing.

The value of diverse civil society groups coming together and forming stronger coalitions has also been evident. In the Philippines, media organizations like the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism are leading efforts to share stories of the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable in society to bring attention to where there are gaps for policymakers to address. In many countries, open data and freedom of information requests are being used to seek and share information on the government’s response to the pandemic. Civil society groups in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan have rallied together to get temporary stays, delays, or amendments on restrictive NGO laws. Digital security resources and training opportunities provided by groups like Access Now, Hivos and others are helping civil society groups get better at ensuring their safety and security. 

These examples give reason for some hope. But they are not close to being enough to address the magnitude of the challenges we’re seeing in the region. As many OGP countries in the region commence the process of developing new OGP Action Plans, there is an opportunity to ensure these plans address these challenges head on. Healthy civic space is afterall a precondition for any open government reform to succeed in the long run. 

Using the OGP Platform 

As countries in the region struggle to address the civic space, public health and economic challenges of the pandemic, there’s an opportunity to leverage open government principles and build back better. Most obviously, OGP action plans and the national dialogue processes are a prime opportunity to address these issues. Additionally:

  • In the short term, OGP multi-stakeholder forums can be used to discuss and agree upon open response measures. In the longer-term, the co-creation process used to develop action plans can be used to safeguard civil society’s equal seat at the table.
  • Countries can make open government commitments to protect the public’s ability to associate and assemble, express itself, and participate in decision-making.
  • The OGP platform can also be used to continue to cast a spotlight on challenges, share successful strategies and tactics and access support from the wide community of partners and practitioners.

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