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Our Collective Imperative: Fighting for Democracy in the Americas

Nuestra obligación colectiva: La lucha por la democracia en las Américas

Open Data in the Fight against Corruption

Based on Sanjay Pradhan's Opening Remarks Delivered at the “Innovating with Open Data to Fight Corruption” Event at the OAS General Assembly

Sanjay Pradhan |

The Americas have been the vibrant heart of OGP from the outset. So it is appropriate that we seek to build strong alliance with the Organization of American States (OAS). In the Americas, 19 countries are members of OGP as well as OAS, and more are eligible to join OGP. We have a collective opportunity and imperative to join forces between OAS, OGP and our member states to strengthen democratic governance, as called for by OAS Heads of States in the Lima Commitment

 Our collective imperative today is more vital than ever because democracy is facing its gravest threat in decades. We are witnessing an unprecedented rise of authoritarian leaders in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela and beyond. Leaders eroding checks and balances to consolidate power, attacking journalists and civil society. Equally worrisome, citizen trust in democratic institutions has plummeted to an all-time low. According to the Democracy Perception Index 2018, an astonishing 64 percent of citizens living in democracies believe that their elected government rarely or never acts in the public interest. The Latinobarometer for 2018 finds that 71 percent of citizens are dissatisfied with their democracy.  

Against this gloom and doom, the good news is that courageous reformers in government and civil society – in OGP and beyond – are working to reinvigorate democracy between and beyond elections.  This is also a key priority for OAS, and the recent approval of the Inter-American Open Data Program to Combat Corruption – PIDA is a clear sign of that. They are empowering citizens to shape and oversee government – every day, not just once every few years when we cast our vote.  We call it Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box. Our collective task is scale up these inspirational practices across the region. 

From left to right – James M. Lambert, Sanjay Pradhan, Sylvia Constaín, and Luis Almagro at the 2019 OAS General Assembly in Colombia.

For this, our first collective endeavor must indeed to be advance transparency and open data for anti-corruption, as our session calls for.  But that is only part of the solution. This data needs to be relevant to people’s lives and actionable by them.  So, we need to simultaneously mobilize citizen feedback on the use of this data, including by leveraging digital technologies. We need both the supply and demand sides of governance – neither government nor civil society can fight corruption alone. 

  • For instance in Mexico, through its OGP commitment, the government disclosed data on infrastructure projects on the Budget Transparency Portal. But it then partnered with civil society through its “Taking Data to the Streets” initiative, where citizens visited the projects listed on the portal, reported discrepancies using social media, and tracked remedial action online.  
  • Italy has also leveraged OGP to disclose data on 1 million projects financed by 100 billion euros of EU funding but then launched a massive public campaign to empower citizens, including high school students through school competitions, to become on-the-ground citizen monitors of projects. 

 Our second collective endeavor must be to tackle grand corruption. 

  • In Ukraine, to combat the capture of public procurement contracts by oligarchs, young reformers built online platforms – ProZorro and DoZorro – leveraging OGP, disclosing contracts in open data standards so citizens can search them and importantly, report violations.  In two years, citizens reported 14,000 violations with over half publicly resolved, the government saved $1 billion, 82 percent of entrepreneurs report reduced corruption from the use of the platform. Galvanized by such results, 46 OGP governments including 16 from the Americas have committed to open contracts.  Colombia has used open contracting to save 10-15 percent in its school feeding program and has just published complete procurement data in open data standards.
  • The Panama Papers unmasked rampant stolen assets stashed in anonymous companies. Now 16 OGP countries, such as the UK and Chile, are creating public registers of beneficial owners to show who really owns the companies, allowing journalists and activists to track illicit funds.  

Let us join forces to scale these up so they become new regional norms to combat corruption.

 But a central precondition for all this is citizen’s basic ability to freely speak, associate, assemble, and the ability of journalists and activists to serve as vital intermediaries and watchdogs for citizens.  Without this, democratic governance or open data don’t work. But this civic space is itself under attack in over 100 countries including several countries in the region.  So our third collective task is to support our member countries to protect and enhance civic space such as Serbia OGP commitment on the Commission into the Murder of Journalists bringing three cases to justice, inspiring Montenegro to take similar actions.

 Our final collective imperative is to strengthen our partnership between OAS and OGP to advance our shared goal of strengthening democracy.  We can combine OAS’ political diplomacy with OGP’s global network of reformers in government and civil society using country-based platform to translate commitments into concrete actions.  For example, 20 OGP countries, including Brazil and Colombia, implemented their 2016 London Anti-Corruption Summit commitments through OGP action plans.  

Let us ensure that the precious Lima Commitment – including the The Inter-American Open Data Program to Combat Corruption – PIDA – doesn’t just remain words on a communique or twitter feeds.  Let us support governments and civil society to advance their Lima commitments through concrete OGP action plans. In doing so, let us together ordinary people in the region to shape and oversee their government to ensure it serves them rather than itself. 

 Let us together forge a countervailing force against authoritarianism, and a positive global force that reinvigorates democracy, between and beyond elections.

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