Robust Civil Society Sharpens Natural Resource Governance
Thousands are gathered in Paris this week for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit. The meeting takes place as alarming trends impact the transparency movement, threatening progress and underscoring the need for action.
We are increasingly seeing crackdowns on civil society, particularly in resource-rich countries, according to this CIVICUS and Publish What You Pay report. In some places where governments manage oil, gas and mining wealth on behalf of the people, it is sometimes dangerous to fight for a better redistribution of natural resource benefits or the protection of communities and the environment, as Global Witness has demonstrated. (Resource-endowed countries can even be dangerous for those who dare to engage in politics generally. Ilgar Mammadov, a member of NRGI’s advisory council and a passionate voice for reform in oil-rich Azerbaijan, has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than three years.)
The surge of populism that has led to stunning political upsets in 2016 speaks to a deep distrust of institutions like governments and media, highlighting the need for elite-focused, capital-city-based civil society actors to make a shift. The prolonged commodity prices slump requires an even stronger engagement with citizens to more effectively determine priorities in a constrained environment. With provisions in place promoting, protecting and aiding civil society, countries have the potential to use oil, gas and minerals to make people’s lives better.
Tunisia provides one powerful example of how open government can support trust and collaboration between government and citizens. There, the government is making tremendous efforts to promote transparency in the oil and phosphate sectors, which represent 13 percent of total exports. It recently published all its hydrocarbons contracts, committed to joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in its recent OGP national action plan, and created an open data portal for information related to the extractive sector. The country took a critical step toward improving trust between the government, investors and communities affected by extractive projects. OGP helped provide common ground for this cooperation.
These moves have followed loud demands from Tunisian civil society for more knowledge and the capacity to analyze an opaque sector. Beginning in 2014, NRGI and partner organizations led workshops with 16 civil society organizations from different regions of Tunisia on key extractive issues. NRGI also led roundtables and sessions with government officials. The conversation and process in Tunisia took time; it was cumulative. But the result is clear: an empowered civil society was crucial to furthering open government developments in Tunisia.
Civil society has a critical role to play in understanding and promoting the priorities of the population. Experience in Tunisia shows that the open government community must broaden and deepen its engagement with a more diverse range of civil society actors. Governments should institutionalize citizen engagement.
In a so-called “post-truth” era where reliance on emotion can be a path toward elected office, evidence-based advocacy is even more important. For this advocacy to translate into action, we need to humanize open government, helping individuals to become able consumers of information. We also must support non-experts to actively engage, to demand results and answers, and to challenge opacity.
Marie Lintzer is a governance officer at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).