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Serving Citizens Means Empowering Citizens

Dr. Mo Ibrahim|

Open and free societies are under threat. There are fewer and fewer communities that empower people to engage politically, prosper economically, and thrive socially—and a lack of accountable leadership, commitment to civic space, and strong public services needed to build and maintain them.

We cannot ignore the growing pattern toward shrinking civic space and weak supply of public services in Africa, and around the world. Today, only four percent of the global population lives in countries with open civic space.  

Meanwhile, over the last decade (2007-2016), citizens’ dissatisfaction with their governments’ delivery of public services, such as safety, education, and health, has grown. As highlighted in the 2018 Ibrahim Forum Report, public expenditure in Africa is below the global average, and analysis shows no relation between higher government spending and better public services or governance performance. Moreover, many indices point to a low and decreasing level of open government practices in Africa.

This is a wake-up call.

This week, governments, reformers, foundations, NGOs, academics, and more are gathered in Tbilisi for the fifth annual Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit. As an OGP Ambassador, I am calling on these innovators to rally around solutions that serve citizens through empowering them—to both exercise  civic freedoms and demand strong public services.

A world that restricts the rights and freedoms of people is a world that restricts business success and growth. In today’s digital age, these restrictions are as simple as denying citizens access to the Internet or social media platforms, which, from 2015-2016 alone, cost countries across the globe USD $2.4 billion.  

To encourage governments to recognise civic space and freedoms, we need companies to take a stand to protect and promote the rights of citizens. Working with business and civil society leaders on The B Team, I’m dedicated to helping companies view the civic space emergency as a threat to economic growth.  

At a session The B Team held at my Foundation’s annual Ibrahim Governance Weekend, participants recognised the imperative of cross-sector collaboration to promote and refine the best tools and methods to protect civic space. Protection of civic space and freedoms is essential for the delivery of robust public services.

Open civic space empowers citizens to hold governments to account when they fail to, or inadequately, provide critical infrastructure—a cornerstone of healthy societies and economies. Again, we can look to the private sector, and other non-state actors, to develop innovative solutions to deliver public services. For many countries, optimising public service delivery represents an unparalleled business opportunity. In sub-Saharan Africa, experts estimate that from 2012-2022 some $25-35 billion will need to be invested in physical healthcare assets alone.  

Companies have much to gain, and little to lose, when seizing these opportunities. Those that do are both growing their businesses and improving the lives of millions. In Rwanda, drone delivery services have reduced the transit time of an emergency blood supply from at least three hours to around 30 minutes or less. Infrastructure innovators are using real-time road quality data to create micro-contracts for community-led road repairs, helping three billion people access paved roads while creating jobs and lowering the cost of repairs.

Other solutions, like open contracting, help open up opportunities to small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) while maintaining transparency and accountability around projects. In Africa, half of government spending goes toward contracts. Tools like the African Partner Pool open these opportunities to SMEs. Since its launch, the platform has provided USD $15 million worth of tenders for more than 800 SMEs.

Last but not least, strong tax measures are crucial to these efforts and mark another area where the private sector plays a key role. Companies are increasingly recognising the accountability and responsibility they have to contribute to the revenues of the countries they operate in. In February, nine leading multinationals endorsed The B Team’s Responsible Tax Principles committing to responsibly manage tax policy to help countries provide strong and dynamic public services by being transparent about how they manage tax, maintaining relationships with governments and authorities and more.

In the face of shrinking civic space and sparse public services, these developments leave me hopeful. The momentum to build open governments is there—we must now galvanise it for the benefit of people around the world. As my fellow OGP Ambassador and B Team Leader Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said, “I believe so much in the action of citizens, let’s realise that we have power, let’s get information. There is no messiah coming, it must be within you.”  

At this week’s Summit, I urge all attendees to build solutions that serve citizens by empowering them. A prosperous win-win world for all is on the line—and it’s past time to deliver.    

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