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Will the OGP sink or swim? Civic space will be the lifesaver

Cathal Gilbert|

The Open Government Partnership is just four years old, but already has the potential to help fight against restrictions on civil society space. It will only achieve that, however, if it helps countries develop  commitments that protect civil society and recognises the corrosive role of money in politics.

It seems self-evident that open governments need open societies. It should therefore be hard to imagine a government committing to increased transparency and engagement with citizens while at the same time incarcerating citizens for stating an opinion. Disturbingly, this is exactly what is happening in a growing number of countries today.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) was created in 2011 and today boasts 69 countries as members. Despite its laudable goal of creating better government for citizens, its birth and early growth coincided with a period of devastating reversal of hard-won civil liberties all over the world.

This trend has become known in modern parlance as ‘shrinking civic space’. For the past decade, civil society groups and activists have documented this trend and called repeatedly – in most cases to no avail – for its reversal. In a recent report, CIVICUS found that 96 countries around the world took measures to restrict civic space during 2014. This list includes 28 countries that are also OGP members.

The phenomenon of shrinking civic space is now a truly global one, engulfing authoritarian and democratic countries alike, even extending to several states in the European Union, which for so long, was considered a poster child for the democratic project. What is driving this unprecedented unraveling of democratic practices and standards?

We live in a world where citizens have growing expectations of their leaders. As access to education has expanded, it has become harder for governments to hoodwink their populations. Smartphones, the Internet and social media also help by enabling real-time insight and scrutiny of decision-makers. As the student-led protests in Hong Kong in 2014 made clear, the technological revolution helps organisers rapidly mobilise large numbers of people and exert real pressure on the state.

In spite of the increasing demands from citizens, many leaders seem to lack the commitment or skills needed to engage with their electorate. Many political leaders feel that once they have been voted into office, they don’t need to continue meaningful interaction with citizens. In such situations, attempts by civil society to push for deeper engagement with their governments are often frustrated, to the point where more critical and confrontational forms of peaceful citizen action emerges. States all around the world are becoming intolerant of such activism, resulting in a barrage of stigmatisation, harassment, arrest and in the worst cases, murder. A brutal and sustained assault on activists in Azerbaijan – still an OGP country – is for many the embodiment of this trend.

Perhaps the most critical driving factor of all is the often-ignored influence of money in our political systems. Earlier this year, Oxfam reported that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% of people will own more than everyone else. In fact, an inequality tipping point has been convincingly foreshadowed for some time. Works like Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level and Thomas Piketty’s seminal Capital in the 21st Century make for disturbing reading about the ‘pernicious effects’ of inequality on society. What has any of this got to do with closing civic space?

A closer look at the crackdowns on civil society reveals that activists from India to Peru to South Africa and Russia are not just fighting for civil liberties and a space at the policy table. More and more demonstrations are aimed at combating the corrosive impact of big business on political accountability, corruption, environmental protection and the entrenchment of poverty and inequality around the world. With business in the pound seat, government officials are less likely to lend a sympathetic ear to anti-corruption and environmental activists. As the wealth of a tiny elite increases, so too does its ability to influence politics. It is unsurprising then that the crackdown on civil society is getting worse.

Although people are much more aware of what they are entitled to demand from their governments, they feel powerless and under attack. Not only are their views being ignored, in more and more cases they are being targeted and silenced. What then are the implications for the Open Government Partnership, which recently celebrated its 4th year in existence at a Summit in Mexico City? Given the innovative underpinnings of the OGP, what can this grouping of governments and civil society do to collectively tackle the shrinking space phenomenon? Four ideas spring to mind.

First, as the new OGP lead Co-Chair, South Africa must safeguard progress made to date and use the year ahead to take advantage of the dialogue processes within OGP to enable a much more frank discussion about closing space. At a recent meeting in Johannesburg, government and civil society already held important debates on how they interact and what the priorities are. These discussions need to continue and be deepened.

In and of itself, dialogue serves to build trust and reduce the risk of recourse to harmful confrontations. Governments in other regions, which up to now have paid little more than lip service to the idea of deep engagement with their citizens, could learn from a more determined push by South Africa to create meaningful platforms for civic dialogue. For that to happen through the prism of the Open Government Partnership, the OGP should develop a set of more ambitious guidelines, which would ensure more quality, diversity and continuity in engagements with civil society.  

Second, the OGP should reach out more and more to regional bodies. Take the EU for example. While European institutions may have little appetite to hitch their own programmes to the OGP agenda, if brought on board as allies they and key member states (such as Germany which is not yet part of OGP) could potentially provide the impetus for addressing the current democratic deficit and crisis of legitimacy faced by many leaders across the region.

Third, the OGP can help to develop a shared commitment on civic space that all OGP member countries should include in their national action plans. In the same way that OGP states like Mexico drove the recent adoption of the International Open Data Charter, so too could they create a common basis for ensuring that all OGP states include at least one actionable and measurable commitment to increase civic space in their National Action Plans.

Finally, by breaking down the usual conventions around state-civil society interactions during international meetings, the OGP has made an important contribution to leveling the playing field. It can and should do the same for barriers to dialogue between civil society and business. Recently, there has been increasing recognition from the international business community of their role in causing inequality. The OGP must seize openings like this to bring businesses – perhaps beginning with business platforms such as chambers of commerce – more centrally into the dialogue on the creation of open governments. Only by doing so will citizens and civil society be able to interact directly with and influence those that hold real power in many countries.

Recently, South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa stressed how important it is ‘that the OGP consistently lead by example. It must be the embodiment of the values and principles we wish others to emulate.’ If he is serious, South Africa must lead OGP member countries in this direction by getting to grips with the problem of closing civic space and fostering a really meaningful, permanent forum for dialogue with civil society.

Otherwise, the whole project could be sunk.

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