Samantha Power

Keeping the OGP Vital, Innovative, and True to its Founding Principles - Oct. 28, 2015

Samantha Power
October 28, 2015
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Thank you. Thanks everybody, and it’s very exciting to be here.

It’s been more than five years since we began talking about the ideas of getting governments to work with civil society to create more open, accountable institutions and societies. And, as all of you know, at the beginning the “we” in that sentence was eight governments and nine civil society organizations. And I think that if you had told any of us – when we were having those first conversations – that by 2015, we would have 66 governments and counting, and thousands of civil society groups participating, we would have said that the person who put down that dream was maybe, you know, drinking too much tequila or something. [Laughter] It seemed quite far-fetched.

And I could spend my entire morning – any of us could – giving examples of how OGP has come to matter in the real world. I won’t do that, because each of you have your own stories to share, and that’s what the next couple of days are about.

But we of course can’t be satisfied just growing OGP and growing the model. We’ve got to keep this organization fluid and vibrant and responsive to what citizens are asking for around the world. And I have just four quick suggestions I’d like to share before the panel starts, a couple of which are very much in train but I still think are worth thinking how we can take them further.

So first, I think we should think more and more about how we adopt OGP-wide efforts on the most pressing shared governance challenges. And I think Mexico has set us off on a good track here by choosing the Sustainable Development Goals – which are so important in each of our countries and certainly are goals that we intend to apply within the United States, given our huge issues of inequality. But making the implementation of those goals a central element of OGP, I think, is a great way of making this organization relevant, you know, for some of the deepest and most pronounced needs that people experience around the world – namely poverty and inequality.

And we know that open and transparent government is the route to advancing development. And I’d give just one example here, in the Philippines, one of OGP’s founding members, the government required grassroots participation in the planning and budgeting of poverty-reduction programs in every one of the country’s 1,634 municipal and provincial governments – so requiring grassroots participation. And that has resulted not only in greater citizen involvement in the creation, implementation, and evaluation of programs, but it’s also meaning that the programs themselves are tailored for the communities rather than invented by some bureaucrat in an office that’s not in touch with what people really need.

At this moment – and I know this may have been updated as of this morning – but 29 OGP countries – including the United States – have signed a joint declaration committing to using the partnership to help carry out the Sustainable Development Goals. And maybe by the end of this summit we can try to get to the place where all OGP member countries have signed on.

Now, it would be a shame if this were the only global challenge that OGP tackled, and instead I would encourage members to consider picking a shared focus for OGP efforts each year, which would bring the partnership’s unique innovation and energy to bear on some of the greatest challenges of the day. And I’ll give one example here; an issue that’s in the news – and a lot of heartbreak that’s in the news – and that is questioning whether there might be some way to address the lack of transparency in refugee admissions and asylum processes. And I think that’s been brought to light by the current refugee crises around the world.

Second point is, I think – and this again is in train up to a point – we must tap into the efforts of state and city governments and their civil society partners. The authorities that most citizens depend on for basic services are not national ones, but mayors, governors, and city councils, and the institutions they oversee – school boards, police forces, health providers. And as people are moving more and more to cities, this is going to become more and more important. 180,000 people around the world everyday are moving into a city; more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will. So as we look ahead, I think following the lead of the Mexican government, which has done a commendable job of integrating the work of sub-national actors into this year’s meeting – I think making that a standard practice going forward, but also thinking about how those partnerships develop without the summit to facilitate them.

At the same time, again, keeping OGP growing and relevant is going to require ensuring members are living up to the partnership’s core principles. And this is a slightly more delicate point – and my third point: all governments that have willfully joined this effort have to deliver on our commitment – our commitment overall and our very specific commitments that we make in our plans. This sounds self-evident, but our record – all of our records – have been mixed.

And this should worry us. Not only because fulfilling our commitments has a direct impact on the ability of citizens to exercise their basic rights, but also because – for nearly a decade running – democracy has retreated in more places around the world than it has advanced. And since 2012, 60 countries – nearly the same number of countries that are a part of OGP – have introduced or enacted 120 laws restricting civil society organizations. [Applause] And we can clap opposing that, right? Not the actual imposition of the laws themselves.

But just as we participants in OGP are trying to learn from each other’s best practices – that’s the goal of a summit like this – autocratic governments and backsliding governments are replicating worst practices, in some instances even copy-pasting provisions from regressive and repressive legislation from one country to the next. A handful of countries in OGP have even put forward laws aimed at restricting space for civil society. And were it not for the relentless efforts of NGOs – including several in this room – who fought back against those attempts, the backsliding would be much worse even than it is today.

So in this context, OGP can and must serve as a model of what can be gained when governments view civil society groups as partners rather than adversaries, and when laws empower citizens rather than curtail their basic rights. Yet for that model to be held up, our pledges must be more than what in Mexico is known as letra muerte, or dead letter.

Let me give one example. In the 2011 OGP declaration, we committed to “support civic participation.” Yet recent reporting indicates that less than half of OGP-participating countries met requirements for online or in-person consultations with civil society. That has to change. Involving civil society groups in creating, implementing, monitoring commitments, getting citizens involved – above all – should be a requirement, it’s not a luxury or a courtesy.

And there will inevitably be governments in OGP that fail to live up to their commitments or take actions inimical to OGP’s guiding principles. As many of you know, Azerbaijan detained and eventually sentenced a member of the NGO that is its civil society co-chair. Ilgar Mammadov, an Advisory Council member of the National Resource Governance Institute in Azerbaijan, was unjustly detained in January 2013, sentenced in March 2014 to seven years in prison. The European Court of Human Rights concluded that the purpose of this punishment was to silence his criticism of the government. We all must speak out against cases like this, particularly when they involve those claiming to be for open government.

And this brings me to my fourth and final recommendation for keeping OGP vital and relevant: We have to do a better job of holding ourselves accountable. And part of this is self-reflexive; every country should be taking an honest look at its own performance, identifying the areas where we are falling short – and that includes the United States.

Listening and engaging our critics is a useful way to spot the gaps between promise and practice. And I’m proud that more than 100 participants from U.S. civil society are here today. And I say that knowing that if you speak to a good number of them about the U.S. government’s record in meeting our OGP commitments, some will have some very tough critiques to offer. We in the government may not always agree with what they say, but we know that it is important that we hear them out. And they often have a great deal to offer from which we learn and can, in fact, make improvements.

I’m very excited to announce that, in the coming year, President Obama will give an award to a reformer whose efforts embody the spirit of OGP in advocating for anti-corruption, transparency, or accountability.

A final way we can hold ourselves accountable is by strengthening the Independent Reporting Mechanism that we created to evaluate our governments’ track records. It is deeply troubling that some governments have failed to cooperate fully with the independent experts or suggested that the mechanism’s mandate be narrowed. It can’t be.

The reports that the mechanism produces may at times be difficult to hear. And here I’ll just read from one of those reports: “The [OGP] Action Plan was developed with active participation from civil society groups and made strong efforts to learn from and build upon the actions of the first plan. However, the decision-making process did not seek active collaboration with the public, it involved a narrow range of participants, and it was not carried out according to a well-defined or transparent schedule.”

That passage comes from the IRM’s most recent report about the United States. Now, if you read the full report, which is available online, you’ll see that I’ve read one of the tougher lines in there. But I read it to show that we cannot only read the praise, we cannot only read the things we most want to hear, we have to welcome the critiques, and we have to do better.

Finally, I just want to conclude with an example – a very concrete example. In January 2015, the people of Sri Lanka went to the polls to elect a new president. The incumbent Rajapaksa administration had governed largely through divisiveness and fear, and it had persecuted critics. Meanwhile, the challenger Sirisena ran on a platform of open government, anti-corruption, and reconciliation. As you all know, the Sri Lankan people chose President Sirisena.

The new government moved swiftly to show it was serious about living up to its commitments, from stopping harassment of human rights defenders and journalists, to exposing rampant corruption. The impact was immediate. A labor organizer who had gone into hiding during the Rajapaksa administration’s rule resumed his work, saying he no longer feared being targeted for what he was doing. A journalist who had been routinely harassed for his reporting said, “the fear has gone.”

But in many ways, that was the easy part. Because walking the walk of open government means not only refraining from muzzling one’s critics and refraining from stealing public resources, but finding ways to empower citizens so they can use their greater freedom to shape the government they want. And that’s why it’s so encouraging that, at the same time it’s confronting some of the darkest and most painful chapters in its country’s past, the Sirisena administration is also pursuing initiatives to open itself up to greater scrutiny. An access to information law is currently being considered in parliament; Sri Lanka’s information technology agency is working to bring connectivity to marginalized communities, who too often have lacked access and the information it provides; and, today, Sri Lanka has joined OGP, one of several new members. None of these tools is transformative in and of itself. But together with other steps, they can help enable citizens to play a greater role in shaping the government they deserve.

The experience of Sri Lanka, I think, embodies so much of what is at stake in this enterprise. It shows us the profound costs of impunity and corruption. It shows how a determined and persistent civil society that would not give up can swing the pendulum back toward greater accountability and transparency. And it shows how much leaders can achieve, even in a short period of time, when they are willing to engage the people they serve.

But I close with this example not because of all it has achieved, but because of all the challenges that lie ahead. As it works to deliver on its ambitious platform of reform, the Sirisena government has a lot to learn from the fellow governments of OGP. Just as we will have a lot to learn from it. As Sri Lankan civil society asserts an increasingly active role in shaping its government’s actions, one of its greatest resources will be the counsel of the civil society organizations in this room. And this is a tremendous resource that just a few years ago did not exist, for a government making a transition like Sri Lanka is attempting.

That is what OGP offers not only to new members like Sri Lanka, but also to governments like mine in the United States, which have been part of this partnership since its inception. You will see U.S. officials running around, taking notes, stealing, plagiarizing the best ideas from countries that are presenting what they have been up to. We have so much to learn, and that is why we are so deeply committed to making OGP as vital, innovative, and impactful as ever, without departing also from our founding principles.

Thank you.

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