Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014: That was the year that was

In the spirit of taking stock it’s fair to say this was a momentous year, both for the world of the policy wonks dealing in peace and governance and for me personally with a move from one side of this 'ere world to the other. Here’s a doodle/snapshot of what went before through my eyes.

January opened with a chance to debate with DAC Chair Erik Solheim on change in a world of power and politics. What had we learned since the Arab Spring and what did that mean for those of us wanting to contribute to positive outcomes for people and their governments. The report card isn’t a great one, as a quick glance at Libya illustrates. My point was that policy makers needed a healthy dose of honesty in their projections and conversations.

This was germane also for the troubled New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, an initiative between donors and recipient governments that sought to reverse the trend of shying away from the critically difficult challenges driving conflict with intensely political settlements between citizens and states in their journey out of conflict. It has proved frustratingly difficult with old habits dying hard.

And of course, the post-2015 horizon was looming large with real questions about the extent of genuine citizen participation there would be.

February saw me join the open governance initiative Making All Voices Count and relocate to Johannesburg. It became very clear very quickly that the two tribes of ‘conflict’ and ‘governance’ practitioners didn’t speak enough, despite working on essentially the same things. In both cases the need for bottom up approaches to meddling in other people’s politics was laid bare, in a series of hard hitting reports by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership.

March continued the theme of power and politics with a trip to Jakarta for a learning week with the Transparency & Accountability Initiative where donors, practitioners and researchers sought to share learning on how to encourage openness and participatory governance in the context of shifting and dynamic contexts, set against frequently rigid and silo’d programme and project designs. Logframing our way out of complex political processes turns out to be a mugs game – who knew?

April was an opportunity to challenge the World Bank on their technocratic world view, as they released a report which used the dreaded phrase ‘feedback loop’ to sum up the relationship citizens have with their governments. No room for issues of legitimacy, inclusion or participation there. And I wonder what Amina from Dar es Salaam would have made of it. On a positive note a fantastic project emerged from change makers within local government in Pakistan which demonstrated that change-makers from within these contexts can harness innovation to transformative effect, and that donors could play a constructive role in supporting them. 

May saw the Open Government Partnership roadshow take place in Dublin Castle, inauspiciously coinciding with a corruption scandal which claimed the scalp of an Irish Justice Minister. Against this backdrop the conference grappled fascinatingly with the role of politics, big business and that strange thing known as ‘dark data’. No doubt the NSA was intrigued.

During June-July-August I was privileged to engage in a number of debates on how change happens. On a stiflingly hot day in Berlin leading a workshop at the Open Knowledge Foundation we brought techies together with the non-technical problems their innovations were often aimed at ‘solving’, a sobering experience in Dar es Salaam revealed the extent to which a lack of expectations can undermine progress while in South Africa a business leader and local government expert sought to challenge some preconceived ideas about the role of those outside that thing we call “civil society”. Turns out NGOs and campaign groups don’t have all the answers. 

Turkana women: as parent governors they do what they can but rarely see government officials 
September saw a return to earth with a bump, as some field work in a semi-arid, fragile and marginalised county called Turkana in Northern Kenya provided the context for a stark reality check on what the world really looks like to the poorest and most vulnerable. Seems a long way from technocratic feedback loops and MDGs.

Taking that insight into November I was struck at the Civicus International Civil Society Week in South Africa at the extent of that disconnect, but this time between demands from NGOs and the real world of global governance. “Listen to us” just doesn’t seem to cut it to me, surely it’s time to start to organise for the post-post-2015 world if we’re serious about making all voices count?

Dar es Salaam: they take our money but don't fix our bridge said citizens
What that could look like was vividly displayed in an inspiring session with South African activists at the civil society session of the Open Government Partnership in Johannesburg. Cynicism borne of experience was in abundance but so was a willingness to make this opportunity work and to see the glass as half full – taking the energy of the struggle against apartheid and translating it into strategies for 2015. And with that, the year closed for me at least on an inspiring and positive note.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

OGP & Civil Society: A snapshot from South Africa

“we’re going to sing from the same hymn sheet. We will do it in every province and take over the parliament if necessary”. 
“you know it’s not like we haven’t done this before in South Africa. It’s not like we haven’t led a fight for change. Or transformed our country. We just have to rediscover that. We are capable.”
Two voices that stood out for me at a meeting of South African civil society, gathered together by the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as part of their outreach to engage citizens with this initiative. Passion, frustration, anger but creativity were the hallmarks of an intense debate about how to make the OGP live up to its name, in a land that should be so much further down that path.

The idea was to spend two days together; the first with Government representatives including a Deputy Minister, and the second to forge a civil society agenda to rally around in pursuit of genuine participatory governance, a new relationship where people could play a meaningful role in shaping the decisions that affect their communities.

South Africa is a fascinating country, and never more so when listening to a group of people who are fired by a desire to change the world. These include many who themselves fought the fight against apartheid but also includes those for whom that era is something they can only read or learn about. But those for whom the freedom struggle is something their parents did, that legacy still guides: the second quote above was from a young woman who was born around the same time as people queued for hours to vote for the first time.

And yet. And yet. There is a very high level of cynicism here, perhaps beyond that which is healthy, but it is borne of what they consistently say they feel are repeated examples of being ignored by a political class they regard as increasingly remote. Scandals like this one don’t do anything to help, either.

Whether that sense of remoteness is right or wrong, what is inspiring is that such a group of committed people – from trades unions, NGOs, faith groups and others - would come together and invest precious time and resources into making the most of what OGP could in theory contribute to a process of real change. What I heard were calls for action by citizens from across the nine provinces of this country to redress the criticism that has been made of the OGP in South Africa thus far: that it exists on paper but in reality little or nothing has changed; by taking clear ownership of local decision making structures. Turning up. Organising. Demanding to be heard and waving the OGP action plan at officials if they resisted. This was harking back to the proud traditions of previous decades but in a way that was relevant to today.

South Africa is now co-chair of OGP and will assume the chair in October 2015. That year is a big one in development terms anyway as the long heralded SDG framework is unveiled. We know already that governance will be part of that new way of doing development. Given South Africa’s key position at that time, and the doubts that have been raised not least following speeches such as that given by President Zuma, who questioned the role of the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism and emphasised “the character and nature of the OGP as a non-binding voluntary initiative.” - this will be a time for OGP to either prove its worth or be proven not to have it, at least in this country.

But from what I saw at this meeting, which met at the Nelson Mandela Foundation at the former leaders' own house in Johannesburg, this movement of citizens take that struggle as their inspiration, adapt it to today and together are a force to be reckoned with. If these people can’t make this work, nobody can.