Friday 15 May 2015

OGP Africa: does it pass the Amina Test?

Amina lives in Dar es Salaam. It's not her real name. The fact that I can't tell you her real name is the basis for the question I ask about the Open Government Partnership's regional meeting for Africa taking place this week, May 20-21. I'm a big believer in the potential of the OGP but I worry it will miss living up to that potential by not grounding itself sufficiently in the real-life experiences of people like Amina, and what 'government' really looks like to them.

The choice of Tanzania for the regional meeting was controversial. It was borne, I am told by those organising it, simply out of necessity. The original plan (Sierra Leone) had been scuppered by the outbreak of Ebola and as the clock ticked no other country was apparently as willing as Tanzania to host the high profile event. There are presidential elections in that country in October.

Yet the location goes to the heart of some pressing and uncomfortable questions about what OGP is actually for. Tanzania has recently banned a newspaper and threatened journalists and bloggers with prison should they use what the government deems to be the 'wrong statistics'. This is not the bright dawn of openness shining through. And yet, and yet. Should OGP not hold the meeting there, then? My instinct is that to do so risks undermining the credibility of the initiative - but a very strongly held counter view by some is that this is precisely *why* the OGP should host their meeting there, enabling civil society in particular to vocalise the problems and put the government on the spot.

Time will tell whether that actually happens, and I respect the views of those who think that this is the best thing to do. 

But whatever happens here's a challenge I'd like to throw out. The Amina Test. I met her last July in a slum in Dar es Salaam. She is a highly intelligent and passionate woman who wanted to study as a nurse and won a place at a local college to do so. But when she turned up, ready to forge a career, and better both her own circumstances and that of her fellow citizens in doing so, she found that her place had been sold to someone else - who did not have the same qualifications as her, but had better political connections instead. Her future had been traded away. There was no question of appealing, or being able to do anything whatsoever about it. Amina now lives in the same slum, is not a nurse and has no hope of being so but continues her vocation by working alongside an older woman in a kind of apprenticeship for traditional medicine; helping women give birth who cannot afford to use the local hospital among other treatments. 

A bridge too far for really responsive government in Dar
Amina lives in a place that is regularly flooded, with a water mark high on the walls of her home, and rarely sees any local government officials. Standing down the path from her home, past the piles of rubbish festering in the heat, is a broken bridge that for me symbolised what government looked like to her. The bridge, which connected two halves of the area, had been broken by a flood several years ago. Despite regular promises to fix it, usually at election time, it still stood broken, with the villagers having constructed a hazardous plank across. Below them is a river that doubles as a clothes washing facility and a latrine. Amina's comment as she looked at the bridge was that the only thing the State seemed to be efficient at was collecting her taxes. Failure of citizens like her to pay them on time resulted in fines or prison, both very efficiently levied. 

A year on what I remember most about meeting her was the sheer level of cynicism she and others had toward both local and national government. It's not hard to understand why. And my reason for recounting this is to wonder just how connected the topics of conversation at the OGP Africa meeting will relate to how the world looks through the eyes of Amina. Because it needs to, to be relevant and stand any chance of being as transformative as it seeks to be.

Young activists' tributes to Nelson Mandela 
The people who will be at OGP Africa, from government, civil society and business alike, will be elites. As am I. But that includes many people from each of those categories who are deeply committed to doing what they can to transform the way that governments relate to citizens. I saw that at first hand during an inspirational session at the African Union in March, as civil society from across the continent sought to shape an African position on open data. Or at this meeting in South Africa as a post-post-apartheid generation sought to utilise the OGP platform to generate real change in the increasingly authoritarian politics of that country.

Inspiring backdrop to OGP South Africa meeting 
My point is that their collective challenge will be to ground each of their discussions - which will revolve around open data, reporting and participation - to the harsh realities of power, politics, marginalisation and inequality; not to mention the ever present threat of intimidation. These are frequently lacking from the open government discourse which often centres on tech, transparency and dubious assumptions of what citizens will actually do with data. If we see communiques and statements coming out of OGP Africa - signed up to by Governments and civil society alike - that demonstrably relate to those issues, setting clear and measurable goals to address them in meaningful ways, then the meeting will have passed the Amina Test. She has the right to expect that it does. 

Tuesday 5 May 2015

My new job: at Saferworld

New horizons beckon once again! I am really excited to be joining the peacebuilding NGO Saferworld, as Head of Asia programmes. Saferworld have played a leading role in the policy debates on peace and security in recent years, and have a reputation for innovative programming which seeks to get to the heart of how you transform the dynamics which drive violent conflict in some of the most volatile areas of the world. I've worked alongside them on both levels in recent years; arguing for peace, governance and security to be part of the Post 2015 framework within the corridors of the UN and on programming in the field. It's a real privilege to join the team.

I'm returning to the peacebuilding tribe after spending just over a year with the governance reform programme Making All Voices Count (MAVC). I learned a huge amount in that 12 months and am grateful for having done so, particularly as it has strengthened my conviction that there is an as-yet largely unexplored nexus between governance and peacebuilding approaches that could and should be combined, to unlock the most transformative levels of change we know we need to achieve in order for real change to happen in a world of ever shifting complexity, power & politics. 

Putting that together with the very well established and ground breaking programming areas for which Saferworld is known, in security & justice reform, understanding gender, peace & security and promoting conflict sensitive development among others, I hope we can start to build on those areas while pioneering new approaches in the field that draw from a wider set of experiences, contributing evidence of what works and why. With that in mind I'm looking forward to working again with the many and excellent colleagues, friends and givers of wise counsel I have had the very great privilege to meet in the last year.

Exciting times ahead!