Friday 23 October 2015

What does openness look like: a response

MAVC has just posted an interesting take on what it regards as the key issues to consider when trying to understand what open government actually means, ahead of next weeks OGP Summit in Mexico. Their main question is “will all this openness actually change things”? Nailed it. But while they are headed in the right direction I worry that it’s what they don’t talk about rather than what they do, which indicates that some initiatives still really don’t quite get it.

To get to the answer of whether openness changes things, the questions they pose are threefold and set as metrics with which to measure the relative impact of OGP. Let’s have a look at the questions. Stating rightly that “Too often, we conflate openness with provision of information, or with the thinking that if everyone knows what government commitments are, or if budgets and datasets are published online, then that’s a commitment fulfilled”, they list:
  • What are you publishing?/ Do people care – who is asking for this information? / Is it in a format people can understand?
  • Where are you publishing it? / Who has access? Let’s be clear: the internet does not operate in universally accessible languages, nor is everyone actually able to afford, or get access.
  • Does this information actually help people improve people’s lives, or is it just PR so governments and organisations can say they are open and get an international pat on the back?
Oh dear. Are we really answering a question as fundamental as whether openness will actually change things, with issues about formatting, accessible languages and PR? The third inquiry offers the most hope with an opaque reference to improving people’s lives but I would have hoped to see something here about reaching and engaging marginalised groups, providing inclusive space for collective action, guarding civic space or simply just passing the Amina Test of relevance to the average citizen’s experience.

The MAVC article ambitiously goes on to try to ‘redefine openness’ as a tool to achieve change. They argue:
“Openness should mean that government plans are shaped not just by politicians, but are genuinely inclusive. It should mean that huge datasets are not published without thinking about who can actually understand them. It should mean publishing not just the ‘safe’ information, but also information that can be used to actually track what government is doing, what it is spending and achieving on behalf of its citizens.

It should mean that governments are open to change, to new ideas and criticism”.
Well, who could argue with any of that? And that’s the problem here. Let’s unpack things for a minute.

‘Genuinely inclusive’ – yay. But who defines that and what are we talking about. Women? Ethnic groups? LGBT? Disabled people? Political dissidents? One of the reasons statements like this are so easy to make but are so easily swept aside is that as soon as you start talking specifics you start to come across very sensitive subjects very quickly. If you are a gay man in several OGP member states you run the risk of being stuck on the front page of a newspaper, being locked up or attacked. If you are a political dissident in Azerbaijan you risk being locked up or murdered. That is the scale of the challenge in many places. And if the world leaders who proclaimed the SDG 2030 agenda were serious when they pledged to ‘leave no-one behind’ then they are going to need to take these open government approaches, defined in SDG16, to some very fragile, volatile and dangerous places to be a citizen. Have we done enough thinking about how to do that?

Publishing ‘huge datasets’ without thinking who can understand them. Well, yes.

Not just publishing ‘safe’ information. Safe for who? MAVC think it’s the government – they go on to talk about information on government activity, expenditure and performance. It might be worth considering just how ‘safe’ it is for citizens living in environments characterised by elite resource capture, security forces that operate with near impunity and endemic social exclusion – not to mention fragility and violence – to even contemplate using such information. I would politely suggest not very safe at all.

Governments ‘should be open to change, to new ideas and criticism’. Again, yay. But what do we mean? Most western donors would frame that in terms of ‘democracy’ or ‘democratisation’, and that’s reflected in heavy funding for programmes to institute elections or short term governance initiatives. But the evidence tells us that fundamental change doesn’t happen either through elections or short term initiatives, least of all those that rely on ‘fixes’ or ‘feedback loops’. Change in the citizen-State relationship is the result of contestation, challenge and evolution. The Word Development Report of 2011 posited that this process should be thought of in terms of three decades – and that’s without interruptions like natural disasters, economic shocks or conflict.

Asking tougher questions

I’ll be applying a tougher lens to what I see in Mexico next week. I will want to hear how world leaders and civil society elites have sought to develop thinking about how to define processes by which citizens and their governments can collectively define what their problems actually are, including highly sensitive ones like FGM, violence against women, corruption and exclusion; what success would really look like and a future that they can jointly sign up to. That would mean Amina having confidence that her daughter would not have her education stolen by corrupt local elites. Or these folk in Liberia having confidence in their local police force as they build a sustainable future out of conflict.

I’d like to hear about whether those involved in the opendata discourse have started to think about how to really understand and respond to marginalisation, exclusion and violence as much as whether standard service delivery projects are running efficiently and reported on using an app.

There are really exciting possibilities to do some of this stuff. Bringing people who are not currently part of the opengov conversation into it would be a good start. Engaging in collaboration on projects which are designed according to what the problems are – as they are understood by local people – and then seek to learn about what works, why and how. Bringing super clever techies together with people who routinely do amazing work in building bridges not of data or technology but of human trust between communities used to decades of conflict and reform minded officials in government. There is simply no point trying to be more ‘inclusive’ and efficient, with well presented ‘datasets’ if there is a profound deficit of legitimacy and trust, within a history of violence and exclusion. You need to tackle both in creative ways and over a long period. But that will mean thinking a lot further outside of the box than seems to be happening in many places at the moment.

Monday 19 October 2015

Aid funding: UN Chief raises hackles of large INGOs

Stephen O'Brien, new head of UNHCR, told a conference in Geneva earlier last week that only 2% of humanitarian funding went to local aid agencies in disaster hit areas, despite in his words their being faster, cheaper and more culturally appropriate. It has re-awakened calls for the funding system which privileges large INGOs and agencies at the cost of local organisations, provoking predictable hackles to be raised in Northern capital HQs.

And although this is a humanitarian debate surely it speaks to the development sector as a whole. For years now some INGOs have understood that the days of top-heavy structures based in the North are over, while others have tried to recruit or transfer skills to the areas in which they operate. That has not been without cost, in particular to the jobs of those staff unable or unwilling to relocate, but if the sector is serious about investing in precisely the sort of long term sustainable ‘capacity’ it says is important, surely it needs collectively to embrace this trend. But it doesn’t. At least not uniformly.

And that’s a problem that can have catastrophic consequences. International aid agencies with very little contextual understanding make bad decisions in what can be dangerous environments where conflict intersects with calamity. The response to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka arguably led to the re-ignition of that country’s civil war because those taking decisions did not understand the power dynamics they were dealing with and the likely responses of elites on both sides. Many thousands of people beyond those affected by the natural disaster paid for that with their lives.

c/o Eric Garland: Haiti school earthquake
Haiti, Nepal and other disasters provide similarly salutary lessons in the limitations of large scale international response as the primary means of response, from unintentionally stimulating violence to issues of accountability. Surely it would not take a great deal to first identify regions susceptible to disaster and secondly to invest, long term, in locally based, culturally embedded and conflict sensitive agencies who can be ready the next time a disaster comes along? Isn’t this part of the resilience agenda we used to hear so much about?

But when you read the reactions of some of the larger agencies to this suggestion, and presumably these reactions feature in their donor lobbying, you begin to see why this never seems to happen every time we have the debate. Here’s Sean Lowrie, of the Start Network, which brings together international and national NGOs for humanitarian response. Its members include Save the Children, Oxfam and Christian Aid, speaking to the Guardian:
“We’re still working in an old-fashioned, centralised, top-down system, which believes in the fallacy of control. We’re stuck and we’re not talking about the real issue, which are incentives, behaviour and governance. What we need is a whole new eco-system of smart humanitarianism, which responds to what is needed, which is flexible and diversified, and which is financed in new, smart ways.”
That sounds great. But part of the problem is that it sounds great to everyone because these are large statements that mean everything to everyone. When it gets down to the bottom line what we surely need to see are smaller, in-country based and more agile agencies that understand and are able to navigate the intensely political environments within which disasters take place while building community level resilience in between. I wonder whether we will actually see concrete moves towards such a structure, with the call for 20% of funding to go to smaller agencies having been made at the Geneva summit at which Mr O’Brien was speaking. Or will we need to wait for another catastrophe to have this recurring conversation again.

Friday 16 October 2015

OGP & SDG16: Time to leave our comfort zones

Is the Open Government Partnership complimentary, contradictory or in competition with the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular SDG16 on governance? That was the big question posed by researchers from the Partnership for Transparency Fund writing earlier this week. The writers conclude that there is much to be gained from a complimentary approach and hope that conversations at the forthcoming Mexico OGP Summit will start to enable that to happen. The questions are posed in the context of some arguing that OGP should be the ‘home’ for SDG16 on governance, justice and peace to be implemented.

In response I think that the question is wrong and the answer is only partly right. Wrong because the idea that this is the first time that a multilateral initiative has been replicating large parts of another initiative is clearly not true, this is just the latest example. And only partly right because the opportunity here is fundamentally more exciting than just better co-ordination or the avoidance of duplication. We have an opportunity of a generation to actually do something effective for once about the interplay between power, politics, conflict and poverty. But we'll have to do that away from international institutions and policy wonkery, and in new and different ways.

On whether OGP should be the home of SDG16 I think there are fewer nuances. The idea is madness. For this to be the case you would need all countries of the world to join. And it’s worth bearing in mind that some existing member states have a nasty habit of shutting down a free press, locking up political opponents and using violence against their own citizens as a political tool. Perhaps a bit of institutional housecleaning to be done first.

The authors note that there is significant overlap between OGP goals and targets and that of SDG 16 on governance, peace and justice. Welcome to the world of international initiatives. OGP has also overlapped with the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States for years. While the authors rightly argue that this could lead to unhealthy competition among initiatives rather than actually helping, I would politely suggest that the elites in many of the countries that have been members of both these initiatives, and who have made least progress on either, may also welcome the opportunity to merrily play the international community off against each other. That’s politics, folks.

The authors argue that OGP and SDG16 could collaborate in a brave new agenda for “…the larger goal of good governance”. Aside from the very loaded term ‘good’ it might also be worth bearing in mind that the OGP’s experience to date, and that of the New Deal before it, offer sage lessons in the challenges that face anyone seeking to turn SDG16 into reality. The New Deal ran into sand when elites in some member countries started to perceive that the OECD donors were themselves losing interest. OGP member states have stood accused by its own Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) of instrumentalising the initiative without delivering any form of governance reform at all. Chief among culprits was the current Chair South Africa, prompting President Zuma to reprimand the oversight of the IRM in front of President Obama at the 2014 OGP meeting at the UN General Assembly. Which was awkward.

"they take our taxes but don't fix our bridge". Amina's village, Dar es Salaam
Furthermore it’s worth reflecting that every time you create an initiative, platform or any other multilateral grouping – you create incentives, including those that mitigate against change and create closed conversations. A while ago I asked whether OGP in Africa would pass the Amina Test: whether this initiative which at the time was meeting in the same city she lived in would actually mean anything to the daily life of this young woman who knew all about corruption, bad governance and extreme poverty because her life chances had been stolen by all three. The consensus among African civil society voices by all accounts was that it would not pass that test. Unless and until initiatives like New Deal, OGP or even the SDGs actually mean anything to people like Amina we should perhaps temper our ambitions.

But therein lies the opportunity and the challenge. We can learn all of these lessons. We don’t need to repeat these errors. We cannot just pay lip service to Amina but instead meaningfully invite her and her community to shape the response. Hard to do, yes. But still possible. We can do all of those things. But it will mean, for civil society in particular, to start to move away from the international policy wonkery that has been the home for many of these ideas and start working to a far greater extent at national level for the next 5-10 years instead. Why hold a policy meeting in New York when you could have a more meaningful discussion with these people in Turkana: they have far more expertise in what power and governance looks like than UN officialdom does and will offer far greater insights than a debate where international folk who agree with each other talk to each other. It will mean going out of our way to capturing the learning that all of our experiences and those of others generate. And then using that learning collectively – as donors, practitioners and advocates to have honest conversations about failure as well as success. For those of us in the peacebuilding world it will mean working with new partners, and for those on the governance side of things the same. And for all of us it will mean thinking, working and acting politically but in ways which respect national sovereignty and local leadership.

Turkana village governors: the real governance policy experts
We can do all of that. But some of it will challenge our own institutional incentives, vested interests of the aid industry and frankly take many of us individually out of our comfort zones. Leverage every platform or initiative that there is out there - we have SDG16 now and that's a major advance - but we won't succeed in making it a success by seeing the next step as more engagement with international institutions. It will be won or lost on the ground, in hard and sometimes violent places.

If we genuinely want to seize the opportunity of SDG16, then that’s the deal, folks.