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.

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