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.
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.
|Young activists' tributes to Nelson Mandela|
|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.