Saturday 9 April 2016

Panama Peril for Opengov

This was the week the open government movement lost a leader, and began to realise its own frailty. The implications of a global political crisis sparked by the Panama Papers revelations has already claimed one Prime Minister, but for the openness movement it is another political casualty that risks exposing the flank of a movement that to date has enjoyed glitz, glamour and relative safety. David Cameron’s disastrous week involved issuing no less than five statements followed by an awkward TV interview in which he revealed that yes he had in fact benefitted from an offshore secret tax avoidance scheme, but promised not to do it again. He increasingly resembles Blair in the latter years, as even St. Snowden calls for his head.

Personally I think £30,000 inherited from your father that you sold prior to becoming Prime Minister is spectacularly small fry. But my opinion doesn’t matter – he’s joined the ranks of the politically walking dead. And that matters. 

Days gone by: HLP on post 2015
Cameron has long been a vital source of support for the open government movement. From his time co-chairing the High Level Panel on Post 2015, where he placed anti-corruption alongside economic growth and peace as part of his ‘golden thread’ ideas – which in turn found their expression in SDG 16, through to ensuring a reformed DFID invested in governance and peacebuilding; and forging coalitions of progressive donor countries to support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) he has been a long-standing source of political and financial support for the movement to grow and thrive. That he did so against the wilder instincts of the right wing of his own party is to his enduring credit.

So his leaving the stage, along with Obama, matters. It opens up three main challenges which are each potentially terminal for the movement for openness: an increased ability of strongman elites to block progress, a withdrawal of funding for the movement and a consequent vulnerability to other external shocks.

Poised to strike 

Political elites reach and maintain power by being ruthless. Amid the Panama revelations last week we saw the ICC dismiss a case against the Kenyan Vice President over a lack of evidence resulting from witnesses recanting their evidence. Allegations abound of why so many witnesses suddenly decided to withdraw their evidence. Political prisoners reside in several OGP countries, while others have banned newspapers that print inconvenient articles. And you may remember Jacob Zuma, the current co-chair of OGP, once gave a speech attacking the idea of the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the initiative he co-chairs. He seems to have survived another corruption scandal this week too. My point here is that elites like this have got very different ideas about openness, transparency and accountability, and the movement needs as many supporters as it can get. Where are the Southern political leaders to replace Cameron and Obama? 

An independent reporting mechanism in action
Where’s the money? 

The harsh reality for the open government movement is that it relies on a fickle donor community to keep going. Many European donors have already scaled back their funding to deal with the political fall out of the biggest refugee flow streaming across the plains of Europe since 1945. That will worsen this summer. DFID has long been chief among donors supporting this work, but will it continue under new political ownership? Many will have noticed that Justine Greening has not rushed to Cameron’s defence. With the Opposition Labour Party in no state to win the next General Election it is hard to see any of the leading contenders to replace Cameron as Prime Minister regarding this as a priority. Particularly not this man.

That would leave USAID about to be overshadowed by the prospect of a demagogue, with the other major donors caught between an intolerant domestic electorate and an increasingly vocal political opposition to the idea of continued assistance.

External shocks 

The one thing we can predict is that the future is unpredictable. The impact of another 2008 scale economic shock, more horror from Syria or the re-opening of frozen conflicts will all have their impacts on the movement for openness and transparency. To my mind this underlines why OGP in particular needs urgently to step out of its comfort zones and adapt its approaches to take into account the fragility, power dynamics and conflicts that underlie so many of the symptoms it seeks to tackle. There’s no tech, or app for that, I'm afraid. Data needs to be understood in the political context which will shape the responses of elites and citizens alike.

Grounds for hope

Amid the peril, hope. I spoke to a grass roots leader of an activist network of women in Sri Lanka yesterday. They work across that conflict scarred but beautiful island supporting widows and other women in a fight for social justice that has been going since the nation’s independence. These are the people who will ultimately determine whether abstract international constructs like OGP or the SDGs actually mean anything. Where are their voices in those high level summits so beloved of donors and practitioners alike? To date they have consistently failed the Amina Test which I suggested as a metric for the Africa meeting of OGP last year. We need to hand power to people like Amina and listen to what she wants and can tell us a whole lot more. If we do that, then I think the movement can transition into a long lasting force for good that actually changes things. 

That doesn't mean the international voice of civil society isn’t important either. The global movement which grew into the Beyond2015 coalition consistently challenged the idea that openness, transparency and peace was a Northern inspired idea. The momentum that this movement captured offers a chance to maintain the pressure on all political elites which, if harnessed, has already show itself to be a powerful force that cannot be ignored.

Many people, including me, were profoundly sceptical as to whether the post-2015 campaigns would overcome the scale of the challenges before them. But they did. And they did so because of people like the Sri Lankan activist, the Tanzanian mobiliser, the South African children of struggle and their allies in the wider development movement. Those are the people who can succeed in the more difficult times ahead as the pushback begins in earnest.

Power and politics never went away. They were just sleeping.

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