Sunday 24 September 2017

Peace in our time? Europe, Fascism & Brexit

In May 1993 I was nearly 17 years old. Two events in 1993-1994 that took place in faraway places profoundly affected the way I saw the world and what I wanted to do when I grew up. One of them were the deaths of Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic. They were young people who loved each other. But Admira was a Bosnian Muslim while Bosko was a Serb. Yugoslavia was at that time being ripped apart by an ethnically defined and genocidal conflict which dictated that their relationship was not permitted. But they hadn’t read the script. As they ran across a square under sniper fire in a desperate attempt to escape the madness and live a life together shots rang out, killing Bosko instantly and injuring Admira. Instead of seeking to escape Admira crawled over to Bosko, lay down beside him and placed her arm across his chest. Witnesses said she died some 15 minutes later. I remember the images of their bodies lying in the square as snipers refused to agree a ceasefire. It was an image that said so much about tragedy but also something profound about the strength of the human spirit.

I’ve often thought of them in the years since, as I’ve been privileged to see others in conflict build peace, frequently overcoming experiences and hatred with almost unimaginable strength, imagination and commitment. But I think about them more now, and I worry that we are not heeding the warning their story teaches us, especially in Europe.

Recorded human history shows the ease with which populations can be manipulated into identifying themselves against ‘the other’. Elites construct ideals and largely fabricated or airbrushed national stories that either ignore the positive role of others or portray them as somehow malign. Scholars like Benedict Anderson came up with the term “imagined communities” to describe this. And before you start to think that all sounds very far removed, when was the last time we saw a ceremony to mark the role of Polish, Indian, Caribbean or African soldiers who fought for and with Britain in the 1940s?

At a time when we need the highest calibre of political leadership in Europe, we are rewarded with Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Claude van Juncker instead. And in that absence of political leadership and thus an increasingly antagonistic relationship between UK and rest of Europe is the risk of rising division which you can see elsewhere across the continent.

My country Britain succumbed to baser human instincts in last years referendum on membership of the European Union. I don’t blame those who did. They knew they were being forgotten about by a political elite who repeatedly demonstrated their lack of interest. But the tenor, tone, rumour and myth that dominated the campaign was sinister. You have to wonder what underlies a country totally reliant on immigration for its public services and industrial base voting against foreigners, which is how the referendum was presented.

Today's National Socialism
In Germany  the far right has just been elected to the Reichstag for the first time since 1933. They are the third largest party. No surprises that Mr Brexit Nigel Farage recently spoke at one of their rallies. And in Holland Geert Wilders may have lost the election. But he did come second. And if you look behind the euphoria of the elites at Macron’s victory in France it’s worth bearing in mind that that is the second time a neo-Nazi candidate also came second. Donald Trump may be the caricature of alt-right politics, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that much of his own programme centres on fear of foreigners too.

I believe Admira and Bosko were optimists. They ran across that square together because they thought there was a chance, however slim, of a better life. I’ve seen enough of others like them in the years since to be an optimist too, if a little cynical. But I wonder what they would tell us to do now. I think they’d tell us that as our political classes abdicate their responsibilities we can’t sit passively by and allow a similar set of disasters to emerge, fuelled by fear of foreigners and ‘the other’.

Admira and Bosko were buried side by side by their families. Their memory tells us never to be so complacent to imagine we couldn’t get to that stage again, even in Europe. I hope in time we get a calibre of political leadership across Europe, Britain and the wider West that we can trust in. But in the meantime it’s on us. Civic society in all its forms to oppose and challenge intolerance and division while promoting a European Union, a United Kingdom and a West which is open, inclusive and liberal.

The question, which I am rattling my brain about, is how.

Friday 22 September 2017

Tanzania leaves OGP: watershed moment?

Tanzania is leaving the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This was a country lauded by OGP itself to the extent that the initiatives Africa regional meeting was held there, even while its government closed down newspapers. An awkward contradiction. When I spoke to ordinary citizens there, this was a government that had not earned the trust of its people and arguably had no place at the OGP table. The lesson of Tanzania, therefore, is surely that an initiative like OGP has to have red lines, and that the currency of credibility is trust.

So what can we learn from this? I would argue that including recalcitrant countries within an initiative that is there to open up government to the people undermines that initiative itself, in turn arguably doing harm to that relationship by creating a form of whitewash that removes incentives for genuine reform. Therefore there should probably be fewer members of OGP but those who remain could inspire others. And there’s always a route back into OGP. Tanzania is in reverse gear but that’s not inevitably the future.

Change is messy

But this isn’t a purist argument either. No government in the world is perfect, as my own in the United Kingdom is so magnificently demonstrating at the moment. It’s fine to have a messy picture. At this meeting in South Africa I remember passionate, fiery but deeply cynical civil society activists lamenting the state of their own governance while OGP’s own Paul Maassen urged them to see OGP as a lever to exert pressure and to hold those elites to account. OGP can be a space for citizen-state contestation with chaos, collision and innovation on both sides. That’s a perspective on power and its one that holds a lot of purchase, so long as there is sufficient civic space for that to happen.

Down with technocracy

At this week’s UN General Assembly Sanjay Pradhan, the CEO of the OGP, released a collection of essays themed on the essential role of trust. At the event EU Commissioner Timmermans, one of the more human of the Brussels political class, talked of citizens demanding their governments to do less talking about openness and more doing about it. As Gov says ‘trust me’ the citizen response is increasingly ‘show me’, he said. That sort of thinking is such a long way forward from the way those in the opengov community used to talk about it. I’m hopeful that the days of fetishising technology, lauding technocracy and placing faith in simplistic ‘feedback loops’ have now been replaced by serious analysis of the messy, contested way in which change in governance actually happens.

Watershed moment?

Because if it has, then Tanzania could be a watershed. Rather than despair at the withdrawal of a country that should probably never been a member because its polity was simply not ready, now could be the time to redouble efforts, but do so with eyes wide open. A lesson of Tanzania is to know what the red lines are: freedom of the press for example. And to apply those red lines. Another, as I was told by Amina in Dar es Salaam, is to measure the right things: like trust. Or legitimacy. Or justice. Not report cards. Nor projects. Nor activities. Trust is intangible, and there’s no app for that.

High stakes

So I hope Tanzania is that watershed. And while some more Governments should be shown the door, we should champion others who are joining OGP right now and those continuing to make real strides. OGP isn’t the be all and end all of everything, and there are other routes to improving governance. The SDGs for example. But it is a barometer of sorts and one worth supporting, not least as the crisis in State legitimacy is now leading us to some very dark places. People who do not trust their political class and feel marginalised reach for extremes. That’s human nature. One extremist now runs the most powerful country in the world. So this is high stakes, and it’s incumbent on us all to pull together.