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.


  1. Thanks Chris, as always for your thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary. It cannot be denied that civic space challenges are deepening in Tanzania, but Tanzanians are not left empty-handed by this exit. There is some foundation to continue driving the transparency, accountability and participation agenda. A greater acceptance by government of more open data is one case in point. In July, I listened with gladness as government officials complained at having to work late to upload basic education statistics onto the government open data portal. This past week, the Minister for Transport and Communication asked contractors to open up the data on the quality of the structures they are putting up (not being an engineer, I have no idea quite what that means, but I am gratified by the sentiment). The stellar collaboration between the eGovernment Agency, various sectoral ministries and the World bank to open up over 167 datasets is praiseworthy. This seemingly technocratic move helped reduce the information asymmetry between government and ordinary citizens, and offers that latter greater power and confidence to hold the former more accountable, on the basis of objective information. The passage of the Access to Information Act in 2016 is also notable and once again puts citizens in a better position to engage the government. Citizens are ultimately responsible for securing the level of transparency, accountability and participation (the Trust Troika) that they want. The OGP offers an excellent global platform for domestic reforms and accountability. For 6 years, Tanzania tested out this platform. It is the better for it.

  2. Thanks Aidan - it'll be people and organisations like yours that drives Tanzania forward. Good luck.

  3. Can't say there's much that I could disagree with in your blog Chris. I'm also of the "better fewer, but better" leaning. However I'd like to disagree with you slightly in your appraisal of the Tanzanian position within OGP.

    We probably need to be careful not to conflate country, state and administration. It may well be that a particular administration, at a point in time, may adopt certain positions that are inconsistent with a desired principle or value, but that does not necessarily mean that the entire country's qualification to be part of an initiative such as OGP comes into question. What is important to me as basis for assessment are not political whims but institutions and the legal framework supporting particular values or principles.

    Where the legal framework and institutional arrangements fundamentally undermine the values we seek to promote then it may be proper to question the country's membership of an initiative such as OGP.

    So what I'm suggesting is that perhaps you may be a little harsh in your assessment of Tanzania's position as country, while you may be quite accurate on your assessment of the administration.

    The one big challenge that faces OGP at national levels is that it is very much susceptible to political currents. We have not yet devised methods of insulating OGP from political changes at country level. So you start off with a very supportive administration and then you have elections and a different administration takes over and not prioritize OGP. It can't be that on the basis of such change you then argue that a country is to be removed. What happens when you have elections again and you have a supportive administration? You may end up with a messy revolving door situation. Our is to encourage and help participating countries to stay the course. Certainly in situations where the environment is fundamentally changed legally and institutionally and there are serious civic space issue, then the initiative would be better off without those countries.

    I don't believe Tanzania is there yet. That is why this decision is regrettable.

  4. Thanks for this Chris, and to Aidan and Mukelani for their helpful perspective, including interesting comments on "insulating OGP from political changes at country level". That prompts a lot of questions for me about the desirability and feasibility of insulating OGP from political change, and about the relationship between governance reform, OGP and politics.

    This is worth a look too

  5. Hi Alan,

    The feasibility of insulating OGP from political changes is the point I make, it's difficult as we have found. However I'm interested to know the circumstances under which it may not be desirable to insulate OGP from political changes.

  6. Thanks Mukelani. Did you mean insulating OGP from the effects of political transitions and changes in government, as in Tanzania? If that's what you meant, then, yes, I understand the desirability of that. What was in my head was a more general point; that governance reform is fundamentally about power and politics and as such insulating, or separating OGP from the processes it is intended to support, would not seem to be feasible or desirable. Does that make sense? I think we agree, but let me know if you disagree :-)