“I come from the state of Bihar, India’s poorest and most corrupt state,” Sanjay Pradhan says. He saw its corruption up close as a child when his father was responsible for road building.
“He was up against the political machinery to fight corruption,” Pradhan says. “As a kid we were harassed; he was threatened; we were in really difficult straits – but he refused to budge”.
They last spoke at 2 o’clock in the morning back in 2010, the day before he argued in court against an illegal road project. He fell and died later that day. “He fought to the end, a lonely reformer, a lonely activist”.
This was a year before the Open Government Partnership was founded, and it inspired Pradhan to leave the hallowed confines of the World Bank and become its new Chief Executive. Now he is building a movement for lonely reformers right across the world.
The original OGP
The Open Government Partnership (always just called ‘the OGP’) was founded by President Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2011, back when liberal internationalism was in fashion. The USA joined a gang of eight nations – Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
They focused on ‘open data’ – releasing government datasets online so that activists could hold government accountable; entrepreneurs could build new businesses powered by transport and location data; and potential suppliers could spot waste and propose cheaper ideas. That was the theory, anyhow.
Pradhan joined OGP in 2016, and it was now 70 nations lobbying for change. “We moved on to say: ‘Are citizens really using this data?’” In many cases, they weren’t; data dashboards were going unused and the world was moving on.
So the second phase looked at broader goals with the same spirit. For example, how could anti-corruption efforts be powered by new contracting standards? The OGP backed a nerdy-sounding “register on beneficial ownership”. This means that governments can easily see who owns all properties and businesses. Without any more shell companies, these assets can’t hide dirty money.
Now OGP is changing again, having decided that: “open government must be open to all,” Pradhan says. This means a greater focus on minorities, democracy, and fighting vested interests. These new movements were showcased at the OGP’s annual summit in Ottawa last month, pulling in thousands of activists from across 75 member nations.
Open Government and closed minds
First, they are taking on big tech and trying to create standards for digital democracy. “There was a sense of hopelessness,” he says, “because the big tech companies are not stepping up.” Pradhan believes there is a space for a global movement to help countries lobby for regulation of political advertising, fake news and threats to individual privacy.
The OGP has worked with France, Canada and the Netherlands to “improve the transparency of public algorithms that impact our lives,” he says. All three have designed similar policies, and the OGP will now help other governments draft similar laws.
Second, the OGP is fighting for democracy which is “under attack”, he says – even in some OGP member nations. They want to fight for citizens and activists taking on the “strong men”, he said as he opened the Ottawa summit. And the movement will look for data on whether citizens can oversee budgets and whether journalists are able to work and participate.
Third, they will focus on gender inclusion within government. They set a target for at least 23 member nations to make a commitment this year to gender inclusion within government and the civil service. Afghanistan was the first to sign up, he says.
Who leads it?
The world is a different place to 2011. “The original picture of the OGP ain’t looking very pretty if you look at it now,” Pradhan admits. There are greater threats to democracy across the world, he believes, and the movement has lost political sway with some crucial member states.
The United States no longer loves international agencies, worrying about their costs and presumed liberal bias. It slashed funding for the United Nations, and pulled out of big agencies like UNESCO. It was notably absent in Ottawa for OGP’s annual summit.
These events have lost their level of prestige, he admits. Past summits gathered heads of state while this had only one political leader – the host. “We don’t have the same degree of high level political energy” he says.
The movement has responded, working closer with grassroots activists and shifting geographically. The new chairs this year are Argentina, Indonesia, South Korea and Germany. All are led by liberal reformers.
“The original founders had an espirit de corps because they were creating something new,” he says. The mission now is to “forge a new coalition” and unite a group that wants to fight for democratic values against “authoritarians”, he says.
The roads we take
I bumped into a founder politician and asked them how they view the OGP now. “It used to be measurable,” the person says. “Did they get the data out or not?” The softer goals around gender and tech are harder to build a movement around, they add.
When this is put to Pradhan, he notes that “you can have movement on the micro thing: ‘did you get the data out’? But the question is: ‘what impact would it have on people’s lives’?” The previous movement “ran its course” and now they need to have “deeper routes inside countries; that’s when it will really starts to show in people’s lives”.
OGP is not looking to expand its membership; and is even taking some of them on. “The most blatant example is Azerbaijan. It joined, jailed journalists, attacked civic space,” he says. The nation has been suspended as a member and globally shamed, for what it’s worth.
“You’re seeing a rise of resurgent forces attacking democratic institutions,” he warns. Citizens trust government less and less, while populists are feeding on this to boost their own agendas. Pradhan sees OGP as a “countervailing force”. By pulling together activists and reformers, helping them create practical policies, “this could be a powerful alternative to the rise of the negative,” he says.
That is not yet happening, he admits. But he is determined to reinvigorate his community, and help empower people like Minister Yama Yari, who is using OGP approaches to take on the Afghan Mafia and slash corruption in road building. In some ways, it is full circle for Pradhan, and he believes that he can give these reformers the support his father lacked.
This is no easy task: one OGP member has to beam into Ottawa on an iPad strapped to a segway, his passport confiscated by the Tanzanian Government. But the OGP wants to be the movement that these fighters join. They are beaten, bloodied, but keep pressing on.