U.S. Agency for International Development, Remarks, Office of Press Relations, December 15, 2021
R. EYAKUZE: Hello to everybody else, from a very sunny Dar es Salaam. I know it’s very early there, Ambassador Power, and it’s getting late-ish for you, Aruna, so let’s have a fun fireside chat, and I’m really looking forward to learning from you, being inspired by you, learning a bit of history lessons of what got you to start the OGP, and then to get some ideas on how we retake this thing forward. You see the back of me. There’s some Swahili words on the banner behind me, saying, “demokrasia yetu.” That means “our democracy,” and I really want us to have this conversation about that.
So at this time, I’m asking you respectfully, in the spirit of a fireside chat, I may refer to you as Aruna and Samantha. Is that okay?
MS. ROY: Yeah, that’s fine.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Of course.
MR. EYAKUZE: Lovely, thank you so much. So, public participation in civic space is at the core of the open government declaration, which was adopted 10 years ago. And by the founding 17, I’ll call them the founding 17, the eight governments, nine civil society leaders. And you two were part of those founding 17. So, let me ask you this first question: What were your ambitions for public participation and civic space a decade ago? Ten years later, what are you most proud of having achieved in this space? Let’s start with Aruna, and then I’ll come back to you, Samantha.
MS. ROY: I am so glad I am with Samantha, because I think maybe a decade ago, we met in the USA, and I think people like you got [inaudible] in the government then. You’re in government again, and you, I think, have negotiated the difficult task of extending the boundaries of government by being vocal and committed to issues of open government. I’m really glad you’re here, so that, with you and I, there will be two parts of the story.
The initiators of OGP, in a way, also convinced people who were slightly skeptical, like me, in a steering committee that there was an important role that people could play together, but still, the OGP — actually, we were on two sides of the fence. The government on one side, and civil society on the other. So we were really happy to come together to work together. And it’s very rarely that you get an opportunity like this one, to be part of a historical process and get comments on what has happened. But I think singularly, with singular achievement, the OGP, for me, is the exponential growth that it’s had, but also the fact that it was much more than just a civil society and government coming together, but it was coming together with equality. And equality not only in the nature of participation in speaking, but in terms of processes — deliberative processes, and the equal number of cultures and every meeting we had, it was equal representation of civil society and of the governments. And the synergetic coalitions that we actually dreamed of came to be. But it also set very practical standards for-right-to-know free speech, freedom of expression, and it demystified government for many of us, because we didn’t know what was going on behind the walls of secrecy. It drew the curtain of secrecy, and many things came to be.
It opened new possibilities in multilateral efforts, in international coalitions, in global solidarities, and in our engagement structures of power, we learned how to deal with power, both domestically and internationally. And now, as we face pushback, repression, and restrictions in transitional democracies, we know how much we have achieved. I would say that OGP popularized information sharing and open government as a necessary part of the framework of governance, and has made citizen participation a systemic reality.
MR. EYAKUZE: Yes. Let me invite Samantha to also reflect — what are you most proud of? I recall five years ago, we were in Paris together at the Paris Summit, and you happened to say — you were quite despondent, because it was after the election results were — you were quite despondent. But if you look over 10 year space, what is it that you are most proud of, with respect to protecting civic space or advancing the public participation in the OGP space?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think, first of all, in Paris, I was not the only one who was despondent, [laughs] last I checked. But I think it’s important to go back, actually, to the precipitant for what happened in the coming together that Aruna has talked about. I was very influenced by a young staffer on the National Security Council named Jeremy Weinstein, who some of you know. And Jeremy and I went to President Obama, and, like so many people in democracies at the time, we went with all the horrifying statistics about the extent to which civil society was being cramped, or civic space, as somebody put it last week at Biden’s democracy summit was not being reduced, but eliminated.
And so all those NGO laws that are now way worse, 10 years later, unfortunately, as we put it at the time, the bad guys are learning from each other. What can we do to use the convening power that the U.S. has, potentially, to create resources and a network and enhance the network that’s already existing, of course, in more informal ways, to ensure that the good people like Aruna, out there in the front lines, have a hook to engage governments that may be moving in the wrong direction, or have a hook to engage other civil society warriors and other government reformers in other parts of the world? So, that was the idea. It was a defensive, I think, precipitant, in one respect, but it was offensive in that I, personally, as somebody who is not, by any means, an expert on right to information, was completely inspired by the RTI movement, specifically in India.
And I do want to call it out a little bit, because I think that there were many at the beginning of OGP who thought of this as kind of techy, modern — what are the new tech tools that can be brought to bear. It was so inspiring and informative about the RTI movement there, and then, how that is, I do think, inspiring so many around the world is it shows, Aruna just said, the power of information per se. And that, you know, when you take information from filing cabinets that are gathering dust, and manila folders, and get that information out to the people, and that’s what, — you all know the images of people actually writing the information up on schoolhouse walls or factory walls, and then you see somebody coming and saying, “Wait, it says that information from the center says that I’m supposed to have been paid X amount for this roadworks project. I didn’t get paid that amount.” Or, “Wait, so-and-so, he died. What the hell is his name doing up there?” You know, and for me, that was like, it was a revelation, right, about information as, not leveling the playing field, we can’t kid ourselves, but giving people who are too often left behind and left without a voice this tool, this power.
And so, the first meeting that we had in Washington, Aruna referenced. We had nine governments at the time. We won’t say who the ninth was who didn’t make it across the starting line, and then we had our civil society partners, so it was meant to be symmetrical, in fact. The idea that governments could not play unless and until they developed their national action plans with civil society at the table was very controversial. It was sort of like, would governments do it? I mean, who would join, I’m thinking as a government official, like, “Who are we going to get? I mean, how are we going to go to countries? Are they going to say, ‘Wait, I’m trying to eliminate civil society, not develop a national action plan with civil society?” Anyway, so —
MR. EYAKUZE: [inaudible] would join, you know?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah, so what seems obvious now, I just want to bring us, what seems obvious now, and we were influenced by the extractive transparency initiative and so forth. There were other models out there that were already well ahead of us, what we were doing. But the launch was one thing, and I count myself a little bit of a, call me a numerical skeptic. Like, over the years, I would hear that an X number of countries had joined, or X number of cities, but when you ask me what am I most proud of? It’s less that. I mean, I’m thrilled to see this in Korea. I can’t even imagine 10 years later. I’m thrilled that it didn’t miss a beat when the United States receded in the way that we did over the last four years. That’s a real tribute to it, right? When you build institutions that are not dependent on some random group of people sitting around a table. It gets into the bloodstream of the international system.
I’m proud of all that, but the main thing I’m proud of is the way that reformers inside and outside of government have, in fact, learned from one another, on beneficial ownership, on RTI, on open procurement. And let me say one last thing and sorry to hog the floor, here, when we have the great Aruna with us, but now, running USAID, I’ve traveled in recent days to Moldova, to the Dominican Republic. I’ve had very, I think, important opening conversations with, for example, the President of Zambia. These are three countries that have, now, leadership that is dedicated to reform. They ran on anti-corruption platforms, on reformist platforms, and for me to be able to say, “Okay, there’s USAID and the U.S. government and the Department of Treasury, what can we do?” But the most thrilling thing, for me, is to say, “There’s this thing called the Open Government Partnership, and they have this thing called the Technical Support Unit, and they have, within that Technical Support Unit, people who have been to other countries that have tried and maybe failed what you’re trying, or tried and learned in these ways.” And it’s not to say there’s one size fits all. Everything has to be custom to you, but take it away, OGP. That is a remarkable feature of that, and that’s really because I think, civil society grabbed this and ran with it.
MR. EYAKUZE: It’s fantastic, Ambassador, because I think you echo what Sanjay was saying about the mechanism really being set up in an institution to help this partnership really work well. Let’s talk a little bit more about public participation, and Aruna, I might bring you, really, to the present, to last month, where the farmers got three agricultural bills in India repealed, which they were protesting against for a whole year. Isn’t that exciting for you, to see how public participation is actually shaping public policy in India, and what can we learn in other countries from that fantastic experience of that farmers protest to change the laws in India?
MS. ROY: You know, there’s transactional democracies can move both ways. Sometimes, they move forward and sometimes, they move backwards. And, unfortunately in India, we now have a built-in resistance to information sharing and accountability. And actually, the farmers laws should not have been passed in Parliament the way they were. But it was remarkable that for one year, I think the largest movement, probably, in the last few decades of the world. Millions of people just squatted on roads, railway roads, leading into Delhi, and with a very reluctant government, and a government not willing to share. They just totally, in a non-violent way, and with absolute technical perfection, knowing exactly what they wanted and where the laws were wrong, and getting women in such large numbers. Peasant women, farmers, children, writers, poets, people created songs.
The whole of India actually participated in that, and it was an amazing thing. And we are so happy that they have won this battle, because in winning this battle, they have won many things. They have won on transparency. They have won on accountability. They have won on people’s participation and policy making, with which our right to information law actually began in the early decades of this millennium. They have also won the right to obligation for a government to run through it’s parliamentary processes carefully, because it cannot have an ordinance passed in a few minutes on something that’s going to impact the entire country. So it was an extraordinary win for all of us, and it’s come at a time when we’ve been very rejected, because we’ve been looking at suppression of democratic rights. We’ve been looking at inequality coming out, in terms of denial of citizenship to certain parts of the community in the country, so actually, it has been fantastic, and that’s why we feel that people’s movements are really the most important thing.
But if I might just get a bit and talk about the technology broadly, if I may. The technology broadly has come to India, and where we dreamt of technology, opening our windows and doors for people, technology actually closed windows and doors, and brought in surveillance. Now, it became extremely important for movements like us to fight for digital controls, and we had to learn all of this.
So many things to be learned by so many people, but what, in cases and the associated movements in Rajasthan have been able to do, is to work with government in real partnership, get hold of the digital dialogues, make sure that they passed a law called the Jan Soochna Portal, and a portal which you’ll be amazed to know deals with information of 115 government departments and has put it, proactively, on the net. So, you have a portal with dual admin, so anybody can go in. Anybody can access that information and section four of the [inaudible] which was [inaudible] disclosure, or public disclosure, was really suffering. It got this format in place, and we have had, in the last two years, 100 billion visits to this site, and it had 50 million downloads. It’s been an amazing success. Now, another government in India, called the Karnataka government, is also doing this. So, we are now trying to use digital controls with the people, but we are not succeeding fully. There are still issues on which we are fighting, against surveillance, against attacks on young people who are using social media, and so on.
MR. EYAKUZE: Right. Maybe we will move on to that same note, about the weaponization of digital. Samantha, the reason the narrative that authoritarians get things done can be very alluring, right? So, how do we respond as a movement, as a partnership, to people’s frustrations, frankly, with democracy, and apparent inefficiency in delivering public goods? How do you galvanize global political leadership, especially to fight that narrative that authoritarians get things done?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: It’s a great question. I would note an article in yesterday’s New York Times, talking about the challenge that inflation is posing so many governments. But in particular, some of the illiberal forces who swept to power, trying to widen social cleavages and cultural cleavages, but claiming that they got things done, and now in parts of the world, some of which, where elections are actually on the verge of happening, where people are like, “Wait, my check is worth a quarter of what it was worth, or a half of what it was worth a year ago. What do you mean you get things done?” So, the facts do have a funny way of sneaking up on all governments, irrespective of the extent to which they use media tools or misinformation to mislead folks.
This was a kind of cri de coeur that I offered the last time I had a chance to engage in OGP summit, as you say, in Paris. And it really was, particularly having what happened in the U.S. election, the extent to which illiberal actors swoop in and sort of create the impression of a correlation between strength and disrespect for institutions in checks and balances, and delivery. And I come back to the founding of OGP and what I was so inspired by the people who work every day in this space, which was the use of information and openness, very specifically to strengthen social service accountability. And that was to see, again, the way in which when people had information, they could tell whether the school textbooks had been bought, when, as we’ve seen now, through the effectiveness of some of the reforms that OGP has helped popularize, when you have public procurement, we just saw this in Ukraine in a program that USAID has funded, the Prozorro program, working with OGP. You know, when procurement is up online, when people actually see what you are paying for something, the way that enhances competition and actually saves the government resources. That money, then, has been pumped back into the Ukrainian state treasury and used to purchase COVID-19 response materials.
But, is this being publicized? Do people see the link between civic empowerment. There’s not always the feedback loop that you all were just talking about has occurred in India, where citizens get to see the reward of their efforts, and the reward of their activation. And so, I think, drawing this link between exercising your rights, using your voice, putting pressure on government actors, or working in partnership with government reformers, and enhanced delivery on the ground. That certainly is the approach that I’ve brought to USAID. We have tried different things in the past. Obviously, as democracy’s been on it’s back heel, there’s been a lot of experimentation going on in a lot of governments. But the approach that I’m bringing is to say, “Okay, if you have a reformist opening in a country, first of all, as I mentioned earlier, tell the leader about OGP, let’s bring all hands on deck. Let’s draw from all of the insight from all the cities and all the states that have attempted analogous reforms.” That’s important. But as I, the head of USAID, I can meet that reformist opening by offering more support, very narrowly or specifically in the area, for example, of election reform or something narrowly within the democracy space.
But the best thing I can do for a reformer is try to get my colleagues, for example, the Department of Commerce or the USTR or my counterparts in the private sector, to take note of the fact that this opening is occurring in the Dominican Republic. That you have a leader who is fighting corruption. I’m the Vice Chair of the Development Finance Corporation, the old OPEC. One of the most important things I can do that people are excited to get more USAID grants, they’re really excited to get the Development Finance Corporation to show up. And on infrastructure, you know, on transportation, getting vaccines, not only to a country, but out into the health systems of a country partnering with countries to do that. To show that democracy delivers, that is the best antidote to the authoritarians. The corruption, as we know, is the Achilles heel of the illiberal forces that are out there, and this partnership is thus the Open Government Partnership is a tool to fight those illiberal forces by seeking to open up the books. That’s only going to show the extent to which dictators and illiberal forces get things done for themselves. So that’s part of this. And USAID, of course, funds a lot of anti-corruption actors. We just created a new defamation insurance fund because oligarchs and illiberal forces are increasingly suing civil society organizations and journalists. So we have to protect the accountability front line using the tools that we have. But beyond that, when there is a reformist moment, can we actually bring in not only more support for NGOs and more support for democracy institutions per se, but actually something that will show the people that this is a better path for bread and butter issues as well?
MR. EYAKUZE: That’s great point you make, democracy delivers. Nice, powerful statement. I want to just maybe for everybody’s benefit, announce the launching of the OGP Civic Space Learning Network. Really to bring together members of the OGP family to do a very simple mission: to stop and reverse the declining civic space. Simple, but tough to do. It’ll be asking the network to lead by example, governments in terms of expanding civic space to advance reforms that open and protect civic space, and, of course, to do global advocacy on opening up civic space. We want to inspire, teach and support each other. And for the last minute, for each of you, I mean, starting with you, Samantha, how can we really mobilize a broader global movement for democracy and even more specifically, for civic space? Who do we need to talk to and bring them on board? And same question for you, Aruna to end, are you still a skeptic when you look forward? How can we really strengthen a global movement to expand civic space in the way that would make it work? Let’s start with you, Ambassador — Samantha.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much. I just say in brief that I think that the networking is happening. This is the rare area where we still like technology. We like technology because of the enhanced platform. It provides people like the civil society actors who are involved in this. But we just need to lift up more success stories. I think that demoralization of civil society in the face of these powerful, repressive trends is a gift to the illiberal forces. So the flip of that is what is the positive feedback loop? And that’s what OGP does. It gathers the best examples, it shares them, but that fuel in the tank, all of us need whether inside government or outside, to believe we can do this. And so I think that again, when you have a reformist opening, whether at the city level, the county level or at the head of state level, let us swoop in and offer the support that we can. And let us prevent reformers from thinking that just because they swept to power with the help of civil society, that doesn’t mean that they’re done with civil society and civil society, its role becomes all the more important when a reformer actually has an opportunity to govern. We need some success stories, we need proof points that the march of the illiberal forces is halted and beginning its decline and reverse.
MR. EYAKUZE: Aruna, give us some inspiring words. You were a skeptic at the beginning, I hope you’re not anymore. What’s your inspiration for the next decade?
MS. ROY: Oh, certainly not. I stopped being a skeptic one month into the OGP. I just can’t with skepticism. But let me tell you, we need more interaction internationally because afterall things that happen, for instance, because of the technology, it travels so quickly. So with Black Lives Matter, what happened? People so much response in India from Dalits and people who are at the receiving end of the law. I mean, you know, you really have quick interactions, and solidarity being built across civil society groups far, far away. And the attack on all of us is to stop us from questioning. And information is all about asking. It’s all about asking which is questioning. So the attack on questioning is also universal and all these elected oligarchies that we’ve got now all over the world are using our votes but not giving us our rights. So there is a huge discrepancy between getting our votes and giving us our rights. And this dialectic has somehow come to be an international dialectic, a universal, a global dialectic.
So I think more than ever before, we need to get together. We need to exchange. And the amazing thing about information is that in India, despite the effort of our present government to play down RTI, there’s still six to eight million users every year. They have not been able to get down the numbers. And actually OGP in promoting civil society participation has really brought in a broad based education. I think we need to go a little farther than that and talk about specific political education wherever we go, even about the OGP to the younger generation. And I think, of course, I won’t take too much time, but we must build solidarity again across governments and civil society participants, and we cannot forget that we are obliged to talk truth to power. That as as a civil society activist, as you can see, I’m no longer so young. But still, I have breath in me, it has to be that I talk truth to power, come what may. And that, I think, is probably the civil society’s greatest contribution to OGP and of course, to the debate and discourse all over the world. And I think that should continue. And a responsive government and a responsive system, of course, makes wonderful things happen.
MR. EYAKUZE: Thank you so much, Aruna, that’s so inspiring. Speak truth to power. You’re even channeling, I suppose, the Slovak Prime Minister who said never give up. And Samantha for telling us that democracy delivers. Certainly a mantra I look forward to promoting during my co-chair year, which starts soon. And thank you both so much for inspiring us — for informing us, for telling us a little bit of the origin story of OGP. And we really look forward to building this movement to build back better, build better democracy and to make sure that citizens’ voices actually shape a better outcome for themselves. Have a fantastic morning in the U.S. and a nice cup of chai for you, Aruna, and I hand you back over to the emcee.