Thursday, September 7, 2023
ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: How exciting. Thank you so much. It is great to be here, and I’m so honored to be a part of a dream team panel to wind down this incredibly important gathering. Thanks to Annabel [Cruz] and Taimar [Peterkop] for all of their work pulling this off. Thanks to all of you who are tweeting or X-ing, or whatever it is, and pushing out the messages that you are hearing. Thanks to you for learning from one another, for being so open to one another these last couple days. And thanks to Sanjay [Pradhan] and the entire Open Government Partnership team. It’s really energizing to see everybody here gathering in person for the first time since 2019.
The government representatives here with their notebooks out, and their pens, taking notes on what they’re seeing – I just urge you to be strong. It all sounds so compelling here, and then you come back to capital, and all the things that stand in the way are there to greet you, right when you get off the plane. Fight on. You can overcome the bureaucratic impediments. Your best means of doing that is to find your civil society partners and then together that is how progress will come. Thank you to Prime Minister [Kaja] Kallas. So thrilled that you could make it here today, and thank you, and your countrymen and women, for the incredible hospitality that you all have shown.
Estonia has long been the model for how technology can be harnessed for civic progress. One of the ideas upon which the Open Government Partnership was founded more than a decade ago. No country, it’s safe to say, has all the answers, but Estonia really offers powerful inspiration, showing not only how technology can improve the performance of government, but also how it can dramatically expand the involvement of citizens in governance. That is what has been so radical about what Estonia has shown. And let us not also forget what Estonia has shown – in a slightly different way – they have shown, you have shown, how smaller countries can successfully reject bullying by larger countries – all the while, building stronger institutions and stronger economies.
But let’s be real, there’s also a sobering lesson that we can take from Estonia’s journey. I think it’s fair to say, and the Prime Minister will correct me if she disagrees, but this country’s experience also shows how profoundly threatening the work that you all are doing is to those who profit from the centralization of power and the shield of darkness. All of this, all of you, the work you do back in your countries, you are seen as a threat. And thus, the road ahead is, of course, no more than the road behind, the road ahead is not going to be easy. The friends of backroom deals, digital repression, and electoral manipulation and theft are incredibly well resourced. And they are learning from and being emboldened by one another. They hate, and they fear, open government and those of you who insist upon it – that is a fact.
I believe that we underestimated them once.
My first trip to Estonia came in 1992. And the exuberance here, and across the region, made me feel, my younger self, that gravity itself was pulling the world toward openness. Well, as we all know, there is no such thing as gravity in human affairs and human history. There is only individual will and public mobilization.
We will never again, I hope, underestimate the repressive and corrupt forces, and all that they will do to preserve power, again.
You’ve heard a lot of speeches and been involved in some really rich discussions over the last couple of days, this is the closing plenary, I will make three points. First, the question before the people of the world right now is not whether government should be more open or more closed. Think about it. Most individuals and communities don’t live day to day asking normative questions in the abstract. They live asking, “who is delivering for me and my family?” And often, they ask to change leaders who aren’t delivering. The question or challenge before us, it seems to me is: open government delivering.
The brilliance of OGP, from the very outset, was that it was the rare international initiative that linked political freedom and democratic accountability on the one hand, with the delivery of practical material, social, and economic benefits on the other. Participatory budgeting, let’s say, participatory budgeting would mean resources would be more effectively and fairly allocated. It had a benefit in the real world in real communities. More transparency over the extraction of minerals would mean that citizens would have visibility into what was happening to their God-given natural resources, and those same citizens would be better able to press for those proceeds, the proceeds of those mineral sales, to stay in local communities, so that more kids could go to school, or school classroom sizes could be expanded, or more textbooks could be bought. There would be tangible benefits to that stepped up transparency.
Right to information laws would give citizens a vehicle to get their governments to disclose what had been large, secret infrastructure contracts that perhaps that government had signed with a foreign power. In so doing, and using a right to information law and getting access to those contracts, they might learn that their great, or even great, great grandchildren will be stuck paying off the debt on the loans required to build that infrastructure for decades into the future.
They might learn that the proceeds from a new airport that was built under such a contract, might in fact go first to the foreign power, and not to citizens of the countries in which this new airport was being built. Or they might learn, by getting access to that contract, that the majority of workers to be hired on this new massive building endeavor would actually be nationals of the country loaning the money – dashing the hopes of local workers. This knowledge could in turn translate into huge political headaches for those who had signed the contract under what they had expected would be the permanent seal of darkness.
Sunlight is not only the best disinfectant, sunlight is motivation, sunlight is fuel, sunlight shifts power. But sunlight above all should, over time, help improve citizens’ day to day lives.
Second point. OGP itself is delivering. The United States was an enthusiastic founder of the Open Government Partnership. It is something both President Obama and then Vice President Biden took great pride in – and continue to take great pride – in being associated with that founding. It is an organization, a network, that has been tested, just as you all have been tested. But in 12 short years, it – you – have demonstrated its enduring value.
Now, I know it doesn’t feel that way exactly much of the time. We all know how bleak the trends have been on freedom, broadly defined over the last decade and a half. We all know what democrats and reformers are up against. Some of the most powerful technological tools ever devised, being turned against citizens and used to undermine civil society. Economic headwinds compounded by climate change and a growing number of natural disasters, causing chaos and vulnerability that’s terrible in its own right, but also that is so easily exploited by strong men. And a mammoth global superpower willing to throw vast resources at shifting the international system away from individual empowerment and toward heightened intrusive state control.
That’s a lot. We’re up against a lot. And yet, in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, a calamity that required government competence, transparency, and responsiveness – the very qualities that OGP has sought to promote over the years, in these last years populist parties, leaders, and attitudes have lost power at the ballot box with populous leaders seeing an average decline of 10 percent in their approval ratings since 2020.
Indeed, as we gather here today, after 17 long years, the pace of democratic decline appears finally to be slowing, as we saw in this year’s Freedom House report. We are right now living at a potential tipping point in the fight against authoritarianism. And the war in Ukraine, of course, has a huge amount to do with history’s pendulum and which way it is going to swing. OGP can continue to model for the world, just how open governance can help leaders deliver for their people. And it is precisely gatherings like this one, as well as OGPs day in and day out connecting of reformers, and activists, and people committed to the fight who might otherwise remain siloed, that will help push this agenda forward.
And again, do not discount how nervous, angry even, your successes make the world’s autocrats. Recall Putin’s fury at Ukraine’s anti-corruption and governance advances that just preceded the full scale invasion in February 2022. Go back and look at his speech, and that anger at seeing Ukraine push itself into a European, integrated, democratic, and much more prosperous domain. And the threat that that posed to Putin, and so many in his inner circle.
But also don’t discount how important solidarity and learning from one another in the years ahead is going to be. Democrats can prevail, but we will prevail not in isolation, but as a movement, working together.
Third, if more mutual learning could occur, if we could, in fact, distill all the knowledge in this room, and online here today, and scale it – in places near and far – there is a world of good that can be done in the very near term. The examples are abundant, many of you have brought them to this conference and shared them with one another, but I would offer just a few.
In the Nigerian state of Kaduna, many expectant mothers are forced to give birth at home because they lack access to adequate health clinics – which were often left in disrepair due to poor oversight or mismanagement. The government wanted to fix these clinics, but they needed help. So, they launched an app called Eyes and Ears where citizens could upload photos and feedback on the state of health clinics in their own communities. The reports flagged many clinics in urgent need of repair, and others, which were dubbed ghost clinics, that offered no health services at all. Thanks to that on the ground intelligence, government officials completed a record number of repairs and construction on health clinics, and at home births declined more than 30 percent in under four years because of the newfound availability of actual medical services. Think of how many communities and countries would benefit from something like this.
In the Republic of Korea, during the months after the famous 2016 candlelight vigil, OGP affiliated civil society and government reformers launched an online platform to solicit citizen input on improving public services. In the platform’s first 50 days, citizens submitted more than 180,000 proposals – more than 1,500 of which were eventually implemented. One of those proposals came from a third grade class in Jeju City, where students were concerned about the environmental impacts of disposable ice packs. In response, government officials implemented a recycling program that has helped reuse more than 1.5 million ice packs in 2022 alone. Again, third grade class. Crowdsource from people who know, and from people whose concerns have to be taken seriously. But these individuals didn’t stop there, they implemented new regulations that helped transition 90 percent of ice packs across the country to an eco-friendly version without microplastics.
And last example, when the Colombian city of Villavicencio was hard hit by COVID, citizens began searching for information on why the government response was so slow. Through an OGP supported online public spending database, a 22 year-old student discovered that only half of the financial resources earmarked for pandemic response had actually been received by the city. After investigating this report, the government eventually issued orders to address the source of the delays, and equip the community with the resources they needed to treat and monitor COVID-19 cases.
All of these examples, all of the examples you have brought with you, show the link between transparency, often, but not always aided by technology, and accountability, and then the link between accountability and improved conditions of life for individuals and for families.
Let me close, finally, with a couple of announcements that speak to President Biden’s commitment to OGP – in fact, the entire Biden administration’s commitment to OGP and the work that you all are doing. USAID, U.S. Agency for International Development, and OGP are signing the first-ever memorandum of understanding between us. Over the next five years, this MOU commits USAID to help OGP open up new ways for governments and citizens to work together, and for citizens to hold their leaders accountable. We are committed to making this more than some MOUs, more than just a piece of paper, but a step that is going to have a real impact on the ground.
USAID has missions in 80  countries and programs in more than 100. So we see this as the start of an ambitious effort to not just apply learning from OGPs expertise in working with local partners, but to marry the work that USAID is already doing across sectors on challenges like hunger, conflict, gender, and inclusion, and the climate crisis – with approaches that you all have pioneered.
I’m also pleased to announce a new grant of more than $3 million to the Open Government Partnership Support Unit, which so many countries rely upon, designed to accelerate the uptake of priority anticorruption reforms by those governments that are part of OGP. This will help promote such things as beneficial ownership, debt transparency – a major issue these days – helping citizens influence how public money is spent, and eliminating banking, legal, and accounting practices that right now are facilitating corruption.
The work you all are doing to increase government transparency, helping government officials publish spending data, report meetings with lobbyists, track citizen complaints, is incredibly consequential. And both our new investment, and we hope our stronger partnership with OGP, will help. But ultimately, we all know, again, gravity isn’t going anywhere on its own, it is everyday citizens who wield the most power to bring about real change.
It is everyday citizens whose protests can motivate governments to enact critical reforms and spend public money where the greatest needs lie. I look forward to joining forces with you, and them, in the months and years ahead.
Thank you so much.