Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • December 2016
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Open government for sustaining democracy

Posted by harimpeiris on December 30, 2016

Open government for sustaining democracy

By Harim Peiris

(Reporting from the Open Government Partnership Summit, Paris)

There is urgency. Democracy is a common good, precious and fragile. It is threated by terrorism, by abstention, by disputes of all kinds and by the rise of populism. It is also threatened with indifference, by citizens who sometimes feel that nothing changes and that they can do nothing to make a difference”.  So, said; President Francois Hollande, Chairman of the Open Government Partnership, welcoming delegates to the 4th Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit, in Paris.

Making a statement at the Summit, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera stated that;       “Sri Lanka accepted the invitation to join OGP with enthusiasm because the values of OGP reflect the policies of our government and the OGP National Action Plan approved by our Cabinet of Ministers echoes the commitments the government made to our people and the OGP has proven to be a source of inspiration and strength to Sri Lanka”.

Sri Lanka was invited to join, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in October 2015, the first South Asian Country to be so invited and a joins a group of seventy member nations in one of the most recent but fastest growing multi-lateral groupings committed to fostering open and transparent government, or good governance. A young international organization, much championed by the outgoing American Obama Administration, it remains to be seen how much the new incoming Trump Administration prioritizes the Open Government Partnership.

The main political message of the Paris summit was an interesting one, that democracy is threatened in various ways, including by terrorism, a populism which subsumes democracy, voter apathy and indifference among other reasons. This also corresponds however with rapid technological change, which is transmitting information in real time, thereby increasing the desire of society to be more engaged and to be listened to, to be given a real chance to build their societies.

Democracy is certainly not a narrow concept limited to the periodic conducting of reasonably free and fair polls. It requires transparent governance, public debate and consultation and rejecting or minimizing corruption and fraud. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) seeks to promote those values, the core OGP values of open and transparent governance, participatory and inclusive policy making through protecting and safeguarding civic space, eliminating bribery and corruption, improved delivery of public services, especially through the use of information technology in general and social media in particular.

Within the OGP network, Sri Lanka is somewhat of a blue-eyed poster boy and the reason is not hard to come by. The international community is well aware that President Maithripala Sirisena last year defeated an entrenched and populist predecessor, who was somewhat the anti-thesis of what the OGP values are about. Regarding the previous Rajapakse presidential administration, there were allegations of widespread corruption, human rights abuses and shrinking civic space. The political message of the current Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration was good governance, reconciliation and sustainable economic growth.  The political message of good governance was countered with a more developmental argument, massive infrastructure projects amid shrinking civic space and minimal tolerance for real dissent. The previous Rajapakse regime which relied heavily on China not only for investment but also for political support was seemingly inspired by the Chinese Communist Party model of liberalizing the economy while being rather less liberal on political and human rights.

However, the OGP summit was also useful in its pragmatism. People cannot eat, good governance and ultimately, good economics is always good politics. As Minister Mangala Samaraweera also said at the OGP Summit; “if reconciliation and democratization is to succeed, it is imperative that Sri Lanka’s economy must succeed. The fruits of rapid economic development must be experienced by all sections of our society. The peace dividend must be felt in terms of economic prosperity and rapid rural and national development”.

Through OGP initiatives, there is a growing trend in some parts of the world to make access to government even more easier, moving from web sites to smart phone apps. Driven by private sector service providers, who place every type of service from booking a doctor, to  buying a movie ticket to checking in for a flight on mobile phone apps, there is an increasing trend for smart government initiatives, which makes government information and services available to the public through phone apps.

Sri Lanka is a country with more phone connections, than people, showing mobile phone penetration is essentially at saturation levels, increasingly most of these with internet access, with Sri Lanka thereby having successfully bridged the digital divide. It is incredible to think that twenty years ago, Sri Lanka Telecom was a monopoly, had a waiting list of over two hundred thousand for a phone connection, which was also considered a political favor. Interesting it was Mangala Samaraweera, as the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, which saw through the SLT partial privatization and opening up the telecoms market. Two decades later, Sri Lanka has the best telecoms infrastructure in South Asia. This high internet and phone penetration can and must be used to make government more convenient and accessible to the sovereign (voting) public of Sri Lanka. The youth vote and social media activists were strong supporters of President Maithripala Sirisena. Moving from e-government to phone app government, as some countries in the OGP network are doing, is smart politics in good governance.

(The writer is Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are personal)

 

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