Open Government

Posted by: root
Posted Date: Feb 11, 2011

By Edilberto C. de Jesus, Philippine Daily Inquirer | February 11, 2011 (Friday) | link to original article

SPEAKING AT the United Nations General Assembly last September, US President Barack Obama probably did not anticipate that an upheaval in Egypt would illustrate his analysis. “The ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it,” he said, “it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.” It will come, indeed, even when the United States may be unprepared for it.

Toppling an authoritarian regime is only the first step in building a genuine, working democracy. This was the lesson painfully learned in the Philippines in the long years after the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, some 25 years before Egypt’s own “Keystroke Revolution.” In both cases, civil society mobilized the masses, the military distanced itself from the despot and a repressive regime imploded. Egypt will likely face problems similar to those that challenged the Philippines.

Cory Aquino had to confront a series of coup attempts by soldiers who wanted command of the republic to save it from the communists. Will the Egyptian armed forces resist the temptation to reestablish military rule to save the country from Islamic Jihadists? In the Philippines, civilian government prevailed, but developing democratic institutions remains a work in progress demanding patient and persistent effort. For the Egyptians, as for the Filipinos, it will not be an easy process. But if the Egyptians are fortunate, this will be the task that awaits them.

When Ferdinand Marcos abandoned the presidential palace and fled to Hawaii, many Filipinos and foreign friends assumed that democracy had been saved. The Philippines no longer needed assistance or support, and lenders could resume collecting debt repayments. Filipinos who assembled against Marcos in the parliament of the streets from 1983 to 1986 also believed they could resume their normal lives and leave governance to the government.

Now, we know better—after seeing how countries successfully deposing dictators have faltered and stumbled in the task of introducing or restoring authentic democratic systems. Now we know that elected leaders who exploit official position for private profit pose as much of a threat to democracy as generals who capture political power by force of arms.

Obama’s appeal for Open Government at the General Assembly was thus a timely reminder that democracy requires continuous protection and nurturing. It was timely to summon the member states to strengthen the foundations of freedom by promoting greater transparency, civic engagement and innovative technology to combat corruption.

As a step toward this goal, the White House gathered last month a small group of ministerial-level officials from around the world to discuss an International Open Government Initiative. Participants came from developed and developing countries. Despite the differences in culture and economic status, they shared a common concern about the growing distrust of government around the world. By demonstrating their commitment to transparency, responsiveness and accountability in their own governance practices, they hoped they could help arrest this trend.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad joined this two-day White House meeting. Philippine participation in a meeting like this would have been unlikely during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who set a record, according to Social Weather Stations surveys, in maintaining a negative trust rating during her nine years as president.

Even during Arroyo’s term, civil society groups empowered during the presidency of Cory Aquino continued to assert their right to participate in the governance process. But the potential and effectiveness of civil society action depend on the openness of government. The P-Noy administration’s advocacy for civic engagement and government transparency and accountability has shown what private-public partnership can accomplish.

Last November, the DBM, Congress and the Senate signed with Alternative Budget Initiative and INCITEGov, both non-governmental organizations, a “Declaration of Constructive Engagement for Open Budget Partnership.” The declaration established the mechanism, the principles and the process for involving civil society in the preparation, monitoring and evaluation of the national budget. Despite time taken in consultations, the P-Noy administration passed the budget on time, something Arroyo never achieved in her nine years in office.

With access to information and technical training, citizen groups can be even more effective at the grassroots level in demanding honest and effective service from their local and national officials. This is important. So is demonstrating government ability at the top to close high-profile corruption cases—the fertilizer and noodle scams, the NBN/ZTE overpricing, and “pension payments” for retiring generals—that squander staggering sums of public funds.

Sustaining civic engagement against corruption requires a lot of work for both citizens and public officials. Civic groups must not feel they are plugging little leaks in the canals when the big breaks in the dam go untended. It would be difficult to keep volunteers engaged in guarding the petty cash boxes when they suspect that insiders are happily plundering the bank vaults.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is president of the Asian Institute of Management.

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