Some pretty big news has been rocking Washington in the last few weeks. First, there was the long awaited release of the post Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda. This, as far as I can tell, has been pretty well received, particularly in its focus on sustainability and accountability. Despite being annoyingly jargonised in recent years, most people would agree that these two things are damned useful and strongly interlinked – a good way to ensure sustainability is to create systems that can hold people to account. It is all seems rather obvious.
The next bit of Big News has been the Guardian’s dissemination of a series of National Security Agency (NSA) leaks (the British media isn’t so tawdry and celebrity obsessed after all) revealing that, yes, this enormous spy agency is wantonly collecting a mind-boggling amount of data on, well, just about everybody. This has hit Obama pretty hard – the cool, liberal face of change is now linked with potentially the biggest breach of US citizens’ 4th Amendment rights ever. Pretty bad image-wise. He was in China when the thing was announced – talk about bad timing.
A few people seem to regard this furore as a real turning point, perhaps as big as 9/11 was, in the debate between civil liberties and national interests. After 9/11, Americans were happy to give up some of their rights in exchange for increased security from external threats. With the NSA, it seems they have given away too much – the threat to them is perhaps internal now. The worst part was that nobody in the public even knew about the monitoring. Surely they should have been told, consulted over whether this was a step too far?
Development bloggers and agencies have been, I think, strangely quiet on this issue. With the MDG 2015 outline in place, accountability must now take centre stage. It underpins good governance, it feeds into rights-based programming and it allows for better oversight of the mis/management of development projects en masse. As a sector, we should be striving to be open, transparent and accountable: it combats the persistent charges of paternalism, it allows for more powerful feedback loops and, importantly, it puts us on one side of a historical debate that nobody is likely to ignore any more.
Open versus closed society has been the concern of many governments for the past ten years or so. It has also been a concern of civil society – see the Open Government Partnership for more on this intersection. Closed societies understandably benefit governments or ruling bodies as open ones breed debate, instability and de-centralisation of power. It is very hard to dominate the public sphere when that public sphere widens enormously – one of the reasons traditional media organisations have struggled to adapt to the internet age. I understand why some groups want to limit this. I cannot understand why development organisations are not fighting to achieve it.
As anyone who has spent much time doing development work (or research for that matter) will tell you, inscrutable organisations – companies, NGOs, governmental bodies etc. – can be just about the biggest block to getting your work done. Everything from not being able to trust the mail system and thus having to hand deliver important documents to trying to get access to official documentation only to be faced with inefficient bureaucrats. It’s a nightmare. Thankfully, we should all be trying to make such institutions better, according to the UN post MDG report (page 9):
Without sound institutions, there can be no chance of sustainable development…
Societies organise their dialogues through institutions. In order to play a substantive role, citizens need a legal environment which enables them to form and join CSOs, to protest and express opinions peacefully, and which protects their right to due process.
Internationally, too, institutions are important channels of dialogue and cooperation. Working together, in and through domestic and international institutions, governments could bring about a swift reduction in corruption, money laundering, tax evasion and aggressive avoidance, hidden ownership of assets, and the illicit trade in drugs and arms. They must commit themselves to doing so.
What better way is there to achieve this than through embracing and protecting the right to information? Or by encouraging whistle-blowers rather than prosecuting them? Condemning the treatment of such individuals in Africa or Asia isn’t enough – development organisations need to rally behind Edward Snowden and his ilk. This isn’t like the Manning case, this isn’t a young, confused, possibly ill man heedlessly releasing information. This was a guy who weighed up what he knew and what world he wanted to live in and realised he had to make a stand – he was careful to redact potentially harmful documents, for instance.
Isn’t that what development organisations should be all about? Improving the world, one person at a time. That doesn’t mean ramping up the number of vaccines given out, although it’s part of it. It also means taking a stand and pitching in whenever you can make a difference and not hiding from that responsibility. Transparency can help more people to make the right choice and I believe the way to achieve it falls partly to the development community. We certainly don’t want to look back and realise we ended up choosing closed societies.