New OGP-Oxfam Alliance: Supporting Civil Society to Hold Decision Makers to Account

A month ago we saw the ink dry on the dotted lines of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were painstakingly crafted with the critical input of civil society. Furthermore, two weeks ago the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, an alliance of civil society groups -- one which Oxfam is proudly partnered with.

At a cursory glance, there is reason for us to be encouraged by the strength, self-determination and impact of civil society itself. There is, however, a very different question about the space that civil society holds -- and what this means for tackling poverty and extreme inequality.

Cutting across countries rich and poor, South and North, CIVICUS identified serious threats to civil society in over 90 countries in 2014 -- something we witness first-hand in our work with civil society organizations around the world. For ordinary people, this can translate into direct repression, new legal restrictions on legitimate civil society action, funding checks and, in some cases, a crackdown on communications technology.

We are wary of the idea that poverty, inequality and civil society space are isolated concepts which are not inter-linked. They are rooted in the issue of power. People who are denied access to power are also denied the opportunity to make or influence decisions to live a better life out of poverty and claim their rights.

In an increasingly economically unequal world, this bears untold significance. Oxfam had expected that it would take until 2016 for the wealth of the richest one percent to overtake the wealth of everyone else. Credit Suisse published their latest global wealth report earlier this month, which showed that it has happened already.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few threatens the ability of ordinary people to raise their voices and have a say over how our societies are run. Rather than working for all, power and public policy is increasingly influenced by wealthy elites that are able to bend the rules -- and hijack democratic institutions -- to their favour.

Civil society space provides the oxygen for citizens to participate and meaningfully hold their governments and the private sector to account -- and ensure that decisions are made in the interest of the majority and not the few. Without it, citizens have limited space to dissent and challenge the elites.

In light of this, the convergence of Open Government Partnership (OGP) and Oxfam could not have come sooner. OGP helps to create the space for active citizens and develop the conditions for Oxfam's fundamental mission that people gain control over their own lives.

OGP's work is gaining momentum. Nearly 70 participating countries -- which cover a third of the world's population -- have made commitments to reform. They have done so in partnership with civil society and citizens in their countries. And OGP's work is achieving results in individual countries that chip away at the disparities that keep people poor and close off their opportunities.

For example, Tanzania has recently published all its budget expenditures, and tax exemptions in its health, education and water sectors have also been published. This allows people to see the decisions their government is making about public money and hold it accountable for that.

And Chile passed legislation on lobbying disclosure, which means that its public officials must, by law, submit details of each meeting they hold to an independent Information Commission. This is the kind of change that has the potential to break down the politics of special interest.

This is only a starting point. Governments that are committing to the OGP are recognizing, at least in principle, that words are not enough. They need to create space for people to work with them.

Yet we must never lose sight of the fact that governments hold the power to make it possible for people to lead better lives. Open government reforms, when done properly, take more fundamental account for the interests and voices of the marginalized.

I am deeply honoured to have been appointed an Ambassador to the OGP. I believe the OGP is an increasingly important organisation given its potential for the poor and the marginalized, and not least due its resonance with my own experience in fighting for better governments and better opportunities for citizens.

The promise and potential of the OGP is significant -- it has the principles and the design features to make a change for ordinary people and help to protect the civil society space. But it will not always be easy to exact institutional reform, especially as elites react to the momentum building around the world to tackle economic and political inequalities.

As an impatient but optimistic voice from civil society -- and working with civil society partners around the world including Oxfam -- I look forward to championing the principles that the OGP stands for, and earnestly challenging governments to do more to be accountable to their people.

This post is part of a series produced by the Huffington Post and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) surrounding OGP's 2015 Global Summit, which is taking place in Mexico City from October 27-29.