Why the green crowd should care about the Open Government Partnership
Oct 1, 2012
Civil society reacts to a Rio+20 session. Flickr/Fora do Eixo

In the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of walking the halls at the launch of the Open Government Partnership last September at Google’s NY Headquarters and being in the negotiating room during Rio+20.

On their face, the two events could not have been more different: the OGP Launch, brimming with optimism, voluntarism, and riding the crest of the wave from the last decade’s gains in transparency and the Rio+20 negotiations, mired in anger over inaction from climate talks and locked in decades old struggles over international treaties. On the anniversary of OGP’s Launch this Wednesday, we reflect on some of the major outcomes of OGP and what they might mean for environment.

OGP represents a new kind of multilateralism.

At their core, both OGP and Rio+20 had a new approach to multilateralism. Key to this is the idea that you can create a “race to the top” with different governments trying to attain key goals in similar ways. Central to this is the role of pledges by governments and later verification. But in both of these processes, the assumption is that the changes must go beyond governments to involve both civil society and the private sector. This has been described as a shift from top-down treaty negotiations to a “pledge-and-review” world. (See WRI’s piece Kept Promises for a longer discussion of this phenomenon in the run-up to Rio+20.) Indeed, many people described these “other Rio+20s” among private sector and non-governmental actors as the real show in Brazil. As environmentalists, we can see this type of multilateralism emerging in other processes such as the Cancun Accords and the Black Carbon Partnership. Learning from OGP and other such initiatives can help understand precedents for these pledge-and-review initiatives.

OGP had real effects in the Rio+20 process.

Indeed, there was even a very practical overlap between OGP and Rio+20. Take the case of Chile, where one of their OGP commitments was to pursue a regional mechanism on access to information, public participation, and access to justice in matters affecting the environment. This was the first step in the Principle 10 Declaration, signed by 10 governments which begins a process to create a regional instrument on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. WRI, along with the many members of the network I am a part of, the Access Initiative worked to achieve that outcome. We saw OGP as a means to advance goals that would have a strong impact on people and the land, air, and water they depend on. (See here for a larger view of the Access Initiative’s Rio+20 strategy.)

OGP has the potential to make a big difference in environmental affairs in participating countries.

Global Integrity has done a fine job of analyzing OGP commitments in general, but WRI, working with The Access Initiative, wanted to see what the implications of the commitments would be for NGOs working on environment and natural resource (ENR) issues. OGP commitments on ENR issues advance Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration – meaning they relate to transparency and citizen engagement on ENR issues. To do this, we catalogued the commitments of the first 34 countries to submit action plans to OGP. We categorized each commitment into one of three categories:

• ENR-focused: Commitments in this category specifically mentioned environmental management or natural resource management. These commitments had to have a direct impact on environmental management, land use practices, or resource extraction. Examples include Brazil’s commitment on budget transparency which includes natural disasters and environmental catastrophes, the US commitment to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and South Africa’s commitment to explore an environmental open data portal.

• ENR-relevant: Commitments in this category would directly affect the agencies managing air, land, and water quality. Most commitments in this category would affect the environmental protection, forest conservation, or coastal management, to name a few examples, but may have cast a wider net. Examples include Spain’s commitment to ensure that public subsidies respond to specific criteria on transparency of goals and efficiency. As one might imagine, changing subsidy practices of an agricultural agency can have massive effects on land use and conservation. We found this to be an important category for organizations committed to improving environmental quality, public health, and natural resource management as these types of commitments may have even larger consequences than environmentally-focused commitments.

• Not ENR-relevant: Commitments which would have no direct bearing on ENR management fell into this category. However laudable, a commitment such as Norway’s commitment to transparency in equal pay for women in the private sector would fall into this category. So, what did we find?

• ENR-specific commitments, while uncommon, did exist. In fact, nearly 20 of 431 commitments (5%) made in OGP action plans had a direct bearing on ENR management. This is a small, but non-trivial number. When examined by country, 13 of the 34 countries examined had some commitments of direct bearing.

• ENR-relevant commitments were numerous. A huge number of commitments will influence natural resource management, land management, and environmental protection. Of the 431 commitments, 307 (71%) will have some bearing on how ENR-relevant agencies conduct their business. Taken this way, advocates for the environment and wiser natural resource management in all 34 of the OGP countries surveyed have some commitments which they should be following through on, ensuring implementation.

In the spirit of open data and right to information, the data we compiled is here, and we welcome any comments and discussion, but most importantly, we suggest a few steps for groups and individuals concerned with ENR Management:

• read the action plans to identify change opportunities in your country;

• continue to pursue the OGP and events around it as a means to achieving their ends in environment, public health, and resource management goals;

• Ensure implementation of existing commitments which will bear upon ENR management;

• Push for environmentally-specific commitments in further iterations of action plans;

• Form coalitions and working broadly on high-impact commitments which will affect sectors including but not limited to environment and natural resources.

As you can see, we have a ton of work to do. Since assembling this database in May, more than 20 new countries have joined OGP and Mexico has re-issued its action plan. As the new year rolls around, countries will issue their self-assessments, the Independent Reporting Mechanism will begin to deliver independent assessments of commitments, and presidents and prime ministers will be fishing for the newest round of commitments. We at the Access Initiative will be working closely with our governments to achieve innovative, meaningful results that help us attain a cleaner, more secure world. We hope you will join us.

Lauren Miller contributed to the database and analysis for this piece. Consuelo Fernandez updated our database of environmental and natural resource commitments attached here.

Copy of ENR focused commitments 3.xls42.5 KB

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