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What lessons can Zimbabwe draw from current international developments
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum
November 04
, 2013

Openness and transparency in government as demonstrated in how governments institutionalise citizenship engagement is an idea that is increasingly gaining international attraction. Speaking on this at the recent Open Government Summit in London, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office in the UK said, ‘Nothing can overcome an idea whose time has come’. With a vast majority of nations such as Burma beginning to embrace the value of openness, there are crucial lessons a small country like Zimbabwe can draw from this. ‘It is similarly imperative for the SADC, especially both South Africa and Tanzania as members of the OGP to promote openness rather than opacity of public service delivery institutions in Zimbabwe’. By examining various international initiatives that have embedded the message of open governance, this article makes the case that Zimbabwe can take advantage of such opportunities towards the creation of a more open, inclusive and prosperous society.

The Open Government Summit took place in London from 31 October to 1 November. Speaking at the Summit in London on Thursday, 31 October, President Kikwete of Tanzania announced a commitment to enacting a Freedom of Information law and stated that the commitment represents a big step forward for access to information and open government in Tanzania.

The #OGP Summit came in the footsteps of the second Africa-EU Civil Society Forum which took place in Brussels from 23 to 25 October 2013, after its premier in Cairo in 2010. This summit also underscored the benefit of sustainable and inclusive growth based on transparency and openness. During his opening remarks, David O'Sullivan European External Action Service (EEAS) Chief Operating Officer stated that the Summit was a welcome reminder of just how far relations between Africa and Europe have developed in the course of the last fifty years. In the 1960s, when relations between Europe and the newly independent states of Africa took form, they were still very much the exclusive business of governments. Over the years, however, we have recognised that governments are not alone in representing their peoples. The Africa-EU Civil Society Forum came in the backdrop of other related events where the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum was represented, which include 3 and the World bank and IMF Civil Society Forum which ran from 9 to 12 October 2013. The civil society declaration from the Brussels Summit can be accessed here.

The above summits underscored the theme that contemporary international relations are subject to a broad and participative dialogue which reflects a shared vision of putting the people at the heart of international cooperation. According to David O'Sullivan (ibid) this is the result of a growing perception that, if cooperation is to provide effective and lasting improvements for people’s daily lives, it has to go beyond governments, and civil society involvement has become a central element in this process.

However, when it comes to the issue of openness and transparency there is still a frightening gap between what some states know and what they do. Unfortunately Zimbabwe is one of the few countries that hasn’t recognised the value of openness and let alone working with civil society towards the attainment of this goal and it can only be hoped that the new government will do so as a matter of priority. In diplomatic circles, Zimbabwe is currently seen as part of a group of developing countries called The Like Minded Group (LMG) of nations. Belligerent towards current world order, The Like Minded Group has been accused by the UN Watch of using its influence in the United Nations to hold up progress in the field of human rights.

Although Indonesia was once part of the Like Minded Group, it was hugely surprising when it became one of the founding members of the Open Government Partnership in 2011 and its President recently took over from UK Prime Minister David Cameron as lead chair of the Open Government Partnership. This highlights the effort Indonesia has made to improve its public services after recognising that unnecessary antagonism towards established world order does not pay. During the same summit, David Cameron announced Burma’s declaration of intent to join the Open Government Partnership after recent encouraging reports on how the Burmese Government has improved revenue transparency and civil society capacity.

The unclenching of fists and thawing of unhelpful hard stance rhetoric can also be observed in Iran, which the Bush administration once labeled an axis of tyranny alongside Zimbabwe. In response to President Rouhani’s softened stance, especially in the wake of a promising first round of nuclear diplomacy with Iran, The Obama Administration has been weighing a proposal to ease the pain of sanctions on Tehran by offering it access to billions of dollars in frozen funds if the Iranian government takes specific steps to curb its nuclear program, a senior administration official said Thursday. According to Wendy R. Sherman, the US under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, ‘While the two days of talks in Geneva in October did not produce a breakthrough, Iranian officials were more candid and substantive than in previous diplomatic encounters, particularly in direct negotiations between Iranian diplomats and the senior American representative.

In a world where states such as Iran and Burma appear to be softening, where does this leave Zimbabwe? According to one participant at the Open Government Summit in London, Africa appears to be belligerent towards the West and any initiatives that originate from the West. Sadly while countries such as South Africa and Tanzania hypocritically feed into and acquiesce to this belligerence, they have been leading on the drive to be more open and transparent and are leading members of the Open Government Partnership.

According to one Kenyan activist at the #OGP Summit, "there is a need to prepare and beef up knowledge surrounding African Governments' rhetoric where they view issues relating to openness and transparency as donor driven creatures. Many African governments now wish to push for more sovereignty and ownership and avoid openness. However, the most vocal governments on this are from countries that have transparency issues".

Rather than champion this belligerence, Zimbabwe’s new government has clear opportunities to regain legitimacy through performance if it takes advantage of the current international initiatives that are meant to improve government openness and transparency. One window of opportunity is how the new Minister of Finance will effectively implement the economic management programme agreed with the IMF in June 2013 and signed by President Mugabe. Several aspects of this programme are already behind schedule and if they are not met in the next Quarter, this could threaten prospects for reengagement with global financial markets and the multilaterals and with it any prospect of a deal involving our $13 billion national debt.

The European Union having dropped the sanctions against the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, it would now be easy, with political will of course, for the government to fully comply with the IMF Staff Monitored Programme and adherence to transparency in the manner in which diamonds are mined, extracted and marketed. Both the World Bank and IMF have initiatives that can help Zimbabwe to achieve this, if it willing, for example the Open Development and Social Accountability programmes.

Secondly, the Government of Zimbabwe should follow sustainable and inclusive growth. Growth will not come easy without a restoration of investor confidence and reconnecting the domestic financial industry with global markets and financial institutions. The IMF programme is essential for this to happen as it is widely regarded as the gatekeeper of investment. For these things to become possible, the indigenization programme has to be modified and rationalized and made more acceptable to business. According to the World Bank, 2013, Zimbabwe is unique in that it has the characteristics of both a middle-income country and a typical fragile state: it has solid backbone infrastructure and human capacity but has been drained of institutional capacity, especially in core government functions, service delivery to citizens, the private sector, and systems to resolve political and economic contests. This observation underscores the need to fully restore the rule of law.

Thirdly, the government needs to approach civil society in a new way and not perceive them as regime change agents as it has previously done. There can be no transparency unless there is civil society participation and involvement in policy design and implementation. The Government needs to understand that civil society is better able to represent the needs and interests of the people in a complementary way to governments. “CSOs can correct and complement government action by addressing neglected issues and advocating for a political agenda more representatives of people’s needs. CSOs can identify issues of concern for citizens and raise-awareness when public action is needed. They provide a way for citizens to mobilise themselves and engage in public affairs. CSOs also give a voice to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised people in society. And civil society can empower exactly those marginalised groups and thereby lead to more effective, equitable and inclusive policies. Engaging with civil society and promoting CSOs as responsible and active agents for social change is therefore crucial if we wish to deliver on our promise to engage in a truly ‘people-centred partnership”.

The Zimbabwean Government could demonstrate its commitment by institutionalising citizenship engagement to complement representative democracy mechanisms. This would entail a broader mechanism for citizenship engagement on both national and local issues relating to delivery of public goods and services. Citizenship juries, referendums and usage of e-petitions should be promoted. This can easily sit well and find strength in the current constitutional normative framework that has substantive provisions and values premised on citizen engagement. The recently constituted Senate Thematic committees and National Assembly’s Portfolio Committees are some of the clear avenues for this to happen. For example, according to Parliamentary Standing Orders, the mandate of the thematic committees is to examine government policies while portfolio committees exercise oversight over the Government ministries and departments allocated to them. One example of thematic committee is the Public Accounts Committee which plays a vital part in Parliament’s oversight of the Executive examining the financial affairs and accounts of Government ministries and departments and State-owned enterprises.

From the above, there is quite a number of international initiatives that Zimbabwe could embrace in order to move towards the goal of openness. However, this will take a commitment by government to change towards the creation of an open society and government. This can in turn pave way for international re-engagement. In order for this to happen Zimbabwe should set itself on a road of meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions that would elicit correspondent action from the international community. The international community, on the other hand, should increasingly embed openness especially the aspect of civil society engagement as an indicator for reform. Zimbabwe's current role of championing African belligerence towards the West will not bring corn meal, let alone bread and butter to its people. In a country where 2.2 million people face looming starvation, the last thing to pre-occupy the government should be the extreme version of pan Africanism premised on anti-West sentiments. While this breed of pan Africanism sounds ideologically appealing especially to the marginalised and socially excluded, it is empty in terms of its capacity to deliver public goods and services.

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