Is open government possible without civic space? 

Sayed Ikram Afzali, Executive Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan | @SIAfzali

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit was held from 29-31 May in Ottawa at a time when civic space is shrinking around the world. Similarly, civic space is under constant threat in Afghanistan. Afghanistan joined the OPG in 2016 and whilst this was a welcome step nonetheless open government is not possible without protecting & expanding civic space.

Why is civic space important?

A recent paper by the OGP defines civic space as “the ability of people to freely organize, participate, and communicate about policy.” Civic space is also defined in the same report as “the capacity for citizens to participate in the different stages of the policymaking process.” Therefore, civic space is not only a matter of human rights, it also allows creativity and innovation in governance reform. As CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations puts it: “A robust and protected civic space forms the cornerstone of accountable, responsive democratic governance and stable society.”

How deep is the problem?

A recent CIVICUS report indicates that the number of countries with open civic space is in decline. Another report by International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) indicates that since 2010, over 50 countries have adopted laws limiting civic space. With the deteriorating security situation and the very restrictive attitude of the government towards CSO’s, the civic space is shrinking in Afghanistan also. A 2018 report by Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society indicated that civic space has been in decline there for the past number of years. This is particularly true for organizations such as Integrity Watch which advocates for governance reform and which regularly holds the government to account over its failure to adequately fight corruption.

The challenge of shrinking civic space in Afghanistan

While there are some signs of hope such as the improvement in some laws such as the Law on Associations and Access to Information Law, nonetheless there are deep concerns over how some elements within government are restricting civic space and targeting specific certain civil society organizations which they consider as threats to their vested interests. Unfortunately, there is no single policy followed by all government leadership to protect and expand civic space. The Office of the President and Office of the CEO try to engage with CSOs from time to time but it is largely symbolic and selective. While Vice President Danish and some Ministers have been supportive of civil society’s role, there are others who actively try to shrink space for civil society.

There are many examples where civil society’s role has been minimized or completely removed from the policy process. The anti-corruption law is a prominent example of removing civil society completely from the selection process of a supposedly independent anti-corruption commission. Other examples include symbolic consultations with civil society on the anti-corruption strategy, and the mining law and mining regulations. Symbolic consultative meetings were organized with CSOs to appease donor requirements and pressure. Certain anti-CSOs vested interests within the government are conducting  whisper and other informal campaigns against specific CSOs such as Integrity Watch and in a few instances have removed its representatives from consultative panels

While there has been a mixed approach by the government in terms of restricting/expanding civic space, President Ghani’s government has not been able to protect civic space as an institutionalized policy. Therefore, the government must respect the commitment it made in the Open Government Declaration when it joined the OGP process in 2016. The Afghanistan Government at that time in its declaration pledged:

We value public participation of all people, equally and without discrimination, in decision making and policy formulation. Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increase the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and suing channels to collect public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities. We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.

In summary, there is a critical need for government and civil society to work much better together for the benefit of all of the people of Afghanistan.