Can OGP help defend declining civic space in Pakistan?
Pakistan signed onto the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a member in December 2016. Since then, various government ministries with Economic Affairs Division as the focal point have been working with civil society and the private sector to develop a National Action Plan (NAP) that outlines various commitments pushing Pakistan on the path of openness, transparency and accountability.
Globally, as well as on a national level, we are experiencing a contraction of civic space. A rise in far-right, populist and nationalist politics across the world poses a new threat to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Democratic principles and the international human rights framework are being attacked. There are also increased restrictions on civil society. In Pakistan, several factors have contributed to this assault on civil society such as increased emphasis on issues of security and stability, and a widespread perception that there is a tradeoff between civil liberties and national security. Civil society organisations are faced with restrictive new laws, registration challenges as well as suspension and closure in some cases. These regressive trends have a negative impact on the healthy functioning of democracy. An open, transparent and responsive government is only possible in an environment where citizens have an opportunity to participate in and monitor governance and policy development. Open civic spaces and a robust civil society can foster this public participation and contribute to more equitable and accountable governance and promote creativity and innovation, which leads to economic growth and stability.
In this context, Pakistan joining the OGP offers a glimmer of hope for a more inclusive and democratic future. There are two ways in which Pakistan becoming a part of the OGP helps push back against shrinking civic space. Firstly, the OGP was established around the premise that dialogue and engagement between civil society and government is vital for reform in any public policy area. Over the last year, it has already brought together stakeholders from civil society, the private sector and the government through several consultations to discuss and deliberate on the commitments that various government ministries have made to promote openness and transparency under the two-year NAP. The entire process so far has been co-creative, and perhaps for the first time in Pakistan's history, representatives from both civil society and the government have come together to make collective decisions on how concrete steps can be taken by the government to fight corruption, use digital tools to enhance participation and transparency and ensure access to justice to marginalised communities.
In addition, the government of Pakistan, under its NAP has also made specific commitments in the thematic area of 'citizen engagement/civil liberties' under the lead of the human rights division. Commitments such as developing 'Guidelines on citizen engagement in policy development and evaluation' involve reviewing existing models and international best practices for citizen engagement and drafting and implementing a country policy collectively with support from civil society groups. These guidelines will institutionalise civic participation and create a framework for dialogue between the state and citizens that not only empower citizens but also enhance public accountability. Several other commitments such as the 'formulation of national policy framework on human rights' and collecting and sharing data on the gaps in 'women's participation in the elections' also contribute toward guaranteeing basic civil liberties and public participation.
Pakistan's OGP NAP still awaits approval from the cabinet before the abovementioned commitments can start being implemented. The government's swift movement on this approval means that concrete steps under the commitments mentioned above can start to be taken for a more progressive and open Pakistan. Any further delays would mean missing a great opportunity for defending our civic spaces and the country's democratic future that the OGP platform provides.