A paradox of development aid is that donors support Parliamentarians to cooperate with their government on priority issues while funding Civil Society Organizations to confront those governments on the same issues.

Recently I was involved with an effort to coordinate the critique of human rights issues by elected politicians and CSOs, in South East Asia. For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot name the consortium that submitted the following concept note to the European Union.

The purpose of publishing selections from the concept note is to emphasize that the Opposition does not have to operate alone in the parliamentary bubble. Likewise, CSOs should not have to rely alone on social mobilization to be heard. MPs are elected as leaders within the broader polity of society. So, too, do CSO leaders have a political voice as citizens. You can understand donors not wanting to fund politicians criticizing government policies and not wanting the critics of policy they do fund to have political power. Not being seen to mix donor funding of parliament activity with funding for civil society advocacy is nonetheless an accounting fiction.

It may be necessary fiction. Yet, I argue the forces for change work most effectively when united, not compartmentalized. Moreover, the distinct funding of different sectors could be unfair to the government. The split support for political/CSO agendas makes it difficult for the government to craft a workable and sustainable policy and political compromise.

To loop back to the mission of Opposition. International. The premise is that the political passage of legislation through the clash of Government and Opposition is the reality of change, actual change. Civil Society has a vital role to play in informing and mobilizing the public. Critical, but not absolute as Parliament alone mediates the balance of interests, not just examines the facts.

The Government — and the Opposition— need the expertise, experience, and enthusiasm that Civil Society can bring. Each brings their agenda and interests. There is no conflict when transparency and accountability are respected.

Excerpts:

CONCEPT NOTE: A Submission

European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR):

Our Southeast Asia consortium is confident that the EU’s commitment to cooperation with ASEAN Human Rights CSOs is principled, practical and pragmatic. The EU has observed that the “space” for human rights and CSO dialogue has shrunk. We note the recent statement: ”Ultimately, the Partnership (EU-ASEAN READI Human Rights Facility) Facility will allow the EU to strengthen its political outreach and promote ideas and ideals, in a competitive environment in which other partners often project opposite views.” In response to the EIDHR Global Call, our concept note proposes a means to mutual benefit in support of stronger, more effective, human rights in the ASEAN region.

We start by asking, “How can emerging technologies be channelled towards both strengthening human rights in SE Asia and deflecting internal and external threats.

Our consortium represents an emerging trend in human rights  SE Asia –  consistent with the EU’s stated goals – the defining and enforcing of a digital “social contract” between the governing and governed. 

The conventional course of treaty rights and reactive standard-setting nears completion. Sarfaty, Posner, Moyn, and others argue for greater emphasis on prevention. “Although the main obstacle to preventing human rights abuses continues to be a lack of political will on the part of states, big data can facilitate action when the political will does exist by closing information gaps.” One role model is the Amnesty International/s DataKind project, which relies heavily on reporting networks to a central data facility.

We start from the premise that society is not a blank undifferentiated mass.  There exist profound differences in identity, opportunity, condition, and voice.  Equality before the law does not mean that justice is blind.  Nor can a society proceed safely from a view that the present is somehow Year Zero. 

At the root of our approach to human rights is the documentation and witness of important characteristics such as gender, indigenous and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, and youth. The aspiration is not for apartheid-style separate rights but equal rights for the full diversity of pre-existing, socially relevant communities….

The codification of European-centric human rights in the colonial era did not abrogate pre-existing communal rights of practice, but neither did the formal laws give organic relationships a form and a voice amenable to consistent application and enforcement. …

Yet, out of the emergence in SE Asia of modern rule-based polity, a form of accountability has emerged. The parliaments throughout ASEAN, of varying degrees of conformity with global democratic standards, still serve their communities as a means of loyalty, voice, and, yes, exit vis a vis claimed authority. Accountability depends on media freedom. Power may yet be held to some account in its absence, though the danger persists of sudden and violent mandate shifts….

In the absence of open data, digital opportunities emerge unchecked to exploit public sentiment. In the last twelve months, South East Asia has witnessed a sharp acceleration of passive (censorship) and aggressive (misinformation) threats. At heightened risk is the use of digital communications as an open, secure, and productive means to conduct social, civil, and political discourse. Repercussions have included censorship through blocked sites and detention of dissidents, activists, and advocates. Part of the responsibility for maintaining the quality of open data is also the exposure and refutation of patently false disinformation. …

The outcomes of our project include:

  • Incremental steps towards a greater awareness of the pre-existing identity and role of IEM populations within the oral tradition of communal accommodation,
  • Continued engagement of LBGTQ+ groups within a framework of traditional cultural tolerance,
  • Increased sophistication of disaggregation and distinct interpretation of open gender data,
  • Further solidification of the movement for the accountability of political decision-making within national parliaments through the transparency and accessibility of open data, and
  • Making a compelling case that human rights accountability includes not just identifying what the government has done or is doing, but also exposing internal and external threats based on corrupted information and data.

The beneficiaries will be a combination of Rights-Bearing Actors (RBA) including 

  • Indigenous and ethnic minority populations,
  • Marginalized communities such as LBGTQ+
  • Women as independent legal persons,
  • Victims of misplaced communal targeting through “fake news.” 

Anyone initiative can only make a limited overall impact with the citizens of a country: our activities could reach and strengthen the individuals and groups committed to just and inclusive social outcomes. Outreach must also engage the political sphere.

Political Will through Parliamentary Accountability

Lot 3 Objective: “Advocate for accountability in service delivery and the management of public funds (Accountability)”

The focal point of accountability continues to be the legislature/parliament itself.  Malaysia is recognized as a leader in the field.  Within Malaysia, itself, the SINAR Project is a leading practitioner….

Regional/country partners

  • Support existing regional multi-stakeholder platform: Citizen Congress Watch, through international Supervising Congress events, is working to build a regional Open Parliament community of practice which also includes open legislative and transparency data partners.
  • International multi-stakeholder platforms
  • Open Parliament which is supported by NDI, Sunlight
  • International Budget Partnership (https://www.internationalbudget.org/)
  • ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
  • Open Hluttaw initiative, Ananda Data (Myanmar) (http://theananda.org/, http://openhluttaw.info/en_US/) are volunteer pioneering efforts at opening legislative data and building applications for civil society.

Activities

  • Supervising the Congress – International Parliamentary Monitoring Conference (CCW)
  • Open data/civic tech regional workshops on open government and parliamentary monitoring (knowledge sharing and capacity building)
  • International Parliamentary Union (IPU) holds annual conferences with government attendees and civil society working on initiatives such as e-Parliament

Research

  • Open budget and legislative guidebook on publishing parliamentary/legislative information as open data, open standards, and parliamentary digital services – best practices, case studies, consultations with government and civil society actors.
  • Supporting action-based research for development, outreach, and reflective studies of their work in opening the space for and using legislative open data.

Postscript: Another brilliant proposal gathering digital dust in Brussels.

My colleagues and I hope to revive the project in some format.