Points of View 29th August 2018

Making Summits Meaningful: An update following the OGP Summit in Tbilisi

by Guest

This article was writted by Transparency International UK

At Transparency International UK, we focus on impact; leaders shouldn’t be flown around the world for photo ops or to announce initiatives and reforms they have no intention of enacting. This is why I took to stage at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in July to define the steps we at Transparency International UK think are important for making summits meaningful.

Originally published in April (ahead of the Commonwealth Summit), here’s our guide for heads of government on how to host, make and attend international summits.

  1. Have the right people in the room

A problem as significant as corruption cannot be solved by one set of people alone. Whether it’s government representatives, civil society or the business community, there is little value in having groups speak only to themselves. The 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit was a model for this, with authors, academics, civil society representatives and sports officials sharing a stage with prime ministers, presidents and multilateral institution leaders. Governments or institutions with plans to host major international summits or conferences should make them as diverse and inclusive as possible, to move them beyond a talk shop and instead develop shared solutions to our shared problem.

  1. Tell us what you’re doing

Decision-making behind closed doors is unhelpful for those trying to affect change beyond a conference. A lack of transparency and participation in how key decisions are made can cause distrust between leaders and citizens; the public are at risk of feeling disconnected from an issue — and its solutions — if there is no opportunity for them to properly participate and engage with it. At the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit discussions throughout the day were live-streamed and participants published an ambitious joint communique and 42 individual country statements. This proactive transparency from the Summit’s organisers has made it easier for TI to track progress on over 400 anti-corruption commitments, and has allowed for greater accountability over the promises that were made. But this also needs to carry on after the meeting itself – the commitments are unlikely to be acted on if the relevant departments back home don’t know they exist.

  1. Take it seriously

Make sure you send the right level of participation and be aware that this tells us how serious you are about the issue. South Africa only sent its High Commissioner to the Anti-Corruption Summit in 2016, alongside twelve President and Prime Ministers. No wonder the country made only a single commitment — that we assessed as not ambitious, not new and not concrete.

  1. Don’t trot out old commitments again. And again.

Reiterating existing commitments is a good way to pad out a document disguising inaction. 78% of Brazil’s commitments at the Anti-Corruption Summit were judged “not new.” We don’t want to see leaders coming to the 2018 summits restating their commitment to SDG 16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. That should be a given; the SDG’s were adopted by all UN member states back in 2015. Any reference to SDG 16 has to go further, committing to more precise action or additional deliverables or strategies.

Of course, we don’t want every Summit to be full of shiny, bright new things with no reference to existing programmes or efforts — but promises should seek to make progress, not hide inaction.

  1. Be Specific. Be Ambitious.

While making these innovative statements, governments and others should also seek to make commitments that are ambitious and concrete. More than 80 per cent of concrete or ambitious commitments from the Summit have seen action since 2016. Timidity is restricting – these forums aren’t the time for caution, but an exciting opportunity for change.

But commitments need to be specific. Ukraine made some very specific, time bound pledges including ‘Increasing transparency by launching Ukraine’s Registry of Declarations of public officials in August 2016,’ but others that were more elusive: ‘Punish corruption by preventing corrupt bidders and those who seek to hide their beneficial owners from accessing public contracts and procurement by establishing accessible central databases and address ways of sharing information on corrupt bidders across borders.’

The former has a clear output and deadline. The latter is particularly difficult to handle as it addresses two, if not more, entirely different things; in following up should TI look for information on preventing corrupt bidders from accessing public contracts or for information on establishing central databases on corrupt bidders?

The language and terminology is important because it is for what we hold our leaders to account. This is why when the US made a commitment to ‘prosecute cases of violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)’, TI looked for evidence of prosecutions. Not non-prosecutions or deferred prosecutions, but simple, undeniable prosecutions. This was disputed by some who said enforcement could be seen as ‘prosecution’. To avoid unnecessary confusion — and possible disagreements on whether promises have been kept, the language used when making these sorts of pledges should be clear cut and precise.

  1. Do what you said you’d do. Set timetables

It sounds simple, but make sure you set a concrete schedule for when progress is expected and when all participants will check back in. Not all summits are on rotation and the danger with having an annual theme is that focus changes.

The G20 works through two-year Anti-Corruption plans, which even though not perfect, still means there are timelines in place, even if government officials move on.

Even if the initial forum itself isn’t multi-stakeholder, one way of making yourself more accountable for your commitments is to carry them forward by embedding them into national strategies or work plans that are collaborative. The Open Government Partnership members have a great opportunity to transfer new commitments into their National Action Plans; we found that a third of the pledges from the Summit are ‘OGP ready’ but only 17 per cent have been embedded in action plans so far. More should be done to increase transparency and collaboration around the design of the commitment, but also ensuring clarity and accountability around the ultimate goal and the milestones set out to achieve them.

  1. Don’t let the lowest common denominator prevail

Most summits are based on consensus. This is great when peer pressure pushes some countries further than they would otherwise be willing to go. This is terrible if commitments remain at lowest common denominator.

The G20 is a consensus based group that operate largely behind closed doors. This means that strong — and public — accountability mechanisms are more important than ever. The G20 Anti-Corruption accountability report has improved a little (the 2015 Accountability report provides no feedback on country level progress) but still focuses on one-off success stories rather than more systematic analysis of what G20 countries are doing to implement the ten G20 Leader endorsed High-Level Principles on various corruption issues.

The Open Government Partnership and the Anti-Corruption Summit prove you can adopt both strong consensus-based statements (the Anti-Corruption Summit Global Declaration Against Corruption is notable for its strong language) but context specific, national commitments and action plans that provide a lot more detail than a high level statement adopted many miles away ever can. Having non-consensus based, individual commitments at international summits allows governments the space to stretch themselves and be clear about their intentions, whilst also pushing the bar forward across the board and getting credit in international forums, which is definitely something that could be better piloted in other global spaces.