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Conversations With America: Open Government Partnership

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations with America, a discussion between a top State Department official and an NGO leader, where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. My name is Cheryl Benton, and I’m the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

On July 12th, the United States will host a multinational meeting to discuss ways to bring greater openness to more nations. This will be followed by a September gathering of governments in New York for the launch of the Open Government Partnership. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world through our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.

Now, let’s meet our guest. Maria Otero is the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the Department of State. She oversees and coordinates U.S. foreign relations on a variety of global issues, including democracy, human rights, labor, environment, oceans, health and science, population, refugees and migration, and monitoring and combating trafficking in persons. That’s a lot. (Laughter.) Thank you for being with us, Under Secretary.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: My pleasure.

MS. BENTON: Thank you.

Warren Krafchik is Director of the International Budget Partnership, or IBP. His organization collaborates with civil society around the world to analyze and influence public budgets in order to reduce poverty and improve the quality of governance.

Warren, welcome.

MR. KRAFCHIK: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: And thank you for joining us. Tell us more about the work of your organization. I wanted to get to that question pretty quickly, but before we do that, I really wanted to know from the Under Secretary, exactly what is open government? I mean, I think people just don’t know.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Well, that’s a very good place to start. Really, open government is based on three principles. The first one is the principle of transparency, the way in which a government can provide information to its citizens about what it’s doing. That is the first principle that we believe is important in open government.

The second one is civic engagement, civic participation. That is really having the public contribute ideas, expertise, other areas, in order to be able to help their governments make policies and develop their programs.

And both of these first principles — of transparency and [civic] engagement — then feed into the third principle, which is accountability. Accountability basically means that governments are responsible for their decisions or for their actions, and that they are able to respond to their citizens on that behalf.

Open government is really a powerful tool. It’s not an end in and of itself. It’s a way in which governments can become more effective, they can be more efficient, and ultimately can govern better. And governments around the world are noting that this is a very important way to proceed.

MS. BENTON: Very good. I think that was a great way to start. And now, Warren, tell us a little bit about what you do, what your organization does, and then I think we have the perfect setting to begin the conversation.

MR. KRAFCHIK: Sure. Our organization starts from the belief that government budgets are citizens’ budgets. The government receives its money from citizens and it spends its money on citizens. And so it’s vital in the area of public budgeting that there’s a dialogue created between governments and citizens. Now that kind of a dialogue around public budgeting is, I think, exactly the type of engagement that Maria was talking about.

For me, I would agree a hundred percent with you, Maria. It’s transparency, civic engagement, and accountability. For me, underneath open government, there’s a very humble and liberating principle, liberating for governments and for civil society. And that principle is that no one actor in society has all of the information, not government nor citizens nor the private sector. And open government is a tool to help create a dialogue between citizens and government. At its best, open government leads to an improvement in the quality of life for citizens, particularly poor citizens. And in the process, I think it has the ability to create greater capability and trust in government.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Well, the issues that you’re bringing up also remind me of the fact that – you ask why now?

MR. KRAFCHIK: Right.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Why are we concerned with this issue today? Well, I think we’re seeing several things really come together. One is on the one hand there is some decline in the trust in governments, and we see that around the world. And we see governments themselves, in the developed world, in the developing world, taking measures and looking for ways in which they can be more accountable and they can govern better.

And this is also a time when we’re seeing huge increases in technology, and that has given citizens enormous access, to be able to interact with government and to be able to influence government. We’ve seen this over and over again as we have seen the way in which even the Arab Spring took place, the way in which other ways in which citizens are themselves making use of this social media, so to speak, in order to be able to participate. And government, therefore, if it’s innovative, if it’s creative, can use this technology to make information more available and to be able to engage its citizens in the way that it makes decisions.

MR. KRAFCHIK: I think that that’s right. And I think it’s almost as if, at the moment, we’re reaching something of a tipping point, that we’re used to stories and we can easily quote statistics about how poor government services are and transparent governments are, how much corruption there is in many countries. But I think what we’re seeing at the moment is the beginning, perhaps, of a reversal of that, or at least some signs of hope of that. We have governments, particularly governments from the south, that have shown amazing capability to innovate and to provide services more effectively, to provide budget information online, to pass freedom of information acts.

There are definitely several governments, not only rich but many poor governments in many poor countries as well, that are part of this trend. And I think in complement to that, we have – you mentioned Arab Spring, but that’s one example of so many countries and regions at the moment where citizens, legislatures, and auditors are becoming much more active in civic engagement. And I think that’s exactly the kind of interactive dynamic democracy that is at the heart of open government.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: We’re seeing governments try to do – we’ve seen three different ways in which they’re trying to do this. One, if you – as you mentioned, is to really look for open information. And right to information type laws have now been enacted by more than 80 countries. So we see the interest on the part of governments to be able to make information available.

It’s – for us, when President Obama came into the presidency, one of the first things he did was talk about open government, and he put forth executive memorandums and actions in this regard. And one of the things that has happened since in this country, just in this area, is that close to 400,000 databases have been made available to the public that weren’t available, through data.gov. And those give you information on auto safety, on air travel, on nutrition, on health, on a variety of different areas that before you didn’t have.

This is an example from our country, but we see many other countries doing this. We also see countries simply making open the management of their resources, how are we delivering services to the public, and engaging the public in doing that. I mean, we’ve seen, as you mentioned, Uganda, Tanzania, Philippines, Indonesia. These countries are actually asking the public to say how are we delivering services? But they are also finding that this is one way to decrease and to discourage corruption, because certainly transparency addresses that question as well.

And then finally, you see governments are really looking carefully and using innovative ways to engage people – everything from town hall meetings to a variety of other events that take place that allow the public to be able to feed information into the government.

MR. KRAFCHIK: I think often people are a little perplexed by this topic and they wonder what exactly is this about, what does it mean on the ground. And I think that you’re starting to give some real substance to what this means on the ground.

And talking from a civil society perspective, I think that we’ve shown – we’ve seen so many examples now of how civil society, citizens in civil society and the private sector, can contribute to good governance. And there were three factors that I thought, three ways in which civil society helps to do that, and you’ve talked about the first one at the moment.

The first one I was thinking about is citizens are on the ground, they’re watching, projects, they’re watching services being delivered. They’re recipients of those services. It’s very easy for them to be able to see where things are not going right, where there might be leakages or where there might be corruption.

There’s a fascinating story in India at the moment, the government passed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. It provides – it’s a landmark policy providing 100 days of guaranteed employment to all rural families. The problem is that just like in other large decentralized country, providing those finances from the national govern through to rural villages to individual citizens, there’s much that can go wrong. Many can be leaked, there’s over-invoicing, under-invoicing, the ghost workers, et cetera.

So what the government of Andhra Pradesh has done is they work together with citizens and have trained thousands and thousands of citizens to monitor whether this policy’s being implemented properly, and they go household to household and essentially conduct audits. The Indian state minister for rural development in Andhra Pradesh estimates that over the last five years, they’ve saved over or retrieved $20 million in corruption and 4,600 government employees have been fined or face some kind of disciplinary action — the accountability you talked about. So citizens can watch and can help make sure that there are more resources available for development.

The second point is that if you talk to citizens, I think it’s likely that you will very frequently get an improvement at how services are delivered, and the most obvious example is to say, if you’re an engineer and you have the responsibility for drilling a well in a rural village, if you don’t speak to the women in that village about where to put the well, it’s likely that you’re going to be building a white elephant rather than a sustainable public resource. And these kind of informal citizen monitors that are helping to track textbooks in the Philippines, working with the Boys and Girls Scouts; monitor public road projects in South Africa; monitor school capitation grants in Uganda. And at each point, they’re feeding information to government.

And there was one other final point I wanted to make, and that is that civil society often has analytical capacity, independent analytical capacity, and that can help contribute to these issues, to these problems. The one case I was thinking was in Mexico, where the government provided new subsidies to farmers, who they thought might lose out as a result of the implementation of NAFTA. So in response to the Freedom of Information request, the government put up online all of the subsidies, who received them, and how much they received. But they were put online in way that was inaccessible to citizens — it was too technical. It was too complicated. It was up too late, et cetera.

So a local organization, a partner of us, Fundar, worked to take that website, take the information, and over a year create a website that’s accessible and useable. And the first citizens and organizations that used it found that there were problems with the policy. Ten percent of the richest farmers were claiming over 50 percent of the funds.

Now this information and analytical capacity helped Fundar to approach the government, have a discussion, and that led to substantially improvements in the policy, and that’s the dialogue. For me, that’s exactly the open government dialogue.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Those are excellent examples. And you’re reinforcing the way in which this event that Cheryl has said is going to take place July 12 –

MR. KRAFCHIK: Right.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: — is structured, because the open government partnership, which is the event that the United States is hosting, is really one that brings together governments that are – that believe that open government is an important way in which they want to proceed and brings together civil society organizations also and engages them in a discussion in a way of addressing the issues related to open government. So on that – in that event, which is going to be chaired, co-chaired by Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota from Brazil,– what countries are doing is really – at that event, we’re going to look at ways in which we can strengthen the norms related to open government among countries that are interested, with input from civil society. We’re going to look at ways in which we can showcase some of these examples that you are putting on the table and some of the other ones that exist around the world, because we are beginning to see best practice here. We’re beginning to see examples, which countries can use that other countries have already shown are successful.

It’s also an opportunity for these countries to then – it’s a way to secure commitments from them to do, if you will, an action plan. In fact, at this event, we really are looking for the countries to begin putting together the principal ideas of what a national action plan towards open government would be. And it’s also a way to then engage with the innovation that’s coming out, not only of the sort of civic society but also the private sector. Because the private sector’s an important player in this area and can bring great –

MR. KRAFCHIK: Absolutely.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: — great ingenuity and great ways of utilizing these things. So we’re really seeing the event on July 12th as one way to very concretely have countries be able to address these issues. So we’re going to spend that afternoon in what we’re calling the “Innovation Alley,” which is really nothing more than a way to – for the people that are here from the countries, and this is a ministerial-level meeting, to be able to really see and have an applied opportunity to look at the different ways in which technology is being used to make this innovation possible.

One additional thing I would say about the meeting on July 12th is that this is not an event that’s being driven the United States, by any means. It’s an event that is multinational. It’s being driven by a steering committee of nine countries that have come together with civil society in that steering committee and have organized this. And they – this goes back really to when President Obama sort of charged everyone to do this last September at the UN General Assembly meetings. And so from that has come this effort now that countries, both from the north and from the south, are bringing forth.

So we are excited about this meeting on July 12th. We think it’s going to be very useful for countries and it’s going to lead us to the meeting at the UN General Assembly this coming September in which President Obama and other heads of states can address this issue, can also themselves explain how far they’ve moved in this area of open government, and we can this as a way to really energize countries to almost enter into a new narrative in the way in which you begin to address this. It’s sort of a fresh conversation to address issues that have been really stumping government for years – corruption, inefficiency, bad use of resources. So that’s what we’re looking to do as a way of putting this in place, and you’re part of it. So it will be really good.

MR. KRAFCHIK: Well, I really liked the last thing you – I like all that you said, but particularly the last point that you were making. Because I – we do have major long-term, what seemed like intractable problems, poverty and inequality just being two – one of the greatest of these.

And I think – so what do you do in a situation where nobody is actually the expert? You can’t – any one of agency or party can’t solve the problem. The best you can do is bring together all of the agencies, all of the stakeholders that are responsible or that are invested in this issue and have them work together in dialogue to create, as you say, a new best practice. And that’s important for the countries. And I really hope through the open government partnership it becomes part of an energized global movement towards open government.

MS. BENTON: One of the things I was curious about and wondered if this factored into it, people can say is this just another way for the developing countries to direct and take over some of the underdeveloped countries, what they’re doing? Is this just another way for them to kowtow to us? We’ve heard that challenge, and I wondered if that was in any way true or impactful.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Well, it would be wonderful to hear from Warren being from a citizen working with a civic organization, but also being from South Africa and being able to address that. But certainly from the perspective of the United States, this is really a reflection of a growing number of countries’ interests in addressing these issues. And these are countries in the north and in the south.

Some of the examples that are hearing are very innovative examples that are very useful in the south and that are designed by people who understand how things operate in those countries. There are a number of governments that are particularly concerned about issues that have to do with corruption that are very difficult, issues that have to do with transnational crime, that have to do with the different ways in which they are being effective in just the area of governance.

So there is no question that this effort now – and this is why I said it’s timely and there’s momentum behind it – is because there are countries that are already doing it. And bringing them together to be able to exchange information is important.

I should add that really this effort is for countries that are interested in this. Nobody’s being pulled into this. There are no restrictions or any instructions that are being given that you have to participate in this for – this really is coming from each country. And in fact, these countries have to demonstrate that they were already working in this area before they can really begin to participate actively in this. So, I see it as a new way to address these issues and to address it in a more global way than we have in the past.

MR. KRAFCHIK: I think that’s completely right. I mean, your question leads to the many examples we have had over decades, hundreds of years, where development hasn’t taken the ownership of developing countries in particular into account. We have many, many examples of this around the world. But I don’t believe that this is one of those examples.

MS. BENTON: Good.

MR. KRAFCHIK: I think the most important point is that the incentives to be part of this process, the open government process, is really one of a choice in countries. It’s about a country saying, we would like to be part of this process, we would like to commit ourselves to participating and shaping how open government takes shape around the world. That’s the most important.

And I think the guarantee that we have of genuine southern leadership and involvement, together with northern leadership and involvement, is really, as Maria says, that some of the best practice examples, some of the most dynamic and innovative work in this field is happening in developing countries. And Maria mentioned – Maria, you mentioned South Africa.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Yes.

MR. KRAFCHIK: The one example that just comes immediately to my mind, having lived through that period, is that in 1994 South Africa was probably one of the most closed countries in the world. Its budget system was entirely closed. There was no role for citizens, the legislatures, and the audit function was severely compromised. That was 1994. By 1999, 2000, South Africa was amongst the leading nations in the world in preparing accessible, timely, and useful budget documentation. So a very short period of time with a relatively modest investment of resources completely shifted the way that public finance government – governance happens in South Africa. And South Africa is not the only country.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MR. KRAFCHIK: Poland, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, all of these countries are leading in that field.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: I would just add to that that one of the things that these countries have in common and that is an essential component here is political will, is absolutely the need of a government to want to be able to take this issue forward. And from our perspective, it is also, therefore, an issue that we can elevate high in the agenda of meetings like the G-20 or of regional meetings like the Summit of the Americas or other meetings, because the interest in this area is not the United States pushing it; it is really one that is shared by many countries. In the Summit of America, Brazil started to take really a leadership role in this area and started implementing many of the types of examples that you given. So this question of political will really does have to come from the government before it really allows and enables far more open civic engagement in this work.

MS. BENTON: One question pops to my mind, Maria, for you, is how is this effort funded? Do we have a way of knowing how we are going to finance this?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Well, the event itself is – each country that wants to participate in it is clearly covering their cost for sending their ministers and their high-level officials.

But to go beyond that, we certainly recognize the interest on the part of countries to be able to address issues of good governance, to try to address issues that have to do with corruption, and so on. And so we make, through AID and through the State Department, funds available either for building capacity, which tends to be a big bottleneck or to carry out a variety of other activities that countries want to put in place, including the introduction of technology in certain areas. In 2009, we provided nearly $1 billion globally for funding projects related to – you could say, issues related to corruption or lack of transparency, all the way across to improving the governance of governments.

So from our perspective, some of the resources that are needed are part and parcel of what we are engaged with in the countries that we’re working in.

MS. BENTON: Good deal, good deal. So how were the countries selected for this July 12th event?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: You might want to address that (inaudible).

MR. KRAFCHIK: And let me address it by following on from an earlier point, is that first, it’s the government’s choice and a reflection of their political will –

MS. BENTON: Gotcha, gotcha.

MR. KRAFCHIK: — to be involved. But that doesn’t mean that involvement is going to be easy. I think part of the principle of the program is that we’re asking governments to stretch themselves, to think very hard about what are the areas and the types of commitments that would really make a difference in their country. But how do you know that a government’s ready to make this kind of commitment? And that’s a difficult question, and one we have to resolve in fairly short order. And so the method that we do is we try to rely on an as objective a set of indicators as we can, indicators that say something about whether a government publishes its budget, whether it publishes the reports of the auditor general.

And we’ve used six indicators, objective indicators, along those lines to get a sense of whether a government might be interested and might already have the capability to contribute. The next choice, then, is up to the government. At that point, we’ve invited the governments, “Would you like to be part of this initiative?” And the meeting that we’ve got next week is indeed for the governments to learn about how to do that. If they are to succeed and if this project is to succeed, I really think what’s vital is for governments to think very hard about what’s going to be meaningful in their countries and how they can develop and implement those commitments in a way that fully involves civil society, citizens, and the private sector in that effort. That’s the spirit of the meeting.

MS. BENTON: Okay.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: And one thing that I would add to that is that in determining what those indicators were and in determining which countries fulfill those indicators, that decision was made by this steering committee that I referred to –

MR. KRAFCHIK: Yeah.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: — which is made up of countries from the South and from the North, and also some NGOs, other organizations that are working on these issues. So really, the decisions were made by a multinational group of governments that are, one could say, taking the lead in this area, and can themselves demonstrate through their own action plans how they’re proceeding on this. So I think it’s important that that’s how the process is started.

MR. KRAFCHIK: And as you say, the process of designing and implementing the open government partnership is a microcosm of the type of dialogue that we hope will happen in each country and between countries, that multi-stakeholder, multinational character.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. Very good. I’m glad that you both touched on the Freedom of Information Act, because I think there was – is confusion about what’s open government, what’s freedom of information, and how do they align, and I think you addressed that quite nicely.

What happens after July 12th? You have September; you go to the United Nations General Assembly. Are there meetings on the margins or is that also a big bona fide meeting?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: These would be meetings on the margin and – but it would be at the highest levels possible, we hope.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Right.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: And one of the challenges related to open government is that it is very much a process that a government has to undertake, and it – we would envision that from this meeting to September and moving forward beyond September, governments would proceed in a process of putting together action plans. And those action plans would begin with consultations with the public that the governments would hold in their own countries, bringing together citizens to talk about different issues. And using what comes out of those conversations is something that would then inform the plan that they put together, much like what Warren was saying at the very beginning. And we would envision that they would spend a good deal of time putting this together.

Now, we use this phrase called “grand challenges” in this because we know that all governments are facing challenges, serious challenges – and governments know this – in transparency, in accountability, in delivering services in a variety of other areas. And so part of this process asks governments to really choose a grand challenge and address it. We’re not looking for governments to address every imaginable question.

We’re also looking for them to think about whether they want to address this at the national level, at the state level, at the local level, because this is quite complex. But certainly, from the perspective of our own country, what President Obama has done since the beginning of the Administration in creating open government, we have seen huge advances – and I gave some of that information – but also in the way in which freedom of information is addressed and how quickly those answers are made available, the way in which budgets are made available to the citizens so they can understand them, and so that they can give some feedback.

There’s many different ways in which President Obama and his leadership has provided in this area of open government. And so what we are doing also feeds into this and we know that we can learn a good bit from what other countries are doing in this process. So we envision that this open government partnership is really an ongoing effort. We would even see that we would have yet another meeting next March, most likely hosted this time by Brazil. So these are some of the plans of the way in which we’re moving. And we are also hoping that more and more countries will join and see this as something that is a useful way to proceed and a group that they want to be part of. It’s almost a bit of a peer-to-peer issue here. And the countries that are coming to the meeting on July 12th are almost 50 countries, so we are – already have considerably robust effort in moving this forward.

MS. BENTON: And will the countries represent the Middle East, Africa, just all over the globe?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: We have wide representation from everywhere.

MR. KRAFCHIK: Yeah.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Okay. Good deal.

MR. KRAFCHIK: And that’s been really important.

MS. BENTON: Yeah, I think that is important.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: That’s right.

MS. BENTON: Now, Warren, with your organization, what will actually be your hands-on role at the July 12th meeting?

MR. KRAFCHIK: Well, my role as part of the steering committee has been to lend a civil society voice to help design this process, help think about how to do it best, how to ensure that there’s good country ownership, how to ensure that there’s good multi-stakeholder participation. That’s really the process. What I’m looking forward to on July the 12th is have the opportunity to talk to governments and civil society from the world and around the world, and help say something to them about why this is such an exciting moment and why this is such an important development, and how they can join this development. That’s really, I think, the role that I’m going to play at that meeting.

MS. BENTON: Good. So, now, where is the July 12th meeting?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: It’s right here.

MR. KRAFCHIK: Right here.

MS. BENTON: Oh. Okay. We want people to – (laughter).

MR. KRAFCHIK: You’re in the right place.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Right here in the Department of the State. And it will be – as I said, it will be hosted by Secretary Clinton and the Foreign Minister of Brazil.

MS. BENTON: Right. That’s the highest level of participation and leadership, and I think it speaks and bodes well for what we hope will be the outcomes for this.

There has been a lot of discussion with the departure of Vivek Kundra and the gutting of open data initiative budgets, that open government is either dead or dying in the United States. How do you respond to that?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Well, I think it’s really important to look at some of the mandates and directives that President Obama has put forth from the very beginning, because that commitment to open government, from his perspective, it’s not really only a statement of aspiration –

MS. BENTON: Right.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: — but it is very concrete. And so much is being done right now in many different ways to be able to provide information to the public. Some of the examples that I gave earlier – for example, the example of opening up almost 400,000 databases, which anyone can access through this website, is one way not only to make information available in a wide range of issues to the public that weren’t available before. But it’s also been a way to sort of tap into the ingenuity of the private sector, and so we’ve seen several apps developed that relate to some of these areas that have come up through this more – through this information from the database.

And so this is very interesting because it also shows that the private sector can even develop some businesses around this, and so you also then begin to see some potential for some economic growth as you are developing this area. And this is also relevant to the way things would evolve and have evolved in other countries around the world. So there is nothing but total commitment to this topic, also followed by their concrete action that we are seeing.

MS. BENTON: That’s very good.

MR. KRAFCHIK: I think I would just add – not being a U.S. citizen, so looking somewhat from the outside – I think I would add that introducing open government, the process, the tools of open government is a very ambitious effort. And what it’s trying to do is change the culture and the incentives around government and governance, and I think that we need to have patience, that it takes considerable time for those kinds of macro-shifts to take place. And in the process, in the hustle and bustle of everyday government, you’ll find successes and you’ll find areas where there’s less success.

And I think what’s important is that there’s a government that’s looking and learning every day about how to do this and how to improve and refine practices over time, because there isn’t a prayer book, there isn’t a hymn sheet, there isn’t a song to sing.

MS. BENTON: Right, right. Very good. The discussion is great, but I wanted to make sure that we had a chance to take some questions that have come in and been submitted by – over our DipNote, our blog. We have Flavio in Brazil who writes, “Corruption is the major cause of underdevelopment and lack of access to basic resources. How the U.S. is contributing to fight corruption and how this policy is being implemented?” So how is that happening?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: You’re talking about corruption –

MS. BENTON: Yes, corruption, yeah.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: — and how the U.S. is addressing this issue?

MS. BENTON: (Laughter.) That’s a big one.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: I mean, there is no question that corruption is a topic that – I don’t think there’s a single country that I travel to that it doesn’t come up as a major concern. And governments know that corruption not only decreases the resources available for the development of the country, but it also decreases the effectiveness of the government and it increases the distrust that people have in government, and in democratic institutions. And clearly, it opens up space for what we talked about early – transnational criminals and even terrorism.

So the corruption issues we understand as ones that are enormously important, and we want to be very supportive to governments in addressing it. One of those ways is through the issues related to the resources that we’re making available in order to be able to make sure that governments improve their own capacity and are able to develop their own ways to combat corruption. Certainly, transparency is a very important one of those. We’re also raising this issue in regional meetings, in high-level meetings as I described.

But additionally, the U.S. Government itself is taking steps to be able to address corruption. Certainly, the Department of Justice and the Security Exchange Commission have put forth about a hundred or more enforcement actions against bribery cases that have come up. And that has resulted in criminal penalties and civil penalties that have actually resulted in resources for our own government as well.

We’ve also, in many cases, put on a variety of different ways in which we can work to address corrupt officials – for example, revoking visas or not providing them with visas when we know that they are engaging in corrupt practices. And Congress just passed recently a law called Publish What You Pay, which is really asking companies in the extractive industries – oil, gas, minerals – to be able to really publish what payments they’re making to U.S. Government officials or to foreign government officials.

MS. BENTON: Interesting.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Again, all these mechanisms to be able to discourage corruption and to be able to move beyond just saying this is such a big problem that we can’t do anything about it. There is – to overcome that sense of cynicism and – that exists, that it’s bigger than something that we can handle.

MS. BENTON: Right.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: So these are some of the ways in which we’re addressing it directly.

MS. BENTON: Very good.

MR. KRAFCHIK: What the open government partnership does is it tries to work on some of the causes of corruption, and I think that’s important because corruption is an enormous problem, it’s hard to tackle. But what’s driving it? And three of the issues that help create a system, a set of rituals, a culture of the lack of corruption is making information available to everybody. Sunshine is the best – sunlight’s the best disinfectant. If people know what’s going on, they’ll take advantage and they’ll use that information.

Secondly, you need to create opportunities for people to monitor corruption themselves, to involve themselves in governance. And through those – that interaction of government and citizens, we get closer to the accountability that we’re trying to get to. So I think it’s important to recognize that governments have a fundamental role to play in addressing corruption. There’s a very important role for aid agencies and aid providers and there’s a fundamental role for citizens.

Ultimately, I think what you’re trying to do is we’re trying to create democratic environments where not only the government is responsible for solving every problem. These problems like corruption are society’s problems. And by creating spaces for citizens, for the public, for civil society to engage, you’re arming a country against corruption. You’re arming corruption – you’re arming countries against a major security threat. And open government is, I think, the best chance we have at the moment of doing just that.

MS. BENTON: Exactly. I think with the collision of government NGOs, private sector, civil society, that is practically the only way you can move a large agenda that involves so many countries and so much effort.

We’re actually coming to the close of our conversation, and I did want to thank you so much, both of you, for coming here and just talking to the American public about another great new initiative that is being created – has been created by the Obama Administration, has been carried out by the Secretary of State and the under secretary, as well as all the cooperation that goes along with carrying this across the board.

You know what? This really actually concludes our session of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank you, Under Secretary Otero –

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: — and Warren Krafchik –

MR. KRAFCHIK: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: — for sharing your work and knowledge on this issue with all of us. Also, I’d like to thank each of you for joining us. Please note the video and transcript will be available on state.gov very shortly. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again very soon. Thank you.

 


President Obama’s 2010 Speech to the United Nations General Assembly

President Obama’s second speech to the UN General Assembly, a year to the day after his first address as president, focused on human rights and democracy.  In proposing a long-term agenda for the United Nations, the President recalled the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  He articulated the need to enforce universal values even in times of political and economic crisis and trumpeted the power of democracy, broadly defined as a system of government that is open and accountable to its citizens.  President Obama also emphasized the importance of civil society and committed to guaranteeing its expansion “within and across borders.” Read the full speech here.

 


President Obama’s Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly

THE PRESIDENT:  Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, my fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen.  It is a great honor to address this Assembly for the second time, nearly two years after my election as President of the United States.

We know this is no ordinary time for our people.  Each of us comes here with our own problems and priorities.  But there are also challenges that we share in common as leaders and as nations.

We meet within an institution built from the rubble of war, designed to unite the world in pursuit of peace.  And we meet within a city that for centuries has welcomed people from across the globe, demonstrating that individuals of every color, faith and station can come together to pursue opportunity, build a community, and live with the blessing of human liberty.

Outside the doors of this hall, the blocks and neighborhoods of this great city tell the story of a difficult decade.  Nine years ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center signaled a threat that respected no boundary of dignity or decency.  Two years ago this month, a financial crisis on Wall Street devastated American families on Main Street.  These separate challenges have affected people around the globe.  Men and women and children have been murdered by extremists from Casablanca to London; from Jalalabad to Jakarta.  The global economy suffered an enormous blow during the financial crisis, crippling markets and deferring the dreams of millions on every continent.  Underneath these challenges to our security and prosperity lie deeper fears:  that ancient hatreds and religious divides are once again ascendant; that a world which has grown more interconnected has somehow slipped beyond our control.

These are some of the challenges that my administration has confronted since we came into office.  And today, I’d like to talk to you about what we’ve done over the last 20 months to meet these challenges; what our responsibility is to pursue peace in the Middle East; and what kind of world we are trying to build in this 21st century.

Let me begin with what we have done.  I have had no greater focus as President than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe.  And in an age when prosperity is shared, we could not do this alone.  So America has joined with nations around the world to spur growth, and the renewed demand that could restart job creation.

We are reforming our system of global finance, beginning with Wall Street reform here at home, so that a crisis like this never happens again.  And we made the G20 the focal point for international coordination, because in a world where prosperity is more diffuse, we must broaden our circle of cooperation to include emerging economies — economies from every corner of the globe.

There is much to show for our efforts, even as there is much work to be done.  The global economy has been pulled back from the brink of a depression, and is growing once more.  We have resisted protectionism, and are exploring ways to expand trade and commerce among nations.  But we cannot — and will not — rest until these seeds of progress grow into a broader prosperity, not only for all Americans, but for peoples around the globe.

As for our common security, America is waging a more effective fight against al Qaeda, while winding down the war in Iraq.  Since I took office, the United States has removed nearly 100,000 troops from Iraq.  We have done so responsibly, as Iraqis have transitioned to lead responsibility for the security of their country.

We are now focused on building a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while keeping our commitment to remove the rest of our troops by the end of next year.

While drawing down in Iraq, we have refocused on defeating al Qaeda and denying its affiliates a safe haven.  In Afghanistan, the United States and our allies are pursuing a strategy to break the Taliban’s momentum and build the capacity of Afghanistan’s government and security forces, so that a transition to Afghan responsibility can begin next July.  And from South Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are moving toward a more targeted approach — one that strengthens our partners and dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.

As we pursue the world’s most dangerous extremists, we’re also denying them the world’s most dangerous weapons, and pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year, 47 nations embraced a work-plan to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years.  We have joined with Russia to sign the most comprehensive arms control treaty in decades.  We have reduced the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy.  And here, at the United Nations, we came together to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As part of our effort on non-proliferation, I offered the Islamic Republic of Iran an extended hand last year, and underscored that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community.  I also said — in this hall — that Iran must be held accountable if it failed to meet those responsibilities.  And that is what we have done.

Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences.  Through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, we made it clear that international law is not an empty promise.

Now let me be clear once more:  The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it.  But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.

As we combat the spread of deadly weapons, we’re also confronting the specter of climate change.  After making historic investments in clean energy and efficiency at home, we helped forge an accord in Copenhagen that — for the first time — commits all major economies to reduce their emissions.  We are keenly aware this is just a first step.  And going forward, we will support a process in which all major economies meet our responsibilities to protect the planet while unleashing the power of clean energy to serve as an engine of growth and development.

America has also embraced unique responsibilities with come — that come with our power.  Since the rains came and the floodwaters rose in Pakistan, we have pledged our assistance, and we should all support the Pakistani people as they recover and rebuild.  And when the earth shook and Haiti was devastated by loss, we joined a coalition of nations in response.  Today, we honor those from the U.N. family who lost their lives in the earthquake, and commit ourselves to stand with the people of Haiti until they can stand on their own two feet.

Amidst this upheaval, we have also been persistent in our pursuit of peace.  Last year, I pledged my best efforts to support the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, as part of a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.  We have travelled a winding road over the last 12 months, with few peaks and many valleys.  But this month, I am pleased that we have pursued direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington, Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem.

Now I recognize many are pessimistic about this process.  The cynics say that Israelis and Palestinians are too distrustful of each other, and too divided internally, to forge lasting peace.  Rejectionists on both sides will try to disrupt the process, with bitter words and with bombs and with gunfire.  Some say that the gaps between the parties are too big; the potential for talks to break down is too great; and that after decades of failure, peace is simply not possible.

I hear those voices of skepticism.  But I ask you to consider the alternative.  If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state.  Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors who are committed to coexistence.  The hard realities of demography will take hold.  More blood will be shed.  This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity. 

I refuse to accept that future.  And we all have a choice to make.  Each of us must choose the path of peace.  Of course, that responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history.  Earlier this month at the White House, I was struck by the words of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.  Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I came here today to find a historic compromise that will enable both people to live in peace, security, and dignity.”  And President Abbas said, “We will spare no effort and we will work diligently and tirelessly to ensure these negotiations achieve their cause.”

These words must now be followed by action and I believe that both leaders have the courage to do so.  But the road that they have to travel is exceedingly difficult, which is why I call upon Israelis and Palestinians — and the world — to rally behind the goal that these leaders now share.  We know that there will be tests along the way and that one test is fast approaching.  Israel’s settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground and improved the atmosphere for talks. 

And our position on this issue is well known.  We believe that the moratorium should be extended.  We also believe that talks should press on until completed.  Now is the time for the parties to help each other overcome this obstacle.  Now is the time to build the trust — and provide the time — for substantial progress to be made.  Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it does not slip away.

Now, peace must be made by Israelis and Palestinians, but each of us has a responsibility to do our part as well.  Those of us who are friends of Israel must understand that true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine — one that allows the Palestinian people to live with dignity and opportunity.  And those of us who are friends of the Palestinians must understand that the rights of the Palestinian people will be won only through peaceful means — including genuine reconciliation with a secure Israel.

I know many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians.  But these pledges of friendship must now be supported by deeds.  Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps towards the normalization that it promises Israel. 

And those who speak on behalf of Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and in doing so help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state. 

Those who long to see an independent Palestine must also stop trying to tear down Israel.  After thousands of years, Jews and Arabs are not strangers in a strange land.  After 60 years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate.

Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people.  It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States.  And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people.  The slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance — it’s injustice.  And make no mistake:  The courage of a man like President Abbas, who stands up for his people in front of the world under very difficult circumstances, is far greater than those who fire rockets at innocent women and children.

The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution.  And we can come back here next year, as we have for the last 60 years, and make long speeches about it.  We can read familiar lists of grievances.  We can table the same resolutions.  We can further empower the forces of rejectionism and hate.  And we can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life.  We can do that. 

Or, we can say that this time will be different — that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way.  This time, we will think not of ourselves, but of the young girl in Gaza who wants to have no ceiling on her dreams, or the young boy in Sderot who wants to sleep without the nightmare of rocket fire.

This time, we should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem’s soil as sacred.  This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves.  If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.  (Applause.)

It is our destiny to bear the burdens of the challenges that I’ve addressed — recession and war and conflict.  And there is always a sense of urgency — even emergency — that drives most of our foreign policies.  Indeed, after millennia marked by wars, this very institution reflects the desire of human beings to create a forum to deal with emergencies that will inevitably come.

But even as we confront immediate challenges, we must also summon the foresight to look beyond them, and consider what we are trying to build over the long term?  What is the world that awaits us when today’s battles are brought to an end?  And that is what I would like to talk about with the remainder of my time today.

One of the first actions of this General Assembly was to adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. That Declaration begins by stating that, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

The idea is a simple one — that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings.  And for the United States, this is a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity.  As Robert Kennedy said, “the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit.”  So we stand up for universal values because it’s the right thing to do.  But we also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies, while those who have denied those rights — whether terrorist groups or tyrannical governments — have chosen to be our adversaries.

Human rights have never gone unchallenged — not in any of our nations, and not in our world.  Tyranny is still with us — whether it manifests itself in the Taliban killing girls who try to go to school, a North Korean regime that enslaves its own people, or an armed group in Congo-Kinshasa that use rape as a weapon of war.

In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights.  Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom.  We see leaders abolishing term limits.  We see crackdowns on civil society.  We see corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance.  We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.

As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its own people.  Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments.  To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens.  And I believe that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred. 

America is working to shape a world that fosters this openness, for the rot of a closed or corrupt economy must never eclipse the energy and innovation of human beings.  All of us want the right to educate our children, to make a decent wage, to care for the sick, and to be carried as far as our dreams and our deeds will take us.  But that depends upon economies that tap the power of our people, including the potential of women and girls.  That means letting entrepreneurs start a business without paying a bribe and governments that support opportunity instead of stealing from their people.  And that means rewarding hard work, instead of reckless risk-taking.

Yesterday, I put forward a new development policy that will pursue these goals, recognizing that dignity is a human right and global development is in our common interest.  America will partner with nations that offer their people a path out of poverty.  And together, we must unleash growth that powers by individuals and emerging markets in all parts of the globe.

There is no reason why Africa should not be an exporter of agriculture, which is why our food security initiative is empowering farmers.  There is no reason why entrepreneurs shouldn’t be able to build new markets in every society, which is why I hosted a summit on entrepreneurship earlier this spring, because the obligation of government is to empower individuals, not to impede them.

The same holds true for civil society.  The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable.  We have seen that from the South Africans who stood up to apartheid, to the Poles of Solidarity, to the mothers of the disappeared who spoke out against the Dirty War, to Americans who marched for the rights of all races, including my own.

Civil society is the conscience of our communities and America will always extend our engagement abroad with citizens beyond the halls of government.  And we will call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless.  We will promote new tools of communication so people are empowered to connect with one another and, in repressive societies, to do so with security.  We will support a free and open Internet, so individuals have the information to make up their own minds.  And it is time to embrace and effectively monitor norms that advance the rights of civil society and guarantee its expansion within and across borders.

Open society supports open government, but it cannot substitute for it.  There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.  Now, make no mistake:  The ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it; it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed. 

There is no soil where this notion cannot take root, just as every democracy reflects the uniqueness of a nation.  Later this fall, I will travel to Asia.  And I will visit India, which peacefully threw off colonialism and established a thriving democracy of over a billion people.

I’ll continue to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, which binds together thousands of islands through the glue of representative government and civil society.  I’ll join the G20 meeting on the Korean Peninsula, which provides the world’s clearest contrast between a society that is dynamic and open and free, and one that is imprisoned and closed.  And I will conclude my trip in Japan, an ancient culture that found peace and extraordinary development through democracy.

Each of these countries gives life to democratic principles in their own way.  And even as some governments roll back reform, we also celebrate the courage of a President in Colombia who willingly stepped aside, or the promise of a new constitution in Kenya.

The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens.  And the diversity in this room makes clear — no one country has all the answers, but all of us must answer to our own people.

In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable.  And now, we must build on that progress.  And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world.

This institution can still play an indispensable role in the advance of human rights.  It’s time to welcome the efforts of U.N. Women to protect the rights of women around the globe.  (Applause.)

It’s time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors and increase the U.N. Democracy Fund.  It’s time to reinvigorate U.N. peacekeeping, so that missions have the resources necessary to succeed, and so atrocities like sexual violence are prevented and justice is enforced — because neither dignity nor democracy can thrive without basic security.

And it’s time to make this institution more accountable as well, because the challenges of a new century demand new ways of serving our common interests.

The world that America seeks is not one we can build on our own.  For human rights to reach those who suffer the boot of oppression, we need your voices to speak out.  In particular, I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century — from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America.  Don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten.  Recall your own history.  Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.

That belief will guide America’s leadership in this 21st century.  It is a belief that has seen us through more than two centuries of trial, and it will see us through the challenges we face today — be it war or recession; conflict or division.

So even as we have come through a difficult decade, I stand here before you confident in the future — a future where Iraq is governed by neither tyrant nor a foreign power, and Afghanistan is freed from the turmoil of war; a future where the children of Israel and Palestine can build the peace that was not possible for their parents; a world where the promise of development reaches into the prisons of poverty and disease; a future where the cloud of recession gives way to the light of renewal and the dream of opportunity is available to all.

This future will not be easy to reach.  It will not come without setbacks, nor will it be quickly claimed.  But the founding of the United Nations itself is a testament to human progress.  Remember, in times that were far more trying than our own, our predecessors chose the hope of unity over the ease of division and made a promise to future generations that the dignity and equality of human beings would be our common cause.
     
It falls to us to fulfill that promise.  And though we will be met by dark forces that will test our resolve, Americans have always had cause to believe that we can choose a better history; that we need only to look outside the walls around us.  For through the citizens of every conceivable ancestry who make this city their own, we see living proof that opportunity can be accessed by all, that what unites us as human beings is far greater than what divides us, and that people from every part of this world can live together in peace. 

Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

 
 

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