A New Policy Brief Launched By The National Democratic Institute, Transparency International & The Open Government Partnership
The democratic landscape has changed dramatically since the Open Government Partnership (OGP) was created in 2011. Over the last decade, autocratization has steadily gained ground. From 2011 to 2021, the share of the world’s population living in democratic countries reduced from 43% to 20.3%, and the number of coups (six) in 2021 set a record for this century. The explosive growth of social media combined with the rise of divisive national leaders has left societies deeply polarized, with 40 countries reaching ‘toxic’ levels in 2021.
Another notable shift over the last decade has been the increasingly bold and transgressive influence that autocratic governments seek to exert over democratic countries. Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of a free and sovereign Ukraine is an extreme example, but it is not the only one. Like Ukraine, other OGP member countries around the world find themselves under assault from foreign covert actors seeking to influence their elections, shift their public discourse and gain access to their economic and strategic resources.
While their tactics may vary, opacity is a common throughline. Foreign-sponsored schemes that subvert a country’s democratic process or policymaking are unpopular and often illegal. Knowing this, illiberal actors take great care to shield their activities from public scrutiny, relying on a wide variety of covert tools, including confidentiality clauses, shell companies and proxy donors.
When well designed and consistently implemented, transparency measures represent an effective counterpoint to foreign-sponsored illiberal influences. Transparency enables key democratic stakeholders—including governments, election commissions, legislatures, political parties, the media, civil society and the voting public—to detect, track and act to stem the foreign-sponsored influence. Additionally, transparency already enjoys broad public consensus and is codified in the majority of countries. The challenge is generally enhancing existing regulations and closing the implementation gap, rather than creating something wholly new.
Against this backdrop, OGP has partnered with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to produce a series of three policy briefs outlining the patterns of covert influence and identifying openness and oversight measures that build resilience against covert foreign-sponsored influences. These measures are intended for consideration by OGP members as they develop their action plan commitments.
On the occasion of International Democracy Day, OGP and NDI have also partnered with Transparency International to develop and launch the first brief in the series: “Openness and Oversight Measures to Counter Covert Foreign Political Finance.”
Slated for release over the next three months, the policy briefs will cover the following topics:
- Covert foreign political finance, often channeled to parties and candidates through proxies, is an instrument for interference in political and electoral processes. This corrupt support is intended to tilt the electoral playing field, and influence the exercise of public authority. Openness and oversight can help detect and curb the use of covert foreign political finance.
- Debt opacity is a common problem. Loans are often contracted without public knowledge or parliamentary scrutiny by governments and lenders eager to fast-track deals that may be in their interests, but not necessarily in the public’s interest. Absent scrutiny, there is a greater likelihood that the government might accept disadvantageous terms, including the collateralization of strategic reserves or a lack of labor or environmental protections. For some lenders, opacity is a feature rather than a bug. One review of 100 Chinese loan agreements across 24 countries found that the contracts included strict secrecy clauses banning disclosure of the terms and even the existence of the debt.
- Prior to the military invasion, Russia subjected Ukraine to an intense disinformation campaign that included more than 5,100 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation in just the 12 months leading up to the attack. Foreign-sponsored information operations have become a feature of political life around the world and a threat multiplier in other domains. Information operations often go hand in hand with other means of malign influence, such as covert political finance or corrupt investments.
In a context of rising autocratization and foreign-sponsored influences, the mission of OGP—to promote transparent, participatory, inclusive, and accountable governance through government and civil society collaboration—is even more vital today than it was in 2011. Democracies can only defend against covert foreign schemes through openness and oversight. Armed with a better understanding of the threat and potential countermeasures, OGP stakeholders can ensure future action plans respond effectively to these forms of illiberal influence, representing the next frontier of democratic resilience.
Authors: Kristen Sample, NDI & Jorge Valladares, Transparency International.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.