I’ve recently returned from a trip to South East Asia, which was squeezed in between three campaigning trips to Eastleigh.
Britain is currently chairing a new international movement, the Open Government Partnership. Less than two years ago, we helped found the OGP, alongside countries like Brazil, the United States and Indonesia. Already it counts 58 members and covers a third of the world’s population. It brings together not just governments but civil society organisations.
Transparency is one of those things - rather like motherhood and apple pie - of which everyone says they’re in favour. But genuine openness can be transformational. Transparency gives citizens the tools they need to hold governments to account. It helps inform the public when they choose between services like hospitals and schools. And open data is an engine for economic growth and a whole new generation of entrepreneurship.
The Open Government Partnership is all about promoting transparency. Each member is at a different stage along the journey to openness. Every country publishes a challenging action plan. But they have to do more than just make promises – they have to deliver their commitments. And civil society organisations will hold them to account if they do not.
My first destination on this trip was Indonesia, which will succeed us as the next OGP lead chair. In Jakarta we worked with ministers and civil society partners to debate the future of the OGP. Indonesia shares with us an interest in strengthening the global economy. We also share common values such as tolerance, diversity and democracy. As the third biggest economy in Asia, it’s crucial that Britain strengthens its links with Indonesia.
Next stop was Burma - admittedly not the first country that springs to mind when one thinks of openness. But under President Thein Sein Burma has begun to embrace reform. When David Cameron visited there last year the relations between our countries entered a new phase. Burma has even taken the brave decision to seek to join the OGP by 2016.
In Rangoon and the capital I met with government ministers and talked to civil society and ethnic leaders. We discussed how Britain can assist Burma in improving its public services, governance and financial management, and in meeting the OGP’s eligibility criteria. I also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with whom I had a wide ranging discussion including about how Burma could rebuild its Civil Service. She’s an amazing lady; highly intelligent, impatient, forceful, with remarkably little bitterness from the years of oppression and deprivation she has endured at the hands of the previous regime.
Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia with weak health and education services. It faces a legacy of bitter and debilitating internal unrest. Human rights violations remain to be addressed and there is a critical ongoing ethnic conflict to be resolved. But if Burma does eventually join the OGP, it would be a watershed for its people.