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Reforming the UK to be a greater force for good

Article by Joe Powell

September 29, 2020

Reforming the UK to be a greater force for good

The UK has a proud record of support for open societies, open economies and open democracies around the world. In July this year, the UK’s first round of Magnitsky-style sanctions showed a determination to prioritise action against human rights violators and stand up for democratic freedoms. This type of leadership is vital given the rising tide of authoritarianism, civic unrest, attacks on basic freedoms, and closing civic space for journalists and civil society - all of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the UK to become a greater force for good in the future, the Government will need to lead by example with domestic reforms that enhance the UK’s own democracy, and by developing a more coherent approach to democracy support overseas.


The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review, and the 2021 G7 Presidency all provide excellent opportunities for the UK to restate its core values and build on its recent role as a leader and anchor point for multilateral efforts to support democracy and good governance.


As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chair of the World Health Organisation’s ACT-Accelerator programme, recently reminded us all:[1]

The world will not be rid of COVID-19 until we have a safe and effective vaccine available to everyone. We will not recover from the far-reaching economic impact of the pandemic without a new social compact between governments and citizens based on transparent, accountable and trustworthy governance.


Citizens around the world are demanding a post-COVID-19 social compact based on better governance, especially in countries with poor records on democratic freedoms and human rights – as recent events in Lebanon have so tragically demonstrated. The UK government has been one of the most generous donors in tackling the health and economic crisis of COVID-19, but can complement this in the next phase of the recovery with support to governance reforms that enable a more sustainable long-term recovery, and also enhance the effectiveness of UK aid spending overall.


Governments in many countries have lost the trust of their citizens due to corruption and waste in procurement of medical equipment, mis- and disinformation campaigns online and failing public services. To turn this situation around, we urgently require open and accountable systems to enable citizens to participate in the management of scarce public resources, from effective tax administration, through procurement and expenditure management, to efficient public services. A transparent and accountable government will promote self-reliance and help aid-dependent nations to strengthen institutions, the rule of law and establish credibility with investors that will lead to greater domestic resource mobilisation and financial independence.


There is overwhelming evidence that an open and accountable government contributes to tax confidence and higher payment rates, lessens tax evasion, raises and improves the quality of social spending, and lowers the cost and improves competition and quality in public procurement, ultimately resulting in improved public services. Countries that achieved strong improvements in fiscal transparency levels were able to increase their Millennium Development Goal (MDG) spending faster and saw better progress in meeting these goals. Openness also increases the transparency, accountability and quality of aid spending, while reducing overall dependence on aid, and strengthens the tax bond between citizens and government, improving civic cohesion, open markets, and democracy.


This vision of rebuilding and refreshing the compact between government and citizens starts with action in the UK. The UK has been an early champion of many leading transparency practices and policies, such as opening up opaque company ownership structures, open budgeting and contracting, extractives transparency, open data, and the Bribery Act. Implementation of these reforms has been mixed, and for the UK to have credibility as a renewed champion for democracy and openness internationally, it must get its own house in order too. This should include greater vigilance of foreign interference in the UK’s elections, and an expansion of innovative democratic practices such as citizen assemblies and participatory budgeting which give citizens a greater say in how they are governed beyond the ballot box.


The dividends of leading by example will extend to UK companies operating overseas. Support to reforms that help promote fair competition, for example in the public procurement process, will help prevent bribery undercutting well-run UK companies. UK companies are also well positioned to take advantage of the need for digitalisation, better procurement and open data that the pandemic has highlighted. New global anti-corruption and governance norms – such as open contracting, public registers of beneficial ownership and open budgets – will strengthen the international rules-based order, and disadvantage governments whose comparative advantage is tax avoidance, worker oppression and environmental degradation.


Internationally, the UK government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position itself at the front of a much-needed renewed global coalition of democracies, which stand up for the international rules-based order and can show the world a more hopeful path away from authoritarian or illiberal democratic models. UK citizens believe their country is a force for good in the world, and are highly sceptical of the respective governance models of Russia and China. With some notable exceptions, however, traditional champions of liberal democracy have been distracted in recent years, allowing authoritarian leaders space to export their playbook and contributing to the 14 straight years of decline in global freedom reported by Freedom House.[2] Undoubtedly, the Brexit vote and its fallout have meant the UK is one of the traditional champions who have been distracted.


There is now an opportunity to take some specific steps that would renew UK leadership:

  • Put open societies, open economies and open democracies at the heart of the new FCDO priorities.
  • Ensure that the FCDO prioritises support to countries in moments of democratic transition, or where reform efforts are underway that could help lift countries out of low-income status onto the road to self-reliance (including FCO-DFID priority countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria).
  • Ensure support to open societies, open economies and open democracies features prominently in the spending review.
  • Promote a G7 priority that liberal democracies work together more effectively to support open societies and open economies (including on trade), and create a stronger coalition to push back against rising authoritarianism.
  • Ensure UK values are strong and present across all multilateral fora, including the UN’s special session on anti-corruption, the G20 and the Sustainable Development Goals.


These steps will build on the UK’s track record of leadership across policy areas that support healthy democracies, including protecting civic space and media freedom, open governance, anti-corruption, extractive industries and inclusion. These are essential components of the UK’s own democracy, and should form the backbone of the FCDO’s priorities, including:

  • Speeding up recovery from COVID-19 by building public resources or fiscal accountability systems to track COVID-19 emergency relief packages, procurement, spending and service delivery. This includes support to independent civil society organisations and free media that are able to hold governments to account.
  • Standing up for civic space and media freedom, including building on the UK-Canada Media Freedom Summit of 2019 so that reforms to increase transparency lead to a more accountable government through scrutiny, and providing support for civil society working on democratic reforms in places like Hong Kong, Armenia and Ethiopia who are either transitioning to liberal democracy or at risk of backsliding.
  • Support for open government and a coalition of governments to promote stronger rule of law institutions, including the Open Government Partnership, which was co-founded by the UK government in 2011 and has advanced over 4,000 specific reforms to enhance democracy and tackle corruption in 78 member countries, and support the implementation of SDG 16.
  • Support for anti-corruption reforms that promote an international rules-based system in which UK businesses can engage, and which promote open markets and tackle money-laundering, terrorist financing and elite capture. Key anti-corruption themes include open contracting reforms for public procurement to address government’s number one corruption risk, especially in the time of COVID-19, and open budgets, which enable citizens to shape priorities and follow the money, and facilitate the identification and recovery of stolen assets. Reforms should extend to public registers of beneficial ownership as pioneered by the UK since 2013, which provide a means to know who owns and controls companies.
  • Support to developing countries to ensure oil, gas and mining resources are openly and fairly governed, enabling countries to finance their own recovery, increase economic resilience, and create stable operating environments for UK companies abroad. Maintain UK leadership in global initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, founded by the UK in 2003, and provide independent support for credible civil society institutions that promote open dialogue on extractive governance. Such support is essential to ensure that countries accelerate the transition to green energy, reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and access the minerals that are critical to renewable energy sources.
  • Increase support for gender-responsive and inclusive citizen engagement involving underrepresented groups (including people living with disabilities and youth) as well as in procurement, which is central to how governments spend their money. Some of these communities have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and it is critical to ensure that they are supported to have a voice at the table to inform policies on reform and recovery.


The decision to create a combined foreign and development office was undoubtedly a controversial one. DFID has a proud record of supporting governance and anti-corruption work around the world, in service of reducing extreme poverty, while the Foreign Office has provided impressive leadership on issues like media freedom and civic space. The opportunity of the new department is to bring more coherence across all of these policy areas, and place them at the centre of the UK’s bilateral and multilateral partnerships. This will inevitably result in some tough decisions, for example around arms sales to autocratic and repressive regimes, but if this approach is combined with a commitment from the Government to stepping up democratic reforms within the UK, then the UK could genuinely become a greater force for good in the world.


Joe Powell is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Open Government Partnership. He leads OGP’s global engagements, including working with the OGP Steering Committee, OGP Summits and linking OGP with other multilateral processes. He previously worked for the ONE campaign, where was managing ONE’s global campaign for increased transparency in the extractive industries. As Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager at ONE, Joe also led global advocacy on the G20 and policy development for the 2013 G8. Prior to working at ONE Joe launched an online current affairs platform called ‘Uganda Talks’ for the Independent, a weekly East African news magazine, and worked for Action Aid Uganda. He studied at Makerere University. Joe holds a BS from the University of Cambridge.


Image by DFID under (CC).

[1] Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,To beat Covid-19, Governments Need to Open Up, 11 July 2020

[2] Sarah Repucci, Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy, Freedom House, February 2020,

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