The 2018 Summit of the Americas: Don’t give up on civil society

As corruption scandals claim the Summit of the Americas host president, Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the fate of the April regional pow wow remains in doubt. Regardless of whether the heads of state meet, civil society still has a lot to say and do.


In less than a month, Lima will host the eighth Summit of the Americas. Amid corruption scandals across the Hemisphere, this year’s topic seems either eerily prescient: “Democratic Governance against Corruption.”

This year, the summit, which gathers heads of state from the Western Hemisphere—President Trump included—will focus on addressing and discussing solutions to corruption in the region. The far-reaching case of Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht has touched 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries (so far) and tarnished politicians around the region, including Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned this week. As the summit looms, the leaders of the Americas will struggle with appearing earnest in discussing how to punish and deter corruption when members of the political class—including some of those who will meet in Lima—seem complicit.

Videos released by the opposition this week appear to show PPK’s aides attempting to bribe legislators in exchange for votes add to allegations of PPK’s corrupt involvement with Odebrecht. With the Peruvian President’s resignation, questions about the realization of the summit come naturally; both Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos have even raised the possibility of cancelling the trip to Lima.

But the summit is much more than a plenary session and a photo-op where presidents shake hands and sign empty declarations.  During the span of four days prior to the summit events designed exclusively for heads of state, the Summit Implementation Review Group (SIRG)—the core management body of the summit process comprises government officials appointed as National Coordinators—will meet to continue their effort of reviewing progress in the fulfillment of mandates from previous summits.

At the same time, accredited civil society organizations and social actors will meet in the buildup to the summit, acting as dialogue brokers and observers across 28 different coalitions addressing different topics, including the role of civil society to tackle corruption, how to use ICTs for better governance, LGBT+ advocacy, and childhood development, among others.

Civil society organizations will provide recommendations on thematic areas to member states, and assist in the implementation of initiatives and the development of the hemispheric agenda. Civil society participation has become an integral part of the summit process, and given the chaos surrounding the higher-ups at the main event this year (the Peruvian political crisis joins Donald Trump and the disinvited Nicolas Maduro as potential unwelcome distractions), it might well become the most interesting, hopeful and useful component of the summit.

Citizens are demonstrating their discontent and resentment toward government and institutions that have struggled to address social policies and popular demands as a small segment of political and business elites abuse public trust. In Latin America, approximately five in ten people have expressed dissatisfaction with their governments over the failure to address corruption. In the U.S., the number has risen to seven out of ten people believing the government is failing to fight corruption, up from half in 2016.

Enter civil society

But the good news is that a disappointed society has started to act, with citizens joining civil society and business groups to lead anti-corruption measures. According to Transparency International, seven in ten people in Latin America and the Caribbean support anti-corruption efforts.

The summit, then, is an excellent opportunity for these groups to share their research, best practices, tactics and methods to fight corruption, from bribery and petty crime to grand corruption schemes. Civil society has proven to be a trigger of systemic change, advocating for marginalized sectors and pushing for transparency reforms in the region. But it is only through regional collaboration that citizens will be able to empower themselves with resources and strategies that have served well in other countries, and learning from those that have not succeeded.

For example, in countries such as Mexico, where systemic corruption and lack of political will impede progress on accountability and transparency measures, nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups have taken matters into their own hands hands. The Mexican Congress can legally discuss regulatory content if it is backed by at least 110,000 individual signatures. Civil society groups, academics and activists coordinated to push for the creation of the National Anti-Corruption System (NAS), backed by 634,143 signatures, pushing the Senate to pass the bill in 2015, along with secondary legislation required to enact and regulate it. The most interesting feature of NAS is its regulating board, presided over by five independent citizens instead of a state agency, demonstrating a potential way to vest citizens with the power of oversight over public officials.

The system is still incomplete, and it must survive federal elections this year, but participating civil society groups at the summit can learn from their counterparts to solidify the model. Chile’s high-level Anti-Corruption Commission is an example worth highlighting. The country has implemented an extraordinary whistleblower protection program, a key component of investigating and punishing corrupt practices. Mexico is still weak with whistle blower protections, grimly underscored by the record number of journalists who were killed in 2017.

And there is also the particular case of Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a tool that has proven successful in a country where institutional weakness is deep, requiring international intervention. Civil society groups could take a look and learn from Guatemala to strengthen their prevention programs to avoid making the same mistakes, and can study CICIG and the feasibility, benefits and downsides of implementing such a model.

The Summit of the Americas is the only hemispheric meeting gathering heads of state, but it is also one of the few high level gatherings of its type where civil society has been given an active role. Civil society groups should and must continue to participate in multilateral forums where member states commit to anti-corruption practices and initiatives, and, now especially, upgrade their roles as observers to hold governments accountable. Only by sharing best practices, exchanging information, and cooperating at a regional level, can corruption be reversed, prevented, sanctioned and effectively controlled by neutral third-parties.

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