The real story of “open” – Guest Post from Nikhil Dey

I an honoured to be able to use this blog to host a guest post from Nikhil Dey of MKSS, an Indian right to information group. It follows the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit in London, at which Nikhil and his colleagues made a great impression, both on me personally and on the summit as a whole. He and Aruna Roy, also of MKSS, share a seat on the OGP Steering Committee

The real story of “open”

There were many things from the London Summit that stand out for us, but here is one that will give you a delightful surprise about the mysterious ways in which the OGP story has spread. More than that, it will give you an idea of the good things of London, of why cab drivers have such a good reputation, and of the humanity and goodness of the ordinary citizen of the world.

Three of us (Kamayani, Shankar, and I) had pre-booked a cab for the airport on a taxi service that takes bookings for cheap taxis in London. We boarded at our hotel, and left by a route where our cab driver informed us we would not get caught in a protest march being undertaken by the Tamil Tigers. After we introduced ourselves to him, the driver told us that his name was Amani, and that he was from Tanzania.

We mentioned to him that we had been participants at a meeting where his President had come. “Something called the Open Government Partnership?” he asked. Pleasantly surprised to hear of this level of awareness, we began to talk about what we were doing in the OGP.

Without us describing the opening plenary, Amani said that he was keen to understand what David Cameron and President Kikwete were trying to establish by being a part of this initiative. He was somewhat sceptical about the true intent of both of them, but yet keen to know if anything could come of the commitments they might make here. He spoke of the contradictory signals for media freedom in Tanzania, and about the controls exercised by big business in the UK. We told him about Kikwete’s commitment to pass a Right To Information Act and he seemed hopeful and yet doubtful about how real the commitment might be.

He asked us which other country leader had come apart from Indonesia. We said Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire (he pronounced it properly for us). He told us the backgrounds of both leaders, including the fact that the Côte d’Ivoire leader had won an election but could only come to power after getting support from the French and the UN in a war.

We said a colleague of ours had asked John Kerry an important question. He said – wasn’t Kerry there by video link? And when we recounted Aruna’s question he said, “is that when Kerry admitted that US surveillance and spying had probably gone too far?”

Amani told us that he had come to the UK when he was 19. He had a Tanzanian wife and a child in school in London. He longed to go back and connect with meaningful work in Tanzania, but was afraid that it might be a culture shock to work there. We told him about a Tanzanian – Rakesh Rajani – being the new civil society lead chair, and about Twaweza. As soon as he heard the name he asked whether it did empowerment work. We also spoke about our own work in rural India, and he listened intently, asking the occasional pertinent question.

We kept talking till we reached Heathrow, and inexplicably (and inexcusably), while exchanging emails and phone numbers with him, we loaded our bags on the cart, and I left without paying him!

I only remembered half an hour later, after I had checked in. Mortified, I called him, profusely apologised, and told him my colleague in London would make sure he got the money.

“Please, don’t worry about it, that is my contribution to your cause.” he told me.

I said we could not take this contribution, and that we would feel terrible if he didn’t accept his payment. But Amani said he felt happy for having contributed in this fashion. He said he would not take the money. I have of course written to him, and we will reach the money to him, but as my colleague said to me when I told her – this man, his knowledge, his interest in the world around him, and his innate kindness left her speechless!

Each one of us has stories like this. However, in its own way it seemed another reminder that the real story of “open” is the ordinary person’s “open mind and open heart.” The story seemed to be worth sharing with all of you …