Africa’s liberators should embrace civil society as an ally

Governments across Africa are clamping down on dissent, hiding their secrets and attacking the funding base of their critics. And it seems that those who fought hardest for freedom, are now those least convinced by the virtue of freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Despite numerous international commitments to protect civic space, evidence from around the world suggests that conditions are getting worse for civil society. Our annual stocktake, The State of Civil Society 2013, published by CIVICUS,catalogues a litany of threats to civil society: from outright violence against civic leaders, to legal restrictions on civil society organisations and dramatic funding cuts.

The situation in many African countries is particularly acute, especially where political movements that once fought for freedom and prosperity, having assumed power are now undermining both aims by trying to clampdown on civil society. What they ignore at their peril is that, while solidarity and unity are crucial during liberation struggles, debate and dissent are vital to promote both vibrant democracies and economic prosperity. Continue reading

Measure What You Treasure: Reflections from the Post-2015 Governance Consultation Meeting (1)

As a part of THE WORLD WE WANT, the post-2015 global thematic consultation on governance held in Johannesburg on 28 February – 1 March, I communicated my message for civil society strategies in 4 words, “Bring your measuring stick!”

If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist

You might not agree to the theorem, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” However, we need to recognise that this is the dominant mode of operation – and increasingly so these days – in policy-making circles at global, regional, national and local levels. So what we need to do, in light of the formation of the post-MDGs goals and indicators on the horizon, is to “measure what you treasure,” instead of “treasure what you can measure,” as succinctly put forward in the video message by High Commissioner Navi Pillay during the consultation meeting.

As civil society actors, we all need to clearly formulate what we “treasure” in this opportune time and try to develop their respective yardstick (ie., measurement framework) so that we increases our chances of having what we “treasure” incorporated into the new set of globally-agreed targets and indicators post 2015. This is particularly true in the governance domain, where its key ingredients might be amorphous and abstract. Thus my message, “bring your measuring stick.” Continue reading

Sri Lanka’s litmus test

As the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council opens in Geneva, the situation in Sri Lanka is once again in the spotlight. It’s been almost 4 years since the end of the civil war there and conditions for local civil society – from human rights defenders to journalists – seem to be getting worse. While accountability for alleged war crimes and human rights violations is critical in the immediate term, the long-term litmus test of Sri Lanka’s ability to build an effective and peaceful democracy will be whether it can nurture a vibrant and independent civil society.

As CIVICUS argued in our submission to the Universal Periodic Review on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council last year, we are very concerned about abductions and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders and journalists, human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan security forces, restrictions on freedom of expression and information, and a complex and obstructive registration processes for NGOs, especially those wanting to work in the Northeast of the island. CIVICUS is also concerned about the Sri Lankan Government’s rejection of so many recommendations from member states that came out of the UPR process. Continue reading

Waiting in Cairo

Last week, on my way to London, I had the chance to explore Cairo for twelve hours. In that short time, what I found was a society waiting, like me, in transit. From seeing the great pyramids of Giza to spending time wandering around Tahrir Square, the setting for the arguably most dramatic moments of the Arab Spring, it was quite a stop-over.

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square, Egypt

Two years on from those heady days that resulted in the end of the Mubarak regime, Tahrir Square felt strange. The tents are still there – complete with citizen sentries checking those who enter the square, presumably to keep the protestors safe from attack. And yet things seem a little stuck. Continue reading

Click here for #SocialJustice

What do you get when you put a veteran of the anti-Apartheid struggle in a room with some young digital activists? A creative tension that will have profound implications for the future of civil society.

This week I went to a workshop in central Johannesburg hosted by Jay Naidoo, the former South African trade unionist and minister. Jay had brought together a bunch of web developers and self-proclaimed ‘geeks’, who were using new technologies to open up government and empower citizens, with folks from organisations such as Section 27 and Equal Education, NGOs that have a solid history of campaigning on social justice.

The encounter reminded me of the possibilities that new media opens up for civil society, but also the potential pitfalls of relationships between two different communities. Continue reading

Frozen Assets

Rather strangely, on my first day working for CIVICUS I found myself in a freezing blizzard in Davos. Instead of meeting new colleagues at CIVICUS House in Johannesburg, I was hanging out with the rich and powerful at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. On reflection, it was a great way to start.

The who’s who of business, politics and even civil society were all crammed into one small alpine town, shuffling along icy footpaths from keynote speech to “IdeasLab” workshop to private dinner to corporate “nightcaps” (code for drink-as-much-as-you-like-and-remember-us-fondly-in-the-morning). I spent a lot of my time meeting fellow members of civil society – from CEOs of big NGOs to youth activists – and left feeling rather upbeat.

Despite the economic doom and political gloom, there was a sense of energy, dynamism and credibility within civil society that was hard to find amongst other actors. The political leaders at Davos seemed desperate to find new ways to rebuild public trust and finance broke public finances. The captains of industry and finance were either looking for new ways of passing the buck for the problems they had created or simply sticking to old ways of pursuing growth-by-any-means-necessary.

On the other hand, civil society commands relatively higher levels of public trust (see the latest Edelman Trust Barometer). I am also convinced that civil society is where the coolest innovation is happening (Davos was full of social innovators with excellent ideas), and the arena most likely to generate more just and sustainable models of growth. Indeed, despite concerns about worries about funding and political interference, agreed that they would rather be in our sector than in business or politics these days.

The next few years are not going to be easy, but I left Davos convinced that we are at the beginning of a new era of citizen action which will change the world fundamentally (again). I hope that we at CIVICUS can do our best to support these exciting developments.

Please drop me a line at danny.sriskandarajah@civicus.org or via @civicusSG on Twitter. And join the CIVICUS family if you haven’t already.

Danny Sriskandarajah

Make your voice heard in 2013!

As we conclude another fruitful year of work advancing citizen action and strengthening civil society, I would like to thank you – CIVICUS’ colleagues, members, supporters and friends – for your participation in various CIVICUS activities and for taking part in our ambitious vision of achieving a worldwide community of informed, inspired, committed citizens engaged in confronting the challenges facing humanity.

Organisationally, CIVICUS was able to inscribe several key milestones in 2012. As our five-year strategy for 2008-2012 was coming to an end, we set out on a broad and in-depth consultation process with members, partners and key stakeholders to agree on a new five-year strategy for 2013-2017. Due to the diversity of our constituents, as well as the fast-moving and often crisis-led global situation affecting civil society, it was a challenge to prioritise and de-prioritise many of the issues that are related to day-to-day struggles of our members and others. In the end, the CIVICUS Board was able to crystallise the focus of the alliance in the next five years into the CIVICUS Strategic Priorities 2013-2017 with the three key themes of 1) influence, 2) connect and 3) enable, as introduced and endorsed at the members’ meeting during the CIVICUS World Assembly in Montreal in September. Continue reading

“I am from your world…” said the World Bank President Kim at the CSO Townhall Meeting

“I come from your world,” said new World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in his first appearance at the CSO Townhall meeting held on 11 October, during the Annual Meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group in Tokyo. He continued on to say, “It’s not so often that an activist from civil society gets to run the largest development organisation in the world. I guarantee you that I am not going to let this opportunity slip through my fingers.”

Last week in Tokyo, I had the privilege of chairing this CSO Townhall meeting with the IMF’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde and the World Bank’s President Kim. Also on the panel were two CSO discussants, Sheela Patel of the Slum Dwellers International  and Saman Kelegama of the Institute of Policy Studies in Sri Lanka.

The CSO Townhall meeting has been a tradition of the IMF/WB annual meeting since 2004. It is a highlight of the Civil Society Policy Forum, held parallel to the main meetings and an opportunity for CSO participants to engage directly with the heads of these two institutions. This year, there were some 600 CSO representatives from more than 50 countries in Tokyo and the Civil Society Policy Forum had more than 50 workshops organised mostly by CSOs. Continue reading

Radicalism of the ordinary: reflections on a Tokyo no nukes rally

I would like to call it PPM (a purposeful, prudent mob). But this PPM doesn’t sing “where have all the flowers gone?” Instead it chants: an endless chant of “Saikado hantai!” (no re-activation!). Listening to these chants for a few minutes, you find yourself chanting along, first with a small voice but gradually as loudly as you can. There is no listening to long speeches of self-proclaimed leaders, and no having to endure the never-ending ranting of ideologues of the past. Around you are young and old, couples and families with children, all chanting the same message.

Tokyo NoNukes Protest Rally

These people are purposeful. They come together with a single and sole message of ending nuclear energy. They are prudent, as they behave well and don’t go out of the designated side streets for pedestrians; and thus calling them a mob may be misleading, except that they come from everywhere with very little organised mobilisation. This is different from traditional rallies, marches or sit-ins, in that they are scattered across a few key locations in central Tokyo – prime minister’s residence, national Diet (parliament) building and METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) – and now other locations all across Japan. It started in front of the prime minster’s residence a few months ago, and has now grown into a weekly event that starts every Friday evening between 5 and 6pm, when people gather around, standing or sitting, some raising a banner or placard, most of them chanting, and adjourns at 8pm as if it is just a weekly serene ritual. No fanfares, and no immediate victories.

I was there early August. In front of the parliament, one side is designated as a “speech area” where you can walk up and share your reflections. The other side is a “family area” reserved particularly for families with small children, elderly couples and others who might be afraid of pushing, shoving and stampedes. In front of the METI was a smaller but equally persistent, fun-loving crowd with horns, drums and dances. Walking towards the prime minister’s residence, I ended up at the rear end of a long queue which eventually didn’t go anywhere but just dispersed at 8pm. Continue reading

Enabling environment as a key focus in the EC Policy Forum on Development

How can the European Commission’s international development agenda meaningfully link with global policy issues on development? This was one of the main themes guiding the discussion at the First Interim Meeting of the Policy Forum on Development, held in Brussels from 10 to 11 May 2012. CIVICUS was invited to provide an intervention on the issue of the enabling environment, and was represented by me.

The two-day Forum gathered close to 150 people, including EC officials, members of the European Parliament, other EU agencies, representatives of European member states, the OECD and CSOs, and local authority representatives from Europe and around the globe. It was opened by Mr Angelo Baglio, Head of Civil Society and Local Authorities Unit at the EC. Different sessions focused on preliminary presentations for a new EC funding framework and instruments for development from 2014, future policies of the EU with regard to support to CSOs in partner countries, aid and development effectiveness, and preparatory discussions on setting up a policy framework on development. Continue reading