May 30, 2012

The New Tie that Bind Us: The Future is Calling!

The year I was born, I am told, was a year of reinventing the world.  In France, 1968 is remembered as one of the greatest years when 10 million workers occupied the factories that they worked in.  The year - 2011 - will also go down in history as the year when citizens in America took to the streets and non-violently occupied Wall Street.  Tahrir Square in Egypt is now a household name known as the place where people took over and toppled a dictator. In India, one man's fast in 2011 brought millions onto the streets and the government to its knees and won decisive action to end corruption. The Greek citizens spent the year protesting unfair cuts to public spending. The Spanish citizens and huge number of their "indignados" defied a ban on pre-election demonstrations and mounted a protest-camp in Sol square to speak out against political corruption and the government's handling of the economic crisis.  The Arab spring metamorphosed Gaddafi from ‘King of Africa’ to ‘fugitive of Africa’ and now – ‘the former Gaddafi’.  2011 also saw Mubarak being wheeled in a court room on a hospital stretcher to face his trial. 
As the Civicus Report says: “indeed 2011 was the year of dissent, in which apathy became unfashionable and seemingly unassailable dictators and systems were challenged. In at least 88 countries we saw different forms of mass citizen action. The origins and motivations of dissent are complex, but the roots of 2011’s protests were interconnected: protest was driven by the inability of states to address the fallout of the economic crisis, making serious income inequalities and corruption more acute, and compounded by demographic shifts giving rise to more urbanized, unemployed, frustrated young people. The internet, mobile and social media played a vital role in catalyzing civic action, both as an organizer of physical protest and as a civic space in its own right”.
The state’s response to the economic crisis can be seen as impinging on the fundamental social contract between state and citizens, and protest can be understood as a way of citizens re-asserting the power to negotiate a new social contract.  Indeed the civic action we saw in 2011 was part of civil society action but not even predicted by the civil society organizations that many of us work with. 
The rise of citizen action also saw the rise of state push back and this is happening in both democratic and authoritarian states as evidenced from the discussions in this AGM.  There are legal and extralegal measures being taken by states to intimidate or cause harm to civil society personnel to deter them from carrying out their work.  As I speak now in Uganda – there are organizations that are under the threat of closure, in fact one - organization is closed - and a human rights defender from one of our member organization in a remote district in Eastern Uganda has been evacuated out of Uganda for her safety.  In this week alone I have reports that two events have been stopped by state operatives in two districts in Uganda. 
There are also several attempts to introduce repressive laws to regulate CSOs.  Between 2007 and April 2011 thirty five governments across Africa have either passed or are about to pass several pieces of legislation restricting activities and the very existence of CSOs.  The trend is even more troublesome when considered that in about 20 of the cases, the pieces of legislation are similar in content. The book by Trust Africa – (Dis)enabling Environment documents comprehensively some of the abuses and concerns on the continent.
What is clear is that citizens across the world are speaking through their actions that the day when hegemonic governments and institutions that cause global financial crises and expect poor families and rural peasants to pay for them are over!  This message should not be externalized but internalized by all political and social actors across the world.  In every uprising, from Cairo to New York, the call for an accountable government that serves the people is clear. This may not seem the case in all parts of the world but like viral diseases, these kinds of effects spread variously.  As I end let me pose the question:
Is the future calling for CSOs?
As you all know – when the phone rings you either pick it, send back a text message, put it on voice-mail or reject the call.  And if the phone does not ring – then you do not worry - but for us it may mean you are irrelevant!  For CSOs the phone has been ringing about our future sustainability.  It is important to recognize that for NGOs, future sustainability may not be so much about paying their bills (although that is important), but it is also about staying relevant, so that CSO work meets the needs of citizens and continues to be relevant – that is what sustainability entails.  I would offer the following 5 ideas as options for our future: (see second part of blog, to be published soon!...)

Richard Ssewakiryanga
Executive Director
Uganda National NGO Forum

Presented at the Canadian Council for International Cooperation Annual General Meeting
May 25th, 2012

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