How can civil society activists in conflict prone countries be best supported? How to assist them to speak out and stay safe, advocate on behalf of all the people and hold state and private sector actors accountable for their actions? This is the highly sensitive topic and aim of the strategic lobby and advocacy partnership that was signed by Cordaid and the Dutch MoFA last year. Recently Cordaid field staff gathered in The Hague to find common ground on how to do this in the difficult settings of Burundi, Afghanistan, South Sudan and other countries.
Within the partnership MoFA departments, embassies, Cordaid HQ and field offices and our local partners closely collaborate and use their comparative strengths on local, national and international levels. It’s a new and more interactive way of working compared to the Dutch co-financing system for development aid that came to an end last year.
Burundi’s vibrant and strong civil society has been cracked down upon and almost disappeared within a few months.
We asked some of our colleagues in the field, who are in the forefront of the action, just how new it is and what the partnership might and might not do in their countries.
‘Civil society has almost disappeared’
For Triphonie Habonimana, Cordaid colleague in Burundi, the partnership has gained urgency since April last year, when election violence in her country flared up. “Ever since the president presented himself as apt for a third presidential mandate, the space for civil society has been rapidly shrinking.” In that sense the lobby and advocacy collaboration between the Dutch government, Cordaid and Burundian civil society organizations, comes in the nick of time. “It’s new, and it’s very welcome. Burundi’s vibrant and strong civil society has been cracked down upon and almost disappeared within a few months. This partnership with the Dutch government, gives us, Burundians and Burundian civil society, the feeling of not being completely on our own. That is extremely important, as there is no way the country will be able to operate without civil society organizations.”
This partnership gives us, Burundians and Burundian civil society, the feeling of not being completely on our own.
Bridging the gap between donors and communities
Said Shamsul Islam, Cordaid’s health expert based in Afghanistan, underscores the novelty and importance of the partnership. “There is no longer this classical donor-recipient relationship. This partnership goes much further. The involvement of the government, through its embassy in Afghanistan, is what makes this partnership a real partnership, not just a question of giving money and expecting pre-formulated results in return.”
“Lobby and Advocacy are not construction projects. They need patience, intelligence and flexibility, and this has been ensured in the Strategic Partnership.”
Said Shamsul Islam
Then there’s the inclusiveness of the partnership: the Dutch government, Cordaid HQ, Cordaid field offices, local civil society organizations and communities are joining hands. Said: “ Thus they are bridging the gap between donors and communities, which is a classical problem in traditional development aid. Really, the partnership shows the Dutch government’s true involvement and commitment to address issues of fragility.”
Said Shamsul Islam
When the going gets tough
Generally, one could say, more insecurity and political instability mean less space for civil society to operate independently. “And this makes the partnership all the more important in countries such as Afghanistan”, Said Shamsul Islam explains. “In times of insecurity civil society organizations are kept from raising their voices. It’s in these times that they need to strengthen their capacities, they an enabling environment and that policy reforms need to be made. This partnership is what can help to achieve that.”
Shamsul Islam stresses the importance of the watchdog role vis-à-vis of those in power and the private sector. “In Afghanistan CSO’s are used to fill the gap in service delivery, left by the government and are just implementing projects. They aren’t used to play this necessary watchdog role and this is exactly something that is addressed by this strategic partnership.” Triphonie agrees. “It is even the key element of the partnership”, she says.
And that’s exactly what makes this lobby and advocacy partnership such a balancing act: as it becomes more dangerous to raise your voice, in times of violence and instability, it also becomes more important to do so.
So what are the concrete demands Triphonie and Said will lobby for in their countries, in the context of this partnership. Said, who is a health expert is very clear: “We want more government resources for health, at least 2% more of their domestic budget in five years’ time. By that time Afghanistan needs also to have a health insurance policy and system. It’s one way of protecting people from financial disaster. Just to give two examples.”
Triphonie has her own ambitions, in a completely different setting: “We will tackle three important and related issues: access to justice for all, inclusive, engendered peace and security and youth empowerment and employment. Concretely in five years from now there has to be an increase of 2% of the government budget to improve the justice and security systems. For example the filing system of legal cases; this is terrible in Burundi. And significant funds have to be allocated by the government to implement UNSCR 1325 action plans, allowing women to have a real say in peace processes and in decision making. And last but not least, we will pressure the government to come up with a sound youth employment policy, which is crucial for the country’s stability.”
As it becomes more dangerous to raise your voice, in times of violence and instability, it also becomes more important to do so.
Speaking out and staying safe: a balancing act
Many parties are involved in this innovative and challenging partnership that aims to strengthen civil society in some of the most fragile settings on the planet. But it is people like Said Shamsul and Triphonie and their close allies who are the frontrunners. They are the ones who raise their voices and help others to claim their rights. In times of trouble, they closely watch the doings of those in power and raise the alarm if needed. And they somehow feel secured by the chain of interaction of this strategic partnership.