What are the challenges of democracy and governance work and how you build inclusion, especially amongst youth? DemWorks is back at the US Institute of Peace to continue the discussion on the role of governance in the prevention of violence and to fight violent extremism. NDI’s Lauren van Metre is once again joined at the US Institute of Peace by activists Emna Jeblaoui (Tunisia), Jacob Bul Bior (South Sudan), Samson Itodo (Nigeria) and Aluel Atem (South Sudan).
Lauren van Metre: We're back at the U.S. Institute of Peace to continue our discussion on the role of governance in the prevention of violence and to fight violent extremism. In this episode we discuss the challenges of democracy and governance work and how you build inclusion, especially amongst youth.
I'm Lauren van Metre, senior advisor at the National Democratic Institute. Welcome to DemWorks. Once again I am joined by Emna Jeblaoui, Jacob Bol Bior, Samson Itodo and Aluel Atem. I'd like to ask each of you a question about some of the challenges to building an inclusive democracy and invite the rest of you to also respond.
So, Samson, you've been a leader of the growing civil society activism in Nigeria and it's been demanding that the government be more transparent and accountable and we're seeing this exact theme globally, that citizens are demanding accountability. What would you say to people that are demonstrating on behalf of accountability and transparency? What are the methods that are effective in moving governments towards reform, towards accountability? What, in your perspective, has worked?
Samson Itodo: First is, we need to revisit the concept of change and advocacy, that advocacy makes no sense if it's not effective. The reason why we’re involved is to get change and if you don't get change at the end of the day, then you need to revisit your tactics.
One of the mindset, or the paradigms, in organizing is to adopt a very confrontational life approach towards this, this work. And just tied to that is my own thinking that working with government or collaboration, collaborating with government is compromise. That is not the case. Yes, there are exceptions, but we need to come to this work and with a mindset of achieving the overall good. And that overall good is how do we improve society, and government exists, presumably, to improve society. And so as we engage with government we need to keep that on the back of our minds. Now we are all working towards the same goal and so government should be supported by providing solutions.
One of the, one of the strategies we use, I mean, fostering change, is to adopt a reformist approach in engaging government institutions. Because, one, it gives us access into those institutions our institutions are structurally designed to keep citizens out of engagement, so access to information becomes a problem. But if you adopt a reformist approach and these institutions trust you and there's mutual trust between both of you, they're more disposed to share information with you as as a civil society organization. The second lesson from, from our, our work is to look, to come to advocacy from a citizens driven point of view. That as an NGO or an organization who like speaking for the people sometimes policymakers need to hear from the people themselves so we should ensure that at the forefront of public discourse you've got people who are there. And the third is about technology, and the role that social media plays in organizing. [inaudible] movement is a classic example of how social media was used as a tool of one: asking difficult questions to our public leaders, but also promoting transparency and so you encourage people to either with - we saw, you know, exposing corruption. One of the examples we have was in one of the states, in one of the local governments we were conducting social audits, a primary health care center had never received attention by the government. But because we trained citizens in the local communities to perform social audits they were able to expose that primary health care center that one, didn't receive drugs and they know the, the personnel that were recruited to man those stations actually were not coming to, to work. But as a result of that citizens action, taken by the citizens and members of their community, there was a response from the state.
So, for us, lessons learned is they need to empower people, that this change that we desire is going to be lead, it’s going to be driven by the people and not necessarily “we” organizations. And for us we are not import catalyst and enablers of change and you really change agents are the people and we need to focus attention on how we continue to empower these people so we don't become the same bureaucrats that threaten their growth and prosperity.
LVM: Jacob, I'd like to pick up a little bit on Samson's call to citizens, and how often even civil society can stand in the way of citizen access. One of, I think, the challenges in working with youth is that we often come and engage youth groups from our own interests, from our own programming.
Can you talk a little bit about how important it is to meet youth where they are at, and how your organization engages and celebrates these young people's voices especially through, through art as an important avenue for youth engagement.
Jacob Bol Bior: Thank you so much. I think Samson, actually, broke it down clearly, and I think some of these organizations, and civil society organization, and youth groups need to stop the idea of just thinking that we are the voices of the voiceless, you know. Definitely there's no one who's voiceless and we need to get down to the idea of thinking that, you know, we're just here to amplify, you know, the voices of the citizen. So, whatever you do, you need to get down there. Talk to the citizen themselves, the youth group, wherever they are, as you have mentioned, to be able to kind of like design the concept of the policy that they want to be implemented up on that table that you get the chance to say. But not just ideas that I, as Jacob, just, you know, decide from wherever I am and think these are the ideas that you know that, that youth are talking about. That my personal idea. I don't know, whatever in my country. I am based in Cuba. I don't know whatever youth, or maybe war or in a [inaudible] or maybe in [inaudible] you know think is the best way to go about, you know. Because we have different issues and different ideas. So it's good for each and every one of us at the civil society organization and activist to be able to collect these youth voices. And how have we done that?
At Anataban we have created different chapters, not only in Juba, but, and not only in South Sudan actually, but throughout the region, you know. We have chapters in Uganda to be able to also collect the voices of the refugee youth who are this place and you know they're kind of losing that hope because they have been subjected to living as refugees for, for years. You know, you come back to your country and again this war and you, you come back to to a different country. So basically it's good to get to the grassroots and be able to listen to their voices, and sometimes, you know, get them together. Bring them to the same platform and be able to share their ideas in a way that, you know, they can harmonize and collect the voices of the youth in the country and then you can present them forward. Because if they don't have that chance and you are not, you know, able to collect these voices then you are just being another bureaucrat who kind of, you know, use your own ideas to think that these are the ideas that represent the youth or the citizen of that country. So we need to kind of also look at our strategies and find good ways of approaching these young people. And, you know, with that we can, we make people express themselves. Because if you go to a society and maybe present an issue, maybe a theatre, or you know a forum theatre and it gets people to talk. Present a problem that they're facing. Don't give them the solution. And then engage with them. Let them bring up their ideas, you know, on what they think could be the solution to that problem. Picking up from there, you know, you can take these ideas and bring them to the table where maybe decisions are made that affect the lives of these young people.
LVM: Before the break we were discussing the challenges of youth engagement in politics, continuing on the theme of inclusion.
Aluel, one of the paradoxes of conflict is that women often find agency during those times, that communities shift and women often enter leadership roles, and that we have certainly seen in many countries around the world - Liberia, Sudan - that women deliver the peace. However, they are then often excluded from the political settlement and regime that emerges after the conflict.
What are you doing now in South Sudan to ensure that women are an enduring voice and delivering the peace and in the political system that follows, and what more can the international community do to preserve women's place?
Aluel Atem: Right now from my organization and level and also the group that we’re in is that women are forming forums, women are forming coalitions and women are forming networks that are enabling them to occupy spaces, or send representatives of spaces as a body, as a person, in an individual organization. And this is something that really worked very well for women in the civil society space during the revitalised peace negotiation process. About 40 women organizations came together and formed the coalition and from that they were able to send a representative that sat at the table during the negotiation process, was able to sign, and when mechanisms were created they had to pick representatives from different coalition, members, to actually sit at some of these boards and influence decisions that have been made. Which was in the case with the previous peace agreement that was signed. So it opened up space for people to participate not just as civil society but specifically as women.
What I think the international community can do is often when people are negotiating peace, the focus is on warlords and people that, you know, caused the trouble in the first place. And when you center the decisions on the voices of those, what you're doing is you're excluding anyone that didn't pick up a gun to go to the bush, and that will mean women obviously. So I think there is need to actually open up peace negotiation processes to have more civilian voices on the table as opposed to military generals and arms and soldiers that were the ones that were disrupting the system. And I think the international, I think the international bodies actually have an opportunity to do this and lobby and advocate that a lot of, you know, youth representatives and women groups in various spaces are actually included in some of these negotiation process. Because that's how they get to design programs that are responsive to the needs of those segments of the population.
LVM: Thank you, Aluel. And picking up on the theme of women and inclusion, you work with both communities with both youth and with women's groups. Often when international partners engage in this space they, in many ways, it’s competitive, that you either engage youth or women. Or youth and women are lumped into one group as if their inclusion needs and challenges are the same. Can you talk a little bit for, as an organization that works with both groups, how do we break down these barriers to participation by youth, by women without placing them in competition with each other for resources and support? And how can implementers better support their different paths to inclusion?
Emna Jabloui: So thank you for your question, Lauren. It's, it's a very valuable one. And I maybe jump on your remark on the challenges because I think this section is among the challenges that we face. And one of our challenges is that after almost nine years of transition in Tunisia, after having gained some freedom of association rights, there is some recessions on civil society activity rights. As we see that the political actors are becoming weaker and that we are having also some populist movements either like, like we see it in other countries in the world. The, the political actors are seeing the civil society actors as competitors. So our challenges are more between NGOs and political actors. And as they are the one who put laws, physical laws, and the law that organize our, our life of civil society actors, they are in a way trying to narrow our the wage of our action. And we see that there is no encouragement on the country. They are, in a way, pushing us with the very hard physical disposition with pushing us in a way out of the space of the action. So this is one of the challenges. The second one is also among, let's say, international funders. Sometimes we see, we usually read that there is a big support to local community activities or actors to the, the most vulnerable actors.
But in a way the, the global crisis brought another fact. Which is sometimes making the local actors the, the most vulnerable in this new paradigm. Because we see that the funders sometimes are more, are having confidence, more in their NGOs - national NGOs. For example, some European NGOs are based in Tunisia or American NGOs based in Tunisia, big ones, they are able to, to manage big funds. But in a way it's, it's enabling American and European NGOs, not really the local NGOs. Obviously they are working with local actors but it's maybe among governance of, how to say, managing big funds which is understood well. But sometimes it's, it's, in a way, really challenging. What we call the the goal, the final goal of the strengthening the sustainability of the local actors.
LVM: Thank you all for sharing with us today your own stories and the challenges that you face. DemWorks will be right back after this short message.
If I could wrap up this podcast very briefly, what is the very brief advice that you could give to democratic activists globally who might be listening to this podcast?
AA: Mine would be making efforts to utilize local resources in terms of expertise in terms of knowledge, in terms of also local materials that people need to resolve their conflict. And that means centering the design of any kind of assistance around the people and their expertise with support from international bodies and not the other way around.
LVM: Thank you, Aluel. Jacob?
JBB: I think my last message will be - coordinating our efforts together and learning from one another and always reaching out to one another in whatever context we are in. We might differ in, in the process of achieving these desired goals. But all in all we have a common desire that we all are aspiring for, a democratic and just world that each and every one, each and every one of has one. But then, you know, we might have different approaches but we can learn from those that have worked and those that have not worked. So you can try out whatever has been done in Tunisia, in South Sudan. And the same thing, you know, whatever has helped in South Sudan can also be tried out in, in Tunisia. And we need to keep on building our networks as activists.
LVM: Wonderful. Emna, I believe you have the last word.
EJ: Yeah. thank you very much, thank you. For me, it's, it's just to note that very rapidly that the work we do on women and youth and peace is very complementary. And that we worked, for example, for a woman who was talking about her son dead in Iraq, but making the, how to say, the debates in the school. So for me we're making women as mothers, or as activists, as peace ambassadors, like we call them, in our platform being leaders to make the prevention work with youth is very, very efficient. So for me it's not a problem. My big recommendation for democratic actors throughout the world is that if we want to do prevention of violent extremism in our area, if we talk about North Africa, West Africa, Middle East, it will be crucial to open free debate on the the, how to say, the, the limits or the borders between the, the rights of religious rights, liberal Islam. And when some discourses, based discourses can be freedom against constitutions, against rule of law, and some of this exists. And I think that some some actors, global actors, feel embarrassed to open the debate.
What is the relation between freedom and Islam? What is the relation between women and Islam? And if we handle some big project or some big conference on this I think it will help do some, some results on [inaudible] work.
LVM: Emna Jeblaoui, Jacob Bol Bior, Samson Itodo and Aluel Atem, thank you for speaking with us today and sharing your experiences. And to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Please don't forget to share, rate and review. I'm Lauren van Metre and you've been listening to DemWorks. Goodbye.