By Aya Chebbi - 01 July 2015
The Forum for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) had been just an idea a few years ago. However, last week, during its 2015 Annual Meeting in Abidjan, the African Development Bank hosted a full day of panel discussions dedicated to CSOs. The CSO Forum is aiming at promoting closer cooperation and engagement among CSOs, the Bank, and regional member countries in order to optimize development results and sustain development impact.
About 50 participants representing a diverse group of CSOs attended the event. Different sessions have provided a platform for learning and information exchange on how best to cooperate with CSOs.
The People-Powered Accountability panel ignited an interesting discussion. Aloysius Ordu, the director of Partnership for Transparency, gave a presentation on People-Powered Accountability. He showed the 2014 Index on Corruption, highlighting that “Information is power but more importantly, is what you do with information”. He raised questions on how do we scale up as many of the CSOs operate on accountability traps, so they can’t scale it up nationally or continentally. Countries, indeed, “look good” but they are trapped in low accountability. Ordu used an interesting metaphor of voice and teeth to emphasize the tide connection: ‘Voice’ being the citizen capacity for collective action and ‘teeth’ being the accessible accountability institutions.
“Corruption is a not a myth, it’s a reality,” commented Neil Cole, the Executive Secretary of Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI). He raised the question: “What is it that still causes corruption in governance as if none of those laws is in place?” He stressed that even within countries that have wonderful constitutions, the question is about the systems that are not robust enough to eliminate and detect acts of corruption.
I was also pleased to face a blogger’s voice - Ghanian blogger, Kinna Likimani - in the panel. “It’s not just corruption or bad governance, it’s everything else in the environment: From disrespect, lack of human rights, lack of inclusion to silencing voices,” she said. Kinna has given many tangible examples of corruption in Ghana, suggesting that everyday life is a negotiation of an environment of corruption because “you will not be accorded your rights”. So, we eventually buy our respect as citizens, and the leadership takes advantage of that. The solution for Kinna is to educate the people because she is tired of “policy, policy, policy with no implementation”.
It was only fair to bring the voice of the Bank itself, represented by Anna Bossman, the Director of Integrity and Anti-Corruption Department (IACD). Her intervention started by stressing that “Corruption is real when you look at the map, statistics and indicators, but in the end corruption is about people beyond that jargon”. As the moderator directly asked her “What makes the bank a non-corrupt institution?”, Ms. Bossman explained that “the ADB promotes integrity and accountability by strengthening its rules and regulations, investigates, gives training to the staff and has recently launched the Citizen Charter”.
She then directed her talk more towards the collaboration between the bank and CSOs: “We need you but you also need the bank. You are the people on the ground who can tell us where corruption is taking place and we have facilities, information and platforms through which you can engage”.
As the moderator started getting questions from the audience, Ms. Graça Machel entered the room. She then was given the floor for a final word by the end of the panel discussion, where she stressed regional collaboration. “We are playing the game in a very unequal environment with government, business, parliament and judiciary institutions that have resources which CSOs don’t. CSOs have to be strong enough to face all these institutions to be taken seriously”. She raised the question on how to strengthen the institutional capacity of CSOs to become strong to play their role on an equal basis. She continues: “African institutions, including the bank, are not realizing that the citizen voice is fundamental to strengthen democracy”. She ended by calling on the CSOs present to work regionally and unite to make “our voice heard”. She gave an example of her organization, New Faces New Voices, which operates in 15 countries.
The panel was interesting indeed, but not much time has been given to the CSOs representatives actually to talk and challenge the panelists and themselves. There has been a long silence about the constriction of the civic space, before a shout-out came from the audience that the space of civil society is shrinking. “While we are here, civil society activists are imprisoned in Egypt and Ethiopia and the internet has been shut down in Burundi. You might be afraid of governments [towards the Bank] but you need to call on them when they violate those spaces”. There is a need to have more shout-outs like this from the CSOs on the Bank and other institutions. To call on countries to give us back the civic space because without that space, CSOs cannot thrive.
CSOs act as intermediaries at all stages and play a key role. They should be the ones that raise community awareness to their rights and empower citizen groups for collective action. So, CSOs need to get organized to challenge and to deliver.
The session ended with a clear message that the Bank has to do its homework on its level of taking CSOs seriously and supporting them as much as it supports business and governments. On the other hand, CSOs need do their own homework on how to work together in this unequal space and collaborate on strategic issues so that their voices are much stronger.
An award winning Tunisian blogger and activist.
Read her personal blog Proudly Tunisian at http://aya-chebbi.blogspot.com