On June 20, the Civic Space Platform organised its conference “Building new partnerships across civil society”. Around 70 participants gathered at the New World Campus in The Hague to join the program that was prepared by various members of the platform. Marriët Schuurman, the Human Rights Ambassador of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also contributed to the program by giving a speech about the urgency of joining forces in the defence of civic space. She also emphasized the need for a joint narrative on the importance of civic space for a vital society.
With civic space worldwide under growing pressure and populism on the rise, civil society organisations increasingly need to be creative in finding ways to act and build just, peaceful and resilient societies. We need to build bridges and partnerships across civil society, also with those that we normally don’t work with, and together bring a story of hope and change. Reason for the Civic Space platform to organise this conference. With an opening by Sander Laban (Hivos), expressing how every group in civil society experiences pressure in different ways, the goal of the day was clear: exchanging experiences and to find common ground.
The day started off with a presentation of Joanne van der Schee (Civic Engagement Alliance), who highlighted the role that Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) can play in strengthening civic space, drawing in particular on the recent study “If you need us, allow us”. Religion is a very important factor for most people on the globe – 85% of the world’s population define themselves as religious. Accordingly, religion and religious organisations represent an important blind spot for development organisations. Working with FBOs provides crucial opportunities that result from their distinguishing strengths. First of all, FBOs are everywhere, in both rural and urban areas. They are often deeply rooted in the community and can mobilise a broad constituency. Of course, there are conservative forces within religion, but Joanne emphasizes the need to find common ground and to use what she calls a faith-sensitive approach. It helps to speak about humanity and the motivations of people. She closed with the quote “religion is never private, because it shapes the way people behave in public space” (- prof. dr. Fernando Enns, VU).
Marriët Schuurman continued on this positive note and said: “Let us not deliberate too long on what is happening, but focus on what we can do.” She emphasized that we should focus on what connects us and create a more inclusive narrative. While creating that narrative we should keep in mind to 1) keep it close to home and everyday life; 2) make it tangible in order to invite people to participate; 3) develop positive stories and share best practices. We have to be more inclusive, especially to local organisations. This requires another way of engaging local partners: stop capacity building, but create a platform with respectful peer-to-peer relationships. This has significant implications for the role of Northern NGOs as well as for how we look at ourselves and at our Southern partners. The underlying question we need to ask ourselves is: ‘Who actually sets the agenda?’. Accordingly, North-South partnerships must go beyond the donor-implementer relation and become more inclusive. In the end, it is about creating an inclusive, global civic movement. This is why Marriët Schuurman ended with: “What would happen if all human rights movements join together? We are with many and that is what we have to make visible”.
After these presentations, workshops were given by Free Press Unlimited, CNV International, Hivos, NIMD, Civic Engagement Alliance. The workshops focused respectively on the role of independent media, trade unions, the creative sector, political parties and FBOs in strengthening civic space. In each breakout session, challenges and opportunities of working with these specific actors were discussed. At the end of the morning, participants presented the outcomes of their discussions and together we formulated recommendations on how to move forward. Some examples of these recommendations were: be ambitious (for example, the OECD guidelines should be met for 100% instead of 70%), do not instrumentalise FBOs as humanitarian agencies, civil society should recapture the narrative – take the creative sector into account as an strategic partner in this process, encourage links between siloed civil society and use the idealistic power of the youth (support them as well as young journalists).
Clearly, a diverse list of recommendations. It shows us how each actor has different challenges and opportunities as it comes to strengthening civic space. However, two recommendations formed a common thread through the day and can be helpful for every organisation or person that works on the enhancement of civic space: create a more inclusive narrative and create equal partnerships across civil society. Get to know each other and be careful not to instrumentalise actors you normally don’t work with.
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