Repositioning civil society – Part 2

via Repositioning civil society | The Financial Gazette 7 Nov 2013 with Trevor Maisiri 

(Continued from last week)

That constituency and mandate building effort enhances the credibility of civil society and creates a trail of integrity that opens up engagement doors at the domestic and regional/international levels. The constituency and mandate, derived from the citizenry base, must not simply be for procedural purposes, but must be the foundation from which the agenda for civil society is shaped from.

For civil society to be effective in its representation of the agenda of the citizenry, the basis of the multiplicity of issues raised by civil society must find lineage in the proximate issues that citizens face on a day-to-day basis. Banks and Hulme (2012) stress that in that regard; civil society must have the power to transform the state-societal relationship. This must be through understanding the real needs of society and representing them to the State, to the satisfaction and with the support of the citizens.

For example, many have alluded to a disconnect that is caused by civil society raising democracy, governance and human rights as agenda items without interpretation by the citizens on how these impact their immediate needs, mainly socio-economic. Civil society must be able to align its broader agenda to the specifics of the developmental needs of the citizenry as accentuated by Heller (2013). If citizens are not able to trace their socio-economic needs to the broader agenda raised by civil society at the national and international levels, they disconnect from civil society. If on the other hand they are able to create the connection, this helps in the broad ownership of such an agenda, which then finds traction and resultant credibility from among the citizenry. For the next five years, Zimbabwe is going to possibly face one of its most challenging phases in its socio-economy context, should the ZANU-PF government fail to immediately address the country’s mounting economic challenges. Citizens are going to be fixated, more and more on issues that directly relate to their socio-economic setting.

At the domestic institutional level, civil society has not, in the past, aggressively pursued engagement. Engagement with domestic institutions must not necessarily be interpreted as meant to find or force through some consensus or agreement on issues. Engagement is merely enabling a platform to exchanges viewpoints, even if such viewpoints remain without consensus and convergence. Engagement, in the civil society sense, and given Zimbabwe’s political context, establishes civil society to represent citizens in the community and broader national issues that have amply been dominated by the politics in the past. Engagement creates a voice for those majority citizens, who have other-wise been voiceless, outside of political party domains.

In the past many civil society organisations have not prioritised engagement with key domestic institutions such as; parliament, government ministries, local government authorities, government departments, independent commissions and others. Some of the disengagement or lack of upfront interest by civil society has been due to these institutions’ reluctance to engage with civil society. This can only be ad-dressed if civil society emerges as intently refocused on occupying non-political party space and mandated from the citizenry base.

The efforts that go into civil society’s attempt to reconfigure its constituency and mandate is translated to the level at which doors for engagement with domestic institutions open. There will obviously be a lot of “push back” by many of the domestic institutions mentioned, against engagement with civil society. Civil society must not imagine that doors for such engagement will open up easily nor will there be open invitations for such engagement. Civil society will have to expend energy and strategic thinking into unlocking the doors for engagement as well as use strategic issue-based approaches to get such doors opened.

At the regional/international level, civil society must not assume that the “conclusion” of the 2013 elections marked the end of engagement at the regional and international level. The conventional approach at SADC and AU levels is that; the Zimbabwe election brought an end to the political contentions of the 2008 elections, and with it, the country’s internal challenges. That is far from reality. Although there may be a deceleration of the political tension and conflict as has been in the past ten or so years, it is the socio-economic driven issues that are like-ly to be the next conflict trigger in the country.

Issues related to: lack of employment opportunities; depressed business operational scope even for indigenous business persons; company closures and liquidations; financial sector liquidity challenges; and poor social services (water, health, electricity etc.) are likely to be the next drivers of discontent and possible instability, should they remain unaddressed. SADC and the AU attempted to resolve a political conflict but never had a overarching focus on the doors left open for socio-economy driven conflicts.

In that regard, civil society must continue to engage with SADC and the AU. It is civil society’s role to bring SADC and the AU to an awareness of the possibility of socio-economy driven instability in the country and the need to resolve such issues, for the benefit of the citizenry, before inflammation into another conflict cycle.

In the past, Zimbabwe civil society has attempted to engage SADC at its summits, a strategy that is unsustainable and ineffective. Engaging with SADC and the AU is also complex for civil society, given how these bodies have not fully opened to such engagement. The best possible routes for Zimbabwean civil society is to attempt to do that through the prescribed regional and continental channels, rather than through isolated and summit-based approaches. In the SADC region, the SADC Coalition for NGOs (SADC-CNGO), which has a Memorandum of Understanding with SADC, is the best possible channel to purse engagement.
Although SADC-CNGO has itself been accused of being sub-optimal in its capacity to coordinate civil society engagement with SADC, it is time Zimbabwean civil society claims effective space in influencing such an agenda in SADC-CNGO.

Of all SADC member-state civil society organisations, Zimbabwe stands out as one of the neediest for an effective SADC-CNGO, considering the doors it can open at the regional platform. By virtue of being a member of SADC-CNGO, and through its national representative bodies, Zimbabwean civil society must claim space in SADC-CNGO and be serious about driving its agenda in engaging with SADC and its member state governments. SADC is a complex organisation bound by regime solidarity and regime protectionist tendencies (Nathan, 2012). It is time that civil society organisations in
SADC member states realise that the only way to unlock SADC to its citizens is by having a corresponding and robust regional solidarity of civil society organisations and national bodies.

Civil society cannot dream about bringing SADC governments to be accountable to citizens, if civil society continues to allow bodies such as SADC-CNGO to remain muted instead of strengthening networking in order to collectively hold SADC to account and possible attempt to wrestle it from lean regime protection agendas.

What better opportunity for Zimbabwe Civil society organisations to drive this revival of SADC-CNGO, having themselves suffered a slamming from SADC processes before and during the GNU period?
Article 16 (a) of the SADC Treaty makes provisions that each member state must establish SADC National Committee (SADCNC). These are platforms where member state governments, domestic civil society, NGOs, business sector and trade unions come together to grapple with key SADC issues involving peace and security as well as the regional integration plan of the bloc. Across the region, only Mozambique has functional SADCNC that have a national structure which also percolates into provincial and district levels (International Crisis Group, 2012). The failure to establish SADCNC in all other regional countries has been due to the reluctance by governments, as they tacit-ly avoid being held to account through the involvement of non-state entities on agendas that have both, domestic and regional perspectives. The other reason is that civil society organisations and their national bodies across the SADC member states have not put concerted efforts into advocating and lobbying for SADC governments to comply with this provision as laid out in the SADC Treaty.

One would imagine just how much influence civil society would have had in SADC mediation processes in Zimbabwe, if the country had a functional SADCNC. Civil society must therefore now focus on establishing effective SADCNC as a way of projecting its engagement and representation of the citizenry at the SADC level as well as with and in other regional member states. Within SADC, there are increasing calls for governments to fully establish SADCNC, this is a call that civil society could conveniently support, not only in the domestic space but across the region, possibly utilising SADC-CNGO channels (International Crisis Group, 2012). SADCNC will also aid the building of accountability mechanisms and engagement opportunities in Zimbabwe’s domestic socio-economic and political space.

At the AU level, Zimbabwean civil society organisations must begin to seriously take their role in working with and under continental arrangements like the Centre for Citizens’ Participation in the African Union (CCPAU). This organisation mobilises national civil society bodies from member states of the AU and then builds engagement with the AU based on the particular issues emerging from member countries and respective regions. Zimbabwean civil society must therefore take regional and continental engagement with urgency.

Opportunities exist for Zimbabwean civil society to become even more relevant in this post-election period. The primary building block is for civil society to engross itself in building credibility. That credibility will come through effective citizen engagement and where these citizens become the benefactors of the mandate and agenda of civil society. Credibility is what will open the engagement doors for civil society with domestic, regional and international institutions.
-Trevor Maisiri writes in his personal capacity.