Voices for the voiceless

Civil society in Africa has a critical role to play in policy development, especially in promoting good governance.

In the past two decades its engagement in policy development has been based on its ability to network with different organisations and create relationships and activities that go beyond the development sector. The assumption is that they it provided a vehicle through which the poor can have a better say in shaping policies to overcome poverty.

In the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region civil society groups working on policy issues have been characterised by regional organisations that are deliberately linked to national constituency-based organisations such as NGOs, faith and community-based organisations, labour unions and business associations.

Through the coordination of their national constituencies, promote democratic processes, especially holding governments and powerful interests accountable and encouraging them to pursue policies and practices that enable the poor and marginalised to claim their rights.

Civil society comprises mechanisms for developing innovation and social empowerment of people living in poverty, especially the promotion of the rights of women and the interests of marginalised groups which are the intended beneficiaries of development.

But for them to be effective in their work, they ought to operate in an environment that is responsive to the needs of the poor.

The problem
Although some SADC countries have made gains in promoting good governance — including increased democratic elections, changes in regimes and opening up of political space for civic engagement — sadly, in others there has been a reversal in democracy.

There is growing recognition that there are not only limited spaces for civic engagement in the policy process but the environment through which they operate is not conducive to such engagement.

Notwithstanding other challenges within civil society itself — such as limited financial resources and weak capacities and capabilities — the environment in which it operates has become highly regulated by governments, which has resulted in some civil society organisations closing office. By limiting their freedom of expression and association and curtailing fundraising efforts, governments have made it difficult for them to operate. As a result, the civic voice and effective participation in policy processes is adversely affected.

For development and good governance to be achieved, effective and meaningful citizen and civil society participation is key: when people participate in decisions that affect their lives, they take responsibility for those decisions and in turn strive for a unified, peaceful and prosperous place to live.

Furthermore, engagement between civil society and Parliament becomes crucial to ensure that solutions to the challenges affecting them are sought. But for civil society to contribute effectively to development and democracy, it needs an enabling environment that ensures that its work can find its way into parliamentary programming and committees. This democratic deficit is a challenge that needs a collective and urgent response.

Equally, it is imperative that legislators and representatives of the people deliberate on the nature and design of democracy that they want for their citizens, especially given that policy space in Southern Africa and globally is shrinking. The current pushback against democratisation and the backlash on citizens’ aspirations to associate freely could pose major threats to citizens’ development and good governance.

As custodians of good governance and defenders of the rights of citizens to participate in the development of their communities, parliamentarians need to be consistent in promoting legislation that enables citizens to embrace the integration of the continent and participate fully and freely in their development.

Moreover, to strengthen linkages between national, regional and continental engagements among civil society organisations and inter-governmental processes, emphasis should be placed on how civil society and parliament can give a voice to the voiceless. Peace, democracy and development can take root when the people are themselves active agents of change.

Pan Africa Parliament
Since its establishment five years ago, it was envisaged that as of its second term the Pan Africa Parliament (PAP) would evolve into a legislative arm or branch of the African Union or the proposed union government, composed of directly elected members. Such a transition provides a unique opportunity for citizens to strengthen their engagement with the PAP, and other state intergovernmental institutions.

The PAP deliberated on these issues, among others, during its 11th Ordinary Session at Gallagher Estate, Midrand, in South Africa, from May 18 to 29.

During this time the Southern Africa Trust and Trust Africa in collaboration with the PAP facilitated a consultative dialogue to strengthen the Midrand Civil Society Support Facility, an initiative to stimulate and facilitate effective civil society interface with the PAP and other intergovernmental agencies such as Nepad and the African Peer Review Mechanism.

At the dialogue the PAP and civil society organisations explored issues of governance and how to foster an enabling environment for Africa’s integration and citizen participation. If the PAP is a critical body for putting citizens’ rights into operation, it is of the utmost importance that with its transformation, the support of the African Union and the backing of the millions of Africa citizens are secured to determine the future of our continent.

It is critical for parliament and citizens to work closely, collaboratively and in complementary ways to improve relations between citizens and their states as well as contribute jointly to the general welfare of citizens.

Barbara Kalima-Phiri is policy analyst of poverty reduction policies at the Southern Africa Trust

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