Making African Civil Society A Priority

Photo By: Sarah Siguenza

National Endowment for Democracy Conference Explores Civil Society Challenges

“All humans, not some humans.”

Task Force Spokesperson Lorna Davis frequently stressed inclusion in policymaking during her opening statement for the civil society panel discussion at the National Endowment for Democracy’s day-long African Civil Society Conference. A Founding Member of GALCK, a Kenyan umbrella organization that furthers the rights and causes of LGBT individuals and organizations, Davis passionately delivered the opinions of the task force and their recommendations.

All humans need to be at the center of policies and benefit equally from them, she said. Laws and actions can no longer target only a select part of the population – the impact needs to be identical for each individual. As for those forming the policies, Davis and the panel agreed that the majority of decisions needed to come from the local communities and those working on the ground. Within those communities, everyone deserves a voice in the discussion.

“Change is not something that should be, institutionally, from a separate cluster of people. You need everyone at the table,” said Davis. “Simply because knowing our continent and knowing the patriarchy within our continent, women need to engage men in the discourse. Men need to engage. And youth need to be brought on board.”

The panel featured fellows, activists, union representatives and lawyers representing various African nations: Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Sudan.  

Despite the range of individuals present on the task force, the sentiments were unified. Civil society needs to have its own agenda, one that is respected by the government and international community. Committing to this partnership and development is essential, but not enough.

“An affront to one is an affront to all. I think the message is clear. It is time for all actors to walk the talk,” said one panelist.  

Passion and determination notwithstanding, Davis and the panelists were realistic in their recommendations.

“Change does not happen overnight,” said Davis. “It is a long, arduous process.”

A process, according to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), that is well worth it.

“I see and I hope you see as well, a continent of opportunity,” said Hoyer, in an address to the audience and panel.

“Africa is changing. It’s growing. It’s maturing,” he said. “Much of that change has also come from the people. The extraordinary force of ordinary men and women who stood up to say: enough to corruption and ethnic divisions.”

Challenges to freedom of speech, the press and physical intimidation or serious violence as an act of political gain were aspects that the government and world needed to address, Hoyer stated. He expressed his support for African civil society, and urged others to do the same.

“The world cannot afford to ignore challenges to democracy and human rights in Africa or anywhere, said Hoyer. “What is happening in Africa provides us an opportunity to rely on our sense of democratic purpose. And we must do so.”

Sarah Siguenza is a communications consultant with InterAction. This blog is part of a series, as InterAction continues coverage of several summit side events. For a snapshot of the activities and discussions hosted by the NGO community, check back as the summit continues for updates.

Related article : Non-Government Actors and NGOs Hold Side Events To Build Off US-Africa Leaders Summit

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