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CIVIC DUTY—Voting gives citizens a chance to elect leaders of their choice

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) representing the diversity of society are complementary to representative democracy and provide public opinion, knowledge, experience and expertise to the process of decision making and policy implementation.

CSOs enjoy trust from their members and society to voice concerns, to represent their interests and to gain involvement in causes, thereby providing crucial input in policy development.

These non-state actors benefit both volunteers and society in general by building a sense of community, improving the daily lives of people and promoting social development by questioning and setting the agenda.

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Collaborative action between civil society and public authorities leads to more dynamic, efficient and effective development and implementation of policies and action plans.

Cross-cutting or network-based civil society actors can often overcome sectorial barriers much easier than the public administrations.

In addition, cooperating with civil society contributes to meeting a concern of modern democracies about the alienation of citizens from the political processes.

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Input from civil society creates added value to the policy planning and implementation process, enhancing the legitimacy, quality, understanding and longer-term applicability of the policy initiative.

CSOs provide a range of contributions for policy development and implementation such as campaigning and advocating, information and awareness building, expertise and advice, service and resource provision and monitoring and evaluation, among others.

Above all, CSOs provide channels for citizen voice and can help citizens hold government accountable.

And this citizen engagement is considered central to the implementation of Malawi 2063. Under Enabler 2: Effective Governance Systems and Institutions, citizen engagement is said to be critical in the promotion of effective governance.

Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czech Republic, once said “Citizens are at the centre of the global drama unfolding today. They are the leading actresses and actors in building global democratic governance and human development…The security of our common future lies in the hands of an informed, inspired, committed, engaged citizenry.”

Citizen voice and civic expression are essential to building and sustaining democratic societies.

Governance encompasses the rules, institutions and processes, through which people, organisations and government work toward common objectives, make decisions, generate legitimate authority and power and promote and protect human rights.

Participatory governance is about how the State, the market and CSOs interact to effect change. These interactions involve the inclusion of CSOs in decision-making processes, enabling citizens to exercise voice and engaging in policy formation, among others.

An active civil society that is able to question public authorities and suggest different methods of political participation is a cornerstone of participatory governance.

Democratic governance is more than simply a matter of “universal suffrage” and while development and democracy are goals in their own right, they must be mutually reinforcing, with a clear “democratic dividend” in terms of delivering tangible benefits to people.

The potential for active citizen involvement in designing and implementing development interventions in Malawi has never been greater.

That potential is driven by the expansion and consolidation of democracy, internal pressures for good governance, recognition of poverty reduction as the main development goal, and technological advances that facilitate communication.

It is also enhanced by the growing track record of effective civic engagement in projects, policies and development strategies.

A growing body of evidence demonstrates the benefits of involving CSOs in the formulation and implementation of investment projects and economic policy.

Civic engagement contributes to mobilising social forces for poverty reduction and creates the required consensus for the achievement of development goals.

The distinctive rise of shared governance is a political development of recent decades where the participation of non-state actors (particularly CSOs) in global policy making has increased significantly.

Our growing interconnected and interdependent world is characterised by increasing economic globalisation, facility of information and communication technology and expanding mobility.

Recent moves towards government decentralisation, with greater decision making power and finance provided at local levels, have built upon and often extended the scope for CSOs to influence policy at the local level.

Decentralisation and devolution have increased citizen participation and promoted civil society activity as people have responded to opportunities to influence decisions that affect their lives.

Meaningful public participation in decision-making, implicit in which are strong civic capacities and a healthy associational life, is a foundation of social stability and peace.

As we collectively tackle the challenges of poverty and social inequality, food and energy insecurity, peace and security, economic crises and climate change, new forms of co-operation transcending national and sectoral borders are necessary and the impact of CSOs in the local, regional global governance dialogues cannot be underestimated.

In addition to different forms of cooperation there are different steps in policy development and implementation process offering opportunities for CSOs and public authorities to interact.

Firstly, there is agenda setting. CSOs channel views and positions into the process from the perspective of different collective interests in society in a way that is complementary to the political debate based on representation.

This contributes to setting the agenda and to shaping the needed strategic approaches.

Secondly, there is drafting. CSOs provide problems’ identification, solutions and evidence based on their experience and knowledge.

The third aspect is decision. The forms of political decision-taking vary based on national or local context and legislation. At this step, consultation with civil society is central to informed decision.

Fourth is implementation. CSOs are important partners to ensure that the intended policy outcomes will be reached. Access to and exchange of clear and transparent information between CSOs and public authorities is a crucial prerequisite to obtain public support and the most effective results.

Last is the issue of monitoring and reformulation. CSOs play a crucial role in monitoring and assessing the outcomes of the implemented policy, including the allocation of funds.

Monitoring results constitute the basis for needed policy reformulation.

Government and public institutions have different roles and responsibilities with those of CSOs and often also different aims and objectives. In addition, the management, administration and resource mobilisation differ significantly.

Levels of cooperation are also different: national, regional and local. Different institutions may also have different aims. This creates compatibility challenges on various levels of cooperation between public institutions and CSOs.

The main barriers to effective coordination and cooperation include:

  • Cooperation formats are often fragmented and too short-term and, where in place, they remain ineffective and rarely develop their full potential.
  • Structural incompatibilities, legal barriers, diverging professional interests, different expectations, and also all a lack of methodological knowledge on how to cooperate, are the main reasons that many cooperation efforts cannot achieve their intended effects or fail from the start.
  • Regulations, infrastructure and training are frequently not flexible enough to provide for a smooth functioning of cooperation between the different institutional regulations and cultures of CSOs and public institutions.
  • In addition a sometimes observed element of distrust or even competitiveness between CSO and government stakeholders make cooperation difficult since the necessary level of commitment is hard to achieve under such circumstances.
  • Cooperation efforts and partnerships are frequently based on models or experiences. Every partnership and cooperation will require a unique inception and planning effort that takes into account the specific local situation, the political support, the capacities and the limitations of partners involved.
  • Establishing cooperation between a CSO and a public institution can be a very lengthy process, and its difficulty is often under-estimated.

It is likely to require a change of attitude and perception on the part of the agencies concerned; a process which is often insufficiently supported, or supported only in the early stages.

Overcoming barriers

Different perceptions in the relationship between governments and civil society have frequently led to misconceptions, misunderstandings and certain prejudices. These in turn have adversely affected the ability of both sides to cooperation with each other.

To overcome these and enhance the ability to cooperate, the following can be applied: Identifying common perspectives and aims; accepting each other’s different roles and set guidelines for partnerships; setting standards for co-operation and Implementing confidence building measures; accepting transparency and openness and ensuring consistency and reliability, particularly in communication ; providing training to create competence to cooperate and agreeing on dispute resolution mechanisms, procedures and resources.

Enhancing regular dialogue and consultations with the civil society is one of the principles critical to consolidating our nascent participatory democracy.

Over the years, the principles of “participation and dialogue” have been reinforced and extended to various developmental frameworks.

Both the Decentralisation Policy and Local Government Act underscore the crucial role CSOs and local authorities play respectively, in development and in linking citizens and districts with central governments.

At local level, accountability is often seen in terms of service delivery. The main concern of citizens is whether services are available, relevant, and appropriate; or whether there is sufficient space and support for agricultural production and other economic development.

Citizens in Malawi translate accountability into whether there are sufficient funds for schools.

There is a disconnect between State and citizens, or rather these relationships are ritualised, with people going through the motions of meetings, participation, and voting, yet without feeling part of it; nothing changes, and they do not believe anything will change.

In that situation, accountability remains an empty shell, unless that connection can be built and strengthened.

Therefore (re)building the connections between state and citizens must be the core of our interventions.

A vibrant and active civil society is as important for democratic development as elected governments.

*The author is a governance, human rights and civic education expert

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