"Providing all the essentials for election observers"

Politics is for people!

Without active engagement by responsible citizens, democracy cannot flourish and sustainable development is impossible.

The momentum of the events took many people by surprise – including Ines Abid. Finally, it took just four weeks – one month – to drive President Ben Ali out of office and out of the country. After decades of dictatorship under Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, the Tunisian people had had their fill of bad governance, lack of freedom and poor prospects. They rose up and protested with such intensity, and for so long, that the dictator finally had no option but to flee. Medical student Ines Abid was one of those who demonstrated against Tunisia's strongman during those heady December days in 2010. On 14 January 2011, the protestors achieved their goal – more quickly than expected. But even then, Ines did not return to her studies and her old routine, for there was still work to be done. Now 22, she recalls how she had come to appreciate the new freedoms and opportunities for participation. 'We are so lucky to have experienced this moment in history. How could anyone let all that pass them by, without joining in?' she wonders, looking back.

The very next day, Ines joined forces with a group of students in Tunis and founded the 'Young Independent Democrats' (Jeunes Independants Democrates - JID) as an expression of the new mood, but also as a way of engaging actively with politics. Until then, there had been no freedom of expression and no independent media, no non-governmental organisations worthy of the name, and no political organisations other than those permitted by the government. There was no open exchange or constructive debate. However, modern states need both these things if they are to organise themselves effectively, master the challenges of governance, and take decisions that benefit the people. And suddenly, there was scope for this - and Ines and her fellow students were keen to seize the opportunity. 'I was quite happy to devote a few months of my life to this good cause.'

Paving the way for democracy

Despite what the name might suggest, JID is not a political party but a politically independent civil society organisation. Its aim was not to be voted into the Constituent Assembly but 'to pave the way for, and consolidate, democracy'. Convinced that there was one thing the people of Tunisia needed more than anything – reliable information about the current political events and the plethora of new parties springing up everywhere – the Young Democrats, equipped with mobile phones and laptops, began to collect information on a strictly non-partisan basis. They developed a questionnaire that they sent round to the political parties and asked them to provide feedback about their positions and political objectives. 'Should there be a separation between religion and state ?' was one of the questions. 'Do we need a strong parliament or a strong president - or both?' was another. They then collated the information and published it on the internet. Using the set of questions and answers, and with assistance from a committee of experts in governance and politics, they developed an interactive computer programme, based on a German model and with German support. Here in Germany, the 'Wahl-O-Mat' service is well-known. It allows voters to choose between various possible answers to a set of questions about their political views, providing instant assistance to voters keen to see which of the political parties is most in tune with their own ideas and expectations. In Tunisia, the system was dubbed 'ikhtiartounes', which means 'Tunisia's choice'. On behalf of BMZ, GIZ supported the development of the computer programme and the management of the project. 'It was an exciting process,' says Marion Geiss from GIZ's Tunis Office, but she emphasises: 'We did not influence the content in any way.' Instead, Ines and her fellow activists worked through the profusion of new parties and their fledgling manifestos. In many cases, the questions from Ines and her colleagues triggered heated debates within the groups being surveyed. 'Do we really want the regions to have a greater say? Do we genuinely want women to play as prominent a role in public life as men?'

The Tunisian people have now voted and decided on the composition of the Constituent Assembly. Turnout was close to 90%. The outcome of the elections is not to everyone's liking, but the fact that the elections took place and were conducted democratically is due in no small measure to people like Ines Abid and her fellow students. With their website, 'ikhtiartounes.org', they provided many thousands of Tunisians with valuable information and guidance for the first free elections held in Tunisia since independence from France in 1956. GIZ has now handed over the computer programme to the JID - in preparation for the national parliamentary elections, due to take place before the end of 2012. And once again, Ines and her fellow activists have every intention of being involved.

Events in Tunisia and its neighbouring countries are unfolding with breathtaking speed, with the young generation in particular calling for good governance and opportunities for political participation, but a move towards democracy is under way – to a greater or lesser extent – in all the world's regions. In the last 20 years alone, the United Nations (UN) has provided electoral assistance to more than 100 countries. This 'growing demand' faced by the UN sends out a clear message: elections are just as much a part of political life as Facebook is part of the internet. Whether elections are always free and fair is a moot point, although nowadays, the conduct of elections can be monitored and evaluated more effectively using modern communication tools than was previously the case. Nonetheless, even notorious dictators are now recognising that elections are essential, at least as a one-of, to confirm their position of power. And it is vital that elections involve more than mere casting of votes: they should offer a genuine opportunity for lively debates about policy positions and potential solutions, not only among the political elite.

Zambia is a good example. Although it went largely unnoticed by the international community, the recent power shift in Zambia was almost as spectacular as the events in Tunisia. For only the second time since independence in 1964, a peaceful handover of power took place in this southern African country, following an election victory for an opposition party. In 2011, after three fruitless attempts, Michael Sata from the Patriotic Front defeated the incumbent president and was elected to the country's highest oice. He had previously contested the 2008 election against Rupiah Banda, but was narrowly defeated by his rival. Sata maintained at the time that electoral fraud had robbed him of victory, but he ultimately conceded defeat. Were his suspicions justified? That never became clear. Nonetheless, there was a general consensus - not only among international observers and donors but also in Zambian civil society – that there should be no room for doubt next time round. And indeed, far more Zambians cast their votes in 2011 than in 2008, when turnout had fallen to a record low of 45%.

Practice makes perfect

It was the non-governmental organisations, first and foremost, which stepped up to the plate. They used the by-elections that routinely take place in Zambia to hone their skills. Under Zambian law, by-elections must be held when a member of the national parliament dies or resigns their party membership. Unlike the situation in Germany, where other candidates automatically step in to fill the vacancy, these mini-elections take place in various constituencies across Zambia several times a year – providing a perfect practice ground for the national elections, as it turned out. Civil society organisations were thus able to focus intensively on building their skills and learning the basics. What are the best methods of informing the public about the candidates' different positions and, more generally, about electoral values and processes and the benefits they bring? What is the best way of organising in order to obtain the fullest possible picture of events as they unfold on polling day? Practising all these skills in microcosm proved to be invaluable in preparing for the major elections. On behalf of BMZ, GIZ has been implementing a programme to strengthen civil society capacities in Zambia since 2005. Within this framework, it has provided support for a number of civil society organisations and networks over recent years, including the Anti-Voter Apathy Project, Caritas Zambia and the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, which are engaged in political education and aim to drive the reform process. With Zambia set to hold major national elections – parliamentary and presidential – in September 2011, this group of CSOs, headed by Caritas, joined forces with half a dozen other organisations and formed a network, known as the Civil Society Election Coalition, also supported by German development cooperation and co-financed by Irish Aid. Their motto was simple: by working together, we can achieve more.

And indeed, the voting in 2011 came under rigorous scrutiny: more than 1,500 election observers, including many from the Coalition, flooded the country and kept a very close eye on the events as they unfolded on 20 September. Election monitoring took place in every constituency, with no exceptions. According to GIZ Programme Manager Jörg Holla, 'civil society can undoubtedly take some of the credit' for the transition from Banda to Sata, for 'without its monitoring activities, doubts and conlicts could have arisen again.' As it was, Banda conceded defeat within just 14 hours and handed over the reins to his successor. And as Holla reports, this all happened 'very peacefully'.

The elections themselves are just one – albeit the most obvious – proof of the importance of civil society in Zambia, and indeed elsewhere. They also play a key role in relation to poverty reduction programmes here. For example, a number of organisations have formed an anti-poverty advocacy network known as 'Civil Society for Poverty Reduction', which among other things undertakes regular monitoring of the quality of delivery of basic services, such as clean water, and whether these services are genuinely reaching the public. Based on its analyses, it makes policy recommendations that are forwarded every six months to the relevant government departments and the media. This creates a basis for constructive dialogue between the public sector and civil society about the best way forward. Ater all, elections are isolated occurrences – important, admittedly, because they are the framework in which the populace exercises its sovereign power of deciding who should govern, thus legitimising government authority, but elections alone are not enough. 'Free and fair elections are central pillars of a democracy,' says Katrin Schäfer, a planning officer for political participation at GIZ. 'But they do not guarantee the existence of democratic conditions. They are merely an indicator. It is what happens between elections that counts.' In other words, everyday politics is equally important – and has just as much, if not more, influence over people's lives. That's why public participation is an indispensable element of good governance, which means an effective government at the top, to provide decent living conditions, and an engaged civil society at grassroots to 'shake things up' and ultimately provide a firm foundation for policy-making.

The term 'good governance' clearly shows what it's all about: it's about the way in which policies are shaped and formulated and decisions are taken within a polity. It's about achieving a balance of interests, but it's also about standards, institutions and procedures that are transparent and comply with clearly deined rules. It's about freedom, human rights and government accountability, so that every person can live a self-determined life in dignity. The antithesis of good governance is arbitrary governance and torture, a 'disconnect' between government and people, and misery. Good governance is dependent on many diferent factors, such as responsible politicians, a well-performing justice system, an independent parliament and media freedom, but also an engaged civil society that plays an active role in social and political affairs and carries out 'monitoring' in the best sense of the word. In its literal sense, 'civil society' means nothing more than all the non-military elements in a state. This is a somewhat bald and inexact definition, but it does express one thing very clearly: civil society has to do with 'ordinary' life, with everyday issues, with people's normal aspirations and concerns. There is nothing out of the ordinary or elitist, uncommon or rarefied about it. On the contrary, it is quite commonplace. It relates to everyday life, universal concerns, and is inclusive and all-embracing – because it is about civility in the broadest sense. And it is also connected to the concept of 'civic-mindedness' – the courage to see things for what they are, speak out and take action.

In political terms, the term 'civil society' originates in the thinking of Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, who used this term to denote all non-state organisations that influence everyday attitudes and public opinion. Today, it generally describes the section of society that is located between the state and the private sector and thus plays an important role in promoting debate and in advocacy. It includes all forms of engagement by citizens that is not profit-oriented or dependent on party politics. The Tunisian student Ines Abid and her fellow students are an almost perfect example of civil society because they have no desire to earn money through their activities and are strictly non-partisan, being independent of political parties. However, identifying and delineating the various groups is not always quite so straightforward. The understanding of what constitutes 'civil society' can also vary from country to country. Clubs, associations, initiatives, social movements, the churches and trade unions are generally assumed to be components of civil society and are seen as essential in building a pluralistic community of engaged citizens and exercising scrutiny of the government. Often, civil society organises itself into non-governmental organisations – the drivers of civil society, as it were, but not encompassing it in its entirety.

Civil society: a driver of change

No matter how it is defined, one thing is certain: civil society is seen as indispensable for a country's development. As a consequence, it has experienced a massive upsurge in popularity over the past two decades. Indeed, some people believe that civil society has become fashionable and 'on trend' because governments are no longer able to solve the complex problems facing the world today without assistance. This applies in international cooperation for sustainable development just as it applies in international politics more generally. There is universal agreement among political observers that without non-governmental organisations, there would be no bans on land mines and nuclear testing; there would be no Kyoto Protocol to protect the climate, no International Criminal Court and – on a highly topical note – no UN organisation dedicated to the empowerment of women (UN Women). It was always the non-governmental organisations that exerted influence, collected information and pooled knowledge, and exerted pressure until their goals were achieved. And it was always the open-minded politicians and diplomats who fully appreciated the expertise and persistence of their civil society 'partners' – despite certain differences of opinion and, occasionally, somewhat long-winded debates. Hans-Peter Kaul, Germany's former chief negotiator in the process leading to the establishment of the International Criminal Court and now a judge at the ICC, is convinced that without civil society's interest and passion, the International Criminal Court would not exist today. There are now more than 13,000 NGOs registered with the United Nations (UN) in New York alone; no one knows how many there are around the world. Nonetheless, the number is increasing. The UN, at any rate, talks about a 'growing role for civil society' in global affairs.

In the context of international cooperation for sustainable development, too, political participation and civil society are increasingly seen as an expression of good governance. 'Involving civil society is important in all GIZ's projects and programmes, not only in the governance sector but across the board,' says GIZ expert Katrin Schäfer. 'Civil society can help to increase society's acceptance of reforms, and it can also ensure that decision-making takes account of the rights and interests of as wide a cross-section of society as possible.' A fruitful relationship between state and society is therefore both the prerequisite for, and the goal of, sustainable development cooperation.

Bolivia is a good example. Until 1994, this Andean state was one of the most centralised countries in the world. All the key political decisions were taken in La Paz, but had little impact outside the major cities. Rural regions, by contrast, were largely bypassed, receiving very little by way of assistance from the state, least of all any public service provision. Their participation, such as it was, was limited to voting in presidential and congressional elections. And yet the majority of Bolivians – around 60% – lived in rural regions. As Bolivia skidded from one crisis to another, the government introduced a package of comprehensive reforms that aimed to involve the public more fully in political life and thus facilitate implementation of policy decisions. The 'Ley de Partici-pacion Popular' (Law of Popular Participation), which came into force in 1994, brought about a seismic shift in Bolivia's political landscape and initiated a transformation process that is still ongoing today. Whereas Bolivia previously had 23 administrative divisions (municipios), it now has 337. And everywhere across the country, local and municipal councils meet, and mayors and councillors are elected.

Citizens' oversight

The most significant innovation, however, was the popular participation that accompanied decentralisation. Suddenly, ordinary citizens had the right to have a say and to influence decision-making via 'organizaciones territoriales de base' (local grassroots organisations) and 'comités de vigilancia' (watchdog committees). Although the 'Ley de Participacion Popular' is no longer in force and is due to be replaced with new legislation on 'citizen participation and social oversight, the institutionalised right of 'popular participation' (participación popular) is here to stay: in every village and neighbourhood, Bolivians can come together to form organisations in order to demand information and openness from mayors and other office-holders and exercise their right to have a say. In other words, citizen engagement has become part of the country's political culture.

GIZ has facilitated and supported these changes in Bolivia for many years via the 'Decentralised governance and poverty reduction support' programme commissioned by BMZ, which aims to build the capacities of civil society and strengthen its opportunities for political participation. Almost ten years on, Julia Iversen from GIZ in Bolivia is positive about its outcomes: 'Despite all the challenges that result from robust citizen engagement, we have observed that in our project area, social divisions have narrowed wherever people have the chance to be genuinely involved at every stage in the political process – in other words, not only in planning but also in the implementation, oversight and evaluation of policies.' Based on her practical project work in Bolivia, this GIZ expert thus confirms what is now the consensus among the international community: without good governance, a country cannot achieve sustainable development - and without a dynamic civil society, good governance is no more than empty rhetoric, a cliche and a fashionable catchphrase. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan summed it up back in 1998: 'Democratisation gives people a stake in society. Its importance cannot be overstated, for unless people feel that they have a true stake in society, lasting peace will not be possible and sustainable development will not be achieved.' The international community has repeatedly confirmed this linkage in numerous documents and declarations over recent years, most recently at the Millennium+10 Summit in 2010, whose outcome document states: 'We acknowledge that good governance and the rule of law at the national and international levels are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger.'

Accordingly, as one of its priority areas, international cooperation for sustainable development focuses on democratisation, civil society and political participation. The programmes vary from country to country, according to local conditions, but all comply with one basic and stringent rule: 'Promoting participation does not mean that external actors try to change the power structures within the country,' says Katrin Schäfer. 'We help to create conditions that promote dialogue between state and civil society and build decision-makers' skills to facilitate participatory policy-making.' Egypt is a good example: here in Tahrir Square – the name means 'Liberation Square' – in the heart of Cairo, now instantly recognisable all over the world, GIZ has created a forum for the young democracy movement. On behalf of BMZ and together with the Goethe-Institut and the German Embassy in Cairo, GIZ opened a 'Tahrir Lounge'. Since April 2011, anyone interested can come here to attend lectures about the new Egypt, participate in training and workshops in areas related to civic engagement, or simply to share their ideas with other people.

'It's all happening!' says GIZ Country Director Roland Steurer, summing up the great interest in the Lounge. 'There is a massive demand and the offer is right.' Indeed, the Lounge has been such a success that a similar forum is now flourishing in Monofeya in the Nile Delta, with two more in preparation in Upper Egypt. It goes without saying that their programmes are not headed by Germans. Instead, a young Egyptian woman working in Cairo is responsible for organising and coordinating the events. Like Ines Abid in Tunisia, she is dedicated to the Arab Spring, giving up her normal life 'to help rebuild my country after the revolution'. So what is she hoping to achieve with her work, she was asked recently. She explained that she wants to awaken the Egyptian people's political awareness and inform her fellow citizens about the linkages between political issues. But ultimately, it is all about 'democracy, democracy, democracy'. And building democracy is something that takes time and commitment.

Author: Friederike Bauer writes about international politics and cooperation on a freelance basis.
The article first appeared in the GIZ magazine akzente, issue 01/2012.