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Civic activism

Advisers and watchdogs

by Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz

In depth

WWF activists in Cancún during the climate summit in December

WWF activists in Cancún during the climate summit in December

The life-blood of democracy is critical discourse between the state and civil society. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) therefore appreciates engagement, both in Germany and in our partner countries. The BMZ plans to set up a new service agency in support of relevant initiatives. By Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz

Apart from the assistance the Federal Ministry provides at the inter-governmental level, our partner countries enjoy significant support for development efforts from German churches, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), political foundations, sponsors, entrepreneurs and lots of individual citizens. According to a BMZ list, there are more than 3,000 ­developmental NGOs in Germany. This number along with the high volume of donations for development projects is striking evidence of hundreds of thousands of people wanting to actively contribute to making development happen. They refuse to leave this key issue to the government alone.

Civic participation is spreading in many developing countries too. This is especially so where the regional environment is conducive. Such participation spurs development in the sense of the emergence of democratic institutions, social commitment and advocacy for disadvantaged groups. In view of this trend, Germany’s Federal Government has decided to start a campaign to boost civil-society engagement.

“Civil society” is a trendy buzzword, a catch-all for non-governmental organisations including all sorts of associations and federations, foundations and social movements, initiatives and citizens action groups that help shape democracy as it is understood today. The term also applies to standards of civic behaviour and a normative consensus on values such as tolerance, mutual understanding, non-violence and public spirit.

Civil-society groups that address issues of public welfare, justice, checks on power, transparency, accountability and development represent their society’s social capital – whether they are in a developing or an industrial nation. Civil society is a “countervailing force” with voices of caution and criticism but also encouragement for the formally constituted institutions of government. Civil society creates a sphere of civic discourse in which various social problems – including those of international development – are addressed and resolved.

This kind of discourse matters particularly to developmental policymakers like us because we are convinced that meaningful change and development always start within a given society. Many NGOs today do not only influence public opinion; they have become competent and respected experts. They operate as important advisers and commentators – often expressing critical views – in regard to national and international development issues. The prime responsibility, however, always resides with governments: the state needs to create the environment and conditions for civil society to develop and then play its role.

Our development policy is designed to provide increasing support to political regimes which promote economic and political liberties combined with social and environmental responsibility. To create the kind of stable environment that is conducive to successful and sustainable development, state institutions and civil society need to serve their functions.

At eye level

Almost 50 years of developmental experience tells us that a lot is possible when civil society is on board – and hardly anything without it. Therefore we do not consider civil-society actors merely a constituency that needs to be dealt with favourably. We consider civil-society actors political partners who deserve support but also need to be challenged at eye level. Civil society has a part to play in boosting the effectiveness of development cooperation. Its engagement is not merely about making civil-society projects work; it is about development policy as a whole bearing fruit. I am a long-time member of UNICEF and the WWF and a supporter of ONE; I absolutely subscribe to “watchdog principles” in developmental affairs. Watchdogs don’t hamper governments; they facilitate sound governmental action.

Healthy processes can only be set in motion and jointly managed where there is a willingness to cooperate closely and enter into dialogue. Civil-society activists must discuss with government officials how they can usefully support, actively promote and constructively complement governments’ development efforts.

Such dialogue on the interaction of civil society and governments is increasingly tackling rather tough issues. Just consider Afghanistan, global warming or human rights. Last year, the BMZ introduced special financing facilities in these areas, signalling our interest in rising to major development challenges in cooperation with civil-society organisations. Our facilities provide a platform for implementing shared strategies in the future, but rest assured that our partners will not have to sacrifice any of their independence for the sake of cooperating with us.

Meeting global challenges, moreover, depends on the commitment of each and every individual. Germany has a great track record for civic engagement: 71 % of the population aged 14 and over participate in groups, associations, organisations or public institutions – on top of living up to private obligations and occupational commitments. Moreover, 36 % show community spirit by performing some form of unpaid voluntary work on a fairly long-term basis. And for the many others who would perhaps also like to become active but do not know how and where, we have started advertising campaigns in numerous regional and national newspapers. Our ads use, for example, the provocative question: “Do you sometimes feel the world would be a better place if they’d give you a go at it?”

Such advertising pursues several objectives at once. First of all, we want to arouse curiosity and coax readers to consider the issues. But we also want to reach out to the innumerable people who are already active, thank them for their dedication and show that we are aware of their contributions. Finally, and this is particularly important, the campaigns tell those whose interest is aroused and those who are still undecided how and where they can participate in pro-development activities. The campaigns spell out ways and means of engagement. Moreover, we have set up an internet platform that deals with this kind of questions. The point is to raise awareness for each and every one of us being able to make a difference and contribute to solving global problems. Last September, we hosted a “Civic Engagement Summit” in Bonn, bringing ordinary people together with corporate citizens, numerous civil-society activists and some 100 celebrities, including Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former foreign minister, and Nena, a pop star. The summit was a great networking opportunity.

This year, we plan to establish a new service agency for civic and municipal engagement. It will be a central meeting point for civic activism – a place where synergies are generated, ideas are born and engagement becomes real. It will be the place to turn with ideas, inquiries and applications for support. The agency will boost participation by non-governmental actors in policy matters in Germany and lead to more effectiveness and efficiency not only in our own country but in our partner countries too.

Successful development policy depends on civic support. Civil society is a vital resource of democracy. Unless there is a high level of civic activism of groups and individuals who strive to fulfil their ideas of democracy and democratic policymaking humankind, will never be able to rise to the daunting global challenges we face, nor will it achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

In advanced and developing countries alike, we need an alert civil society and people who grasp opportunities, daring to take their destiny into their own hands. Ultimately, this is what development policy is all about: giving people the freedom to lead more self-determined, socially secure and independent lives.