By Alison Blackburne
Today, (September 15) marks the International Day of Democracy, which was first recognised by the United Nations in 2007. There is no single model for democracy but it is undoubtedly a universal value - the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and to participate fully in all aspects of their lives.
The theme of this year’s International Day is ‘Space for Civil Society’. The role of civil society in democratic societies throughout the world has never been more important than this year, as the world prepares to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, the global development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs, aimed at ending poverty, fighting inequality and addressing climate change, will be adopted by all UN Member States during the UN General Assembly later this month.
The global contribution of civil society to addressing challenges – national and international - has been clearly demonstrated in the last year. For example, NGOs supported governments in Western Africa to bring the Ebola crisis under control and, currently, are helping to provide support to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict in Syria. Uganda can be very proud that the country’s first Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and founder of the African Youth Initiative Network, Victor Ochen, has been chosen as Global Ambassador for the Sustainable Development Goal on Peace and Justice. This is an excellent example of a Ugandan activist from a Ugandan NGO making a global impact.
Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, recently described civil society as the “the oxygen of democracy”, in recognition of the role that international and national NGOs play as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. The Secretary General also recognised the critical role that civil society plays in keeping governments accountable and representing the diverse interests of the population, including its most vulnerable groups.
Uganda’s NGO Policy 2010 clearly acknowledges the role played by non-state actors in the country’s development process and local and international NGOs are important partners in the UK’s work to support the government’s development and growth agenda. We support a broad range of NGOs who are helping the government to deliver vital services to the Ugandan people like healthcare, clean water and education or tackling barriers to development like sexual and gender based violence. We also work closely with many of the vibrant civil society organisations engaging in advocacy on key issues including governance, accountability and human rights.
One of the things that makes me particularly proud to be British High Commissioner to Uganda is the many excellent UK NGOs working to improve the lives of Ugandan people, from large organisations with a global presence like Save the Children or Comic Relief to smaller church or community based organisations, often supported by volunteers from the UK. Organisations like Retrak and Brass for Africa who are helping to enable disadvantaged young people, including through music. Or the PONT partnership which links communities in South Wales and Mbale District in order to share expertise in areas as diverse as agriculture, education and healthcare.
Sadly, for civil society activists and organisations in a range of countries covering every continent, space is shrinking — or even closing — as some governments have adopted restrictions that limit the ability of NGOs to work or to receive funding from external sources. In many countries, human rights defenders are also subjected to intimidation and harassment.
The Government of Uganda is currently addressing the important issue of how to create an enabling environment for accountable NGOs. In this context, the UK has been closely following the ongoing debate in Parliament on the NGO Bill. I welcome the thorough and inclusive consultation process that has been taking place between the government, parliament and civil society on the Bill. This has resulted in a detailed and progressive report by the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs, which addresses many of the concerns articulated by Ugandan civil society. We hope that this process will result in a new legislative framework which ensures accountability while supporting a strong and vibrant NGO sector.
The International Day of Democracy is an opportunity to reflect on the valuable role played by NGOs – in Uganda, in the UK and throughout the world. One of the hallmarks of successful democracies is the presence of a strong, accountable and freely operating civil society - in which government and civil society work together towards common goals and a better future for their citizens.
The writer is the British High Commissioner to Uganda
Civil Society: The oxygen of democracy