International Civil Society Week Simplified

The 14th International Civil Society Week (ICSW), the first ever in the Pacific, opened in Suva yesterday. It is expected to attract more than 800 delegates from close to 100
05 Dec 2017 14:45
International Civil Society Week Simplified
PIANGO executive director Emele Duituturaga (left), and University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor Professor Rajesh Chandra jointly launch the International Civil Society Week 2017 logo on August 4, 2017. Photo: Sheldon Chanel

The 14th International Civil Society Week (ICSW), the first ever in the Pacific, opened in Suva yesterday.

It is expected to attract more than 800 delegates from close to 100 countries – the majority of whom will be young people. This also includes high-profile guest speakers such as former New Zealand Prime Minster, Helen Clark.

Emele Duituturaga, the executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), a co-organiser, is feeling upbeat about the event.

In an exclusive interview, Ms Duituturaga summarily discussed the goals of the event, indicating specific issues it will look to address.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Can you briefly simplify what International Civil Society Week is all about?

International Civil Society Week, put very simply, is the ‘Olympics’ of civil society gathering.

It is one event every 18 months where global civil society leaders come together to talk about issues, concerns and challenges and together find solutions to these problems – so it’s a huge gathering of civil society leaders. For this one, over 100 countries are going to be represented and over 700 people have registered.

In the past, there have only been one or two Pacific Islanders at these meetings and we wanted it to come to the Pacific. And at this stage, at least over 200 Pacific Island Civil Society Leaders will be there.

What are some specific issues the meeting will look to address?

A whole range of issues: The theme for the meeting is ‘Our Planet. Our Struggles. Our Future.’ So first off, we designed a theme with CIVICUS because firstly the concern in the Pacific is about climate change – the concern about our oceans.

The first concern is how we are going to save the planet. And so we have a number of events linked to that track of the environment and how we save the planet. Then there is another set of events that are linked to our struggles.

When we talk about our struggles the issues range from sexual exploitation of children, the struggles of women and feminists around the world, the struggles of indigenous people around the world, the struggles of youth leadership and empowerment – and not only in the Pacific, but around the world.

We have a whole array of voices, and not just focused on NGOs, who are normally urban-based, but we also have community-based organisations that are coming to share their stories.

Quite a large carbon footprint could be generated from an event of such magnitude. Have the organisers taken that into account?

Yes, there will be carbon off-setting. For every delegate, US$20 (FJ$41.44) is going to be donated to a community project.

We’re also working closely with the NGOs working in the area of mangroves. We have an environmental sustainability plan.

All the caterers, all the transport suppliers have actually been scrutinised themselves: what kind of cylinders and what kind of energy. It’s going to be paper-less and plastic-less so that’s creating a logistical nightmare.

We’ve decided to say no to plastic water bottles; we said no to plastics cups. So we are very aware of the carbon footprint.

How do you think international civil society groups should cope with inequalities of wealth and power between organisations and local communities?

Well I think one of the very first things that we need to do, which is what we’re trying to do here, is to create space for local leaders and we call them grassroots or ‘taro roots.”

Those who work the land; those who are at the village level; those who are sub-national levels – in fact, it’s already come up. We’ve had some pre-ICSW workshops that PIANGO has convened with our Pacific delegates and what we’re seeing now is a huge gap between those who work at the village community and local level and those of us who advocated at the regional or global level.

So this event is to create a space and what we’ve also tried to do is reach out specifically to community leaders and young people under 30.

This whole week starts off with the whole youth assembly and you’ve got to be under 30 to be there. Also, in designing the theme and looking for event, a call was put out for all organisations to apply and we’ve actually got quite a long done.

We’ve had to manually and physically do registrations for people because they have no access to the internet or are not familiar with online registration. So we’ve had to do additional things to reach those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make it.

Religion plays an important though complicated role in a healthy civil society. Do you think religion can play a positive role in peace building?

Absolutely – there is no doubt about that. Reverend James Bhagwan was saying at a meeting we were in yesterday that 80 per cent of the world’s population believe in some religion or faith.

I certainly see that faith – religion is a form of worship and people have different forms of that – is a coping mechanism. Most people have to believe in something so when they come to an end, that’s where faith takes on. We’ve seen it in the Pacific- the Pacific is a very religious region. We’ve seen it in Africa; we’ve seen it in Asia.

What we have found in the work that we do, let’s just say in climate crises or climate change, people’s faith in an unseen being is part of the resilience. I think to be resilient in the face of adversity has to do with faith. People reach deeply inside them to reach out to a power that is beyond them.

I think the conflict also comes from certain belief systems that may not be in harmony with the social group. We’ve seen different forms of religion and different belief systems that have justified acts of violence which of course leads to conflict.

What do you think are some major challenges civil society groups face in the region?

A number of challenges: First of all, I think there is the issue of resourcing. Traditionally, civil societies began as charity organisations, with a good heart and largely looking after the poor and the disadvantaged.

As economies have grown and the cash economy has become a greater influence in people’s life, the spirit for volunteerism is quite limited. Many civil society organisations (CSOs) find now the need to find alternative forms of resourcing in order to keep them going.

We also talk about an enabling environment meaning CSOs still find in some of our Pacific countries challenges in working with governments because of regulations.

Needing to get a permit to have a meeting, not being allowed to conduct civic education programmes on the radio, and being limited during time of elections to raise awareness. This has to do with the regulatory and legislative framework in recognising the civil society as a critical part of democracy.

If we accept that civil society by its very nature brings about richness in democracy then there is a challenge because the environment can be restrictive.

The challenge is: how do we work with our governments to ensure that the policies and the activities in a country have a positive social impact and a positive impact on the environment.

Would you like to add anything else?

Only to say that I think in the Pacific there are still many sectors of communities that don’t have access to information – that they don’t know what is happening. And in bringing ICSW to the Pacific, our aspirations and our hope is that it will give a voice to the voiceless. Edited by Jonathan Bryce


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