The World Social Forum in Tunisia – Challenges and Opportunities of Civil Society networks

Thanks to its work in North Africa through the Building Bridges Project, NCVO organized a joint event with the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and CIVICUS – The World Alliance for Citizen Participation- as part of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia.

It has been a unique experience to be in Tunisia at the time of the WSF, an enormous event that brings together civil society actors from all over the world to meet, exchange experiences and discuss common issues around socio-economic challenges, environment, equalities and rights. This year the event was organized in Tunisia, following the Arab Spring, and in the context of the democratic transition; so dignity and freedoms were the main messages of the Forum.

NCVO took an active part in the event organized in an inspiring public university campus at the end of March in the capital, Tunis. We organized a panel in cooperation with CIVICUS and ANND, already partners within the Building Bridges project. In fact, we were there also to consult with Tunisian civil society organisations as a part of the needs assessment phase of the project.

In line with NCVO’s mission and the specific objective of our engagement with North African civil society, both our events were looking at sharing challenges, experiences and best practices on civil society networking. A few days full immersion within this context and this particularly global environment highlighted several points related to civil society coalitions:

1. National associations around the world

All organisations that participated in our events from different parts of the world, including India, the Gambia, Turkey, and across the Arab Region, agreed on the need for bringing civil society together, within a body that can represent its requests to the government; a coalition gives a stronger voice to civil society.

However there are many challenges for civil society networks; above all sustainability and independence from the government.

Many umbrella bodies around the world struggle with financial resources especially when relying on government or international donor grants. Sustainability requires a diverse base, including membership fees, and income generated from services, such as consultancy, publications and research. Such a model for national umbrella sustainability is used in different countries however many national umbrellas body still struggle to keep the balance between funding and full independence from the government.

In North Africa, however the situation is even more challenging, barriers to the establishment of civil society coalitions and go beyond access to funding. There are no strong national networks and while all organisations agree on the need to get together to form national coalitions, there are many barriers to this process in countries where civil society is divided around regional, political as well as religious cleavages. In this context it is challenging to agree on the leadership of the umbrella body, while making sure the diversity of members is guaranteed.

2. The importance of international networks for national associations

The discussions at the WSF highlighted the importance of exchanging experiences at the international level. NCVO is a member of the CIVICUS Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA), which brings together umbrella bodies from all over the world. The WSF was an excellent opportunity to get to know each other, or meet again; to highlight that we share similar needs and challenges. Being there together strengthened the relationships between umbrella associations, and increased the possibility to cooperate around common issues in the future.

3. Promoting national coalitions in North Africa- no ‘one size fits all’

When thinking of supporting the emergence of new national coalitions in North Africa, the best practices of networking and sustainable fund should be taken into consideration. Civil society organisations can get together because they all have a common interest to participate in the decision making process and working together makes each single organisation stronger. Furthermore civil society needs support and capacity building after decades of dictatorship but organisations will have to learn to work together to overcome challenges.

On the other hand it is crucial to consider the specificity of the context. A more “Classical” form of umbrella body might be very difficult to establish in these post-conflict countries where divisions are still very strong. Tunisian participants in our events highlighted how “forced” networking can be damaging to the member organisations and asked “how can we bring together people with different religion, political ideologies and regional identities?”

Above all, it does not matter what form the national network, coalition or umbrella, takes; or how the leadership is established as long as it is a democratic process and it increases the chances of the civil society to participate and promote a democratic transition in its own country. Diversity is a precious strength of Arab countries and civil society should understand it as such, if it wants to be able to overcome discriminations and conflicts of the past.

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Chiara Butti was international officer at NCVO. She coordinated the north Africa based civil-society-support project, Building Bridges.

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