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A global alliance to deepen democracy

Social innovators in Uganda, South Africa and the Netherlands have joined forces to give citizens greater influence in local governance.

In almost all democratic countries worldwide, poor or wealthy, there are serious issues with the way democracy functions. Citizens are formally consulted when they vote once every four or five years in an election, but many people feel that they have far too little influence over the decisions and policies that affect them. These frustrations are shared worldwide, with the critique being directed at delivery, focus and effectiveness of governments.

A large part of the problem lies in the fact that most citizens generally lack access to policy-making processes. Lobbies of specific interest groups often dominate political agendas, and extreme disparities exist among citizens in opportunities to voice their concerns and needs. This has an especially negative impact on marginalized groups in society. How can these problems be addressed?


Getting a voice in governance

Recently a group of innovative civil society organizations from Brazil, Uganda, South Africa, Tunisia, Spain and the Netherlands set up a global alliance: ‘Deepening Democracy’. Together they aim to enable citizens in their respective countries to gain direct participation in policy-making and more democratic rights.

In one example, three organizations, from Uganda, South Africa and the Netherlands, are focusing on law-making, with the ambition to ‘create spaces where the law works optimally for the people’. According to the organisations involved, which are Citizens Watch It in Uganda, Seriti Institute in South Africa and Netwerk Democratie in the Netherlands, governments and political institutions work better for society as a whole when laws work for the people, rather than against them or without them.  “The law used to be for the elite. We are now demystifying it.” – Benson Ekwe of Citizens Watch It, Uganda

Yvette Jeuken, programme manager at Democracy Network, explains: “Laws should reflect the values and needs of a country; of a community. How can this be possible when laws are written without consulting the citizens who are affected?”


A platform where citizens can monitor legislative processes

A key starting point was the creation of the Follow The Law platform, originally developed by Democracy Network in the Netherlands. The site has both an informative component, which explains and monitors legislative processes, and a participatory component, which highlights how citizens can exert influence.

The Follow The Law platform combined well with programmes that already existed in the organisations in Uganda and South Africa. Benson Ekwe, co-founder of the nongovernmental organisation Citizens Watch It in Uganda, explains: “The law used to be for the elite. We are now demystifying it, ensuring that the local person at the grassroots level understands and appreciates the impact of law-making and the law itself on their wellbeing, using community structures like neighbourhood assemblies.”


Citizens are watching it in Uganda

Citizens Watch It is a consortium of six regional organizations in Uganda, including the national civil society governance watchdog Public Affairs Center, the network organisation Rwenzori Consortium for Civic Competence, the indigenous groups organisation Community Empowerment for Rural Development, the pan-African social justice organization Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development, the Development Network of Indigenous Voluntary Associations and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative. For many years they have been at the forefront of implementing projects in elections observation, social accountability, budget monitoring, ‘Citizen Manifestos’, in which citizens state their concerns, and more. Citizens Watch It has implemented their programmes through online platforms and physical neighbourhood meetings.  

Citizen Based Monitoring session (Photo: Seriti Institute)
Citizen Based Monitoring session (Photo: Seriti Institute)

In Uganda, through the adoption of Follow The Law, various laws are now being monitored. Citizens Watch It has used the platform to provide information about specific laws and how citizens can appeal to these laws. In addition to online tools, a special mobile number is used to send and receive messages from citizens who do not have access to the Internet.

The laws that Citizens Watch It has chosen to focus on include the Public Order Management Act (POMA) of Uganda and the NGO Law. Citizens Watch It organized stakeholder meetings around the POMA law, which was introduced to regulate demonstrations, processions and other forms of public expression in Uganda. Ekwe says it soon became clear that “the law is full of contradictions”. For example, the police have to be notified in advance of some public meetings and demonstrations; however, this is not the case for ‘spontaneous meetings’. “We’re now challenging the police,” Ekwe explains, “to find out when a ‘spontaneous meeting’ becomes an ‘illegal meeting’.” The spontaneous meeting concept, also used by many political parties, prevents the government from prosecuting activists, and Citizens Watch It wants to raise awareness about this.  

“We’ve developed the methodology of implementing citizen-based monitoring and are now working with the government to scale this up.” – Aziza Modise of the Seriti Institute, South Africa


All NGOs would have been deregistered

In the case of the NGO Law, if it had been passed as originally drafted, all NGOs in Uganda would have been deregistered and required to re-apply for formal registration by the government. This could have meant that certain NGOs that deal with government work, or that criticize government, could have been denied the right to register again. Ekwe says Citizens Watch It, together with the Uganda National NGO Forum, was able to convince parliamentarians that civil society operations should be autonomous, and that the proposed law would go against the spirit of the Ugandan constitution. In the end, most of the contentious articles were dropped and, according to Ekwe, Citizens Watch It achieved nearly 80% of what they wanted.

In general, Ekwe is proud of the shift in thinking about the law that is happening in Uganda. “You’ll find a local man quoting the law, asking a leader under which law he is asked to do something, for example, paying a tax. Even when someone is being arrested, people are now asking, ‘Under which law?’” he said.  


Citizen-based monitoring in South Africa

Like Uganda, South Africa has many laws that provide democratic rights and social justice, but often with poor execution, says Aziza Modise, head of the learning, intellectual capital and product development department of the Seriti Institute in South Africa. The Seriti Institute has contributed to developing the citizen-based monitoring method, which lets citizens monitor the implementation of laws and policies.

The Seriti Institute is well known for its ‘Organization Workshop’, where hundreds of people learn new organizational skills in a few weeks, and for its innovative Community Work Programme for ‘useful work’, which has reached hundreds of thousands of people to date. The institute has worked with government to pilot a citizen-based monitoring methodology that enables community members to monitor service delivery by government departments and the commitments they make to improve services. The method used by the Seriti Institute draws on extensive surveys of citizen opinion to persuade local governments to implement relevant laws.

In the Follow the Law partnership, the Seriti Institute developed the online platform PuoMandla (‘power in speech’), focusing on the implementation of laws and policies, which is the final stage of the legislative process.

A field worker conducting an interview (Photo: Seriti Institute)
A field worker conducting an interview (Photo: Seriti Institute)

Dialogue between mining company, community and government

An inspiring example of Seriti Institute’s work around monitoring laws is from the township of Bekkersdal, near the town Westonaria in the Gauteng province in South Africa. This old mining community has had high youth unemployment rates for decades. Over the last years, the community has participated in several protests targeting not only local government but also mining companies that operate locally. Their main grievance has been that the community has not seen any revenue from mining flowing back into the local community.

The South African Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 stipulates that mine operators should have a social and labour plan that is beneficial to the local community in the area where they operate. The difficulty lies in determining the views and wishes of people in the community, so an important part of Seriti’s contribution has been to develop a platform for dialogue between community organizations, representatives of the mining company and the municipal government.

In consultation with all stakeholders, a plan was developed to run an ‘organization workshop’, financially supported by the mining houses and the municipality, which would create employment and social benefits for the local people. In this ‘organization workshop’ participants learn to manage economic enterprises and other forms of organisation in large groups. This enabled 411 180 people from the local community to organize themselves by the end of 2015, while 227 full-time jobs were created in 11 enterprises in Bekkersdal, including a farm that is positioned to support other agricultural enterprises in the district.

Ultimately, the goal is to help thousands of people from the local community to gain employment and to improve their lives in other ways. The online platform PuoMandla, which focuses on the implementation of laws and policies will now be used to monitor the implementation of the mines’ social and labour plans, as well as the performance of the local government.

“People are currently skeptical about whether the government takes the voices of people into account,” says Modise. “When we work with communities, we leave a ‘commitment charter’, which monitors what a certain government department committed to do.” Modise added that he is proud of the ability of the Seriti Institute to really make a difference in the lives of people on the ground.

Discussion of collected suggestions (Photo: Seriti Institute)
Discussion of collected suggestions (Photo: Seriti Institute)

The needs of the people

Based on exchange and cooperation, the Dutch Follow the Law platform has undergone a number of changes too. “We’ve updated the website. In addition to monitoring laws, you can now also discuss draft laws and put forward additions or alternatives,” says Jeuken.

“In the Netherlands we are seeing subjects like bottom-up democracy, transparency and access moving higher up on the agenda. Law-making should be made more transparent, more public and more accessible.”

Similarly, Ekwe wants to scale up their activities to include more laws. “This will lead to better service delivery and better livelihoods,” he says. Modise hopes the government of South Africa will go back to listening and catering to the needs of the people, which is, after all, its core job.

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