TUNIS—Despite the recent Bardo attacks, 70,000 delegates from more than 4,000 organizations defiantly gathered in Tunisia for this year’s World Social Forum from the 24th to the 28th of March 2015. The five-day event served to inspire the global CSO community as a space to reflect and think about alternatives to the current world order.
Set on the campus of El Manar University in the country’s capital, participants organized various workshops, seminars and alternative spaces to debate solutions to a number of social issues including militarism, climate change, enabling environment for CSOs, as well as the post-2015 development agenda.
CSO Enabling Environment
A poignant issue particularly experienced by civil society in the Arab region is the shrinking space for CSO action. Despite commitments to protect and strengthen the enabling environment for civil society, governments worldwide continue to break these promises through various forms of legal and regulatory policy restrictions.
An activity organized by the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) in partnership with the Arab NGO Network (ANND) and CIVICUS aimed precisely to discuss this issue and find ways forward.
Titled “Defending Democratic Spaces: Civic Activity in the Arab Region and Beyond,” the workshop discussed case studies from Sudan, Bahrain, Tunisia and Iraq. The presentations all point out to the common issue of state repression, violence and civil wars as primary culprits that restrict civil society space in the region.
“Civil society in order to be an effective actor in development should also be provided by an enabling environment…an empowering environment which goes beyond legal frameworks,” said Ziad Abdel Sammad, Executive Director of ANND and a member of the CPDE Coordination Committee (CC).
Sammad also stressed that CSO enabling environment is not just about legal frameworks, but also includes free access to information, rights and resources.
“All these elements are essential and needed in order for civil society to act independently as main actors of change,” he added.
Months preceding the September UN General Assembly to agree on a new development framework post-2015, CSOs and various grassroots formations attending the WSF critically examined prospects and challenges of such an ambitious development agenda.
“The private sector, particularly big businesses try to set the agenda so that it is in line with business interests,” pointed out Paul Quintos of IBON International and CPDE Post-MDG Working Group as he discussed the corporate capture of the post-2015 negotiations.
Discussions on the post-2015 agenda also explored the challenges posed by the supposed focus on universality in the current SDG proposal as well as the strong demand to make the wealthy of the world accountable to development.
“What is the meaning of universality without accountability? What does it mean if we cannot hold our governments and other development actors accountable?,” Jean Letitia Saldanha of CIDSE asked as she questioned the meaning of universality as a core principle of the new development agenda being negotiated.
“It’s time to put the rich under the microscope,” Quintos added.
Despite logistical challenges and issues, the WSF 2015 proved to be an open space for critical dialogue on issues of the time and an event that continually inspires civil society and social movements to seek alternative systems for a better tomorrow.