Working for the common good

“Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.”(Abbie Hoffman)
By Solveig Leland
One of the sessions in iLEDA’s Citizen Leadership Training for African community leaders deals with the question of what a citizen is. Citizens can be seen as voters (recipients of government services), volunteers (the neighbourly citizen, favouring interaction with other citizens) and co-creators (citizens working in partnership with government to solve societal problems). The notion of the citizen as a co-creator is emphasised in the training, and the participants learn how they, as citizens, can work together to identify specific issues in the community that need to be addressed, develop strategies to solve problems and create things of public importance.
Instead of being a passive citizen complaining about the services government provide, a co-creator will engage both government and other citizens in working to find ways to improve the services. Active citizenry enables bottom-up decision making. Some problems are just easier to understand and to deal with when you’re close to them. When government is unaware of or unable to solve a problem in a particular community, ordinary citizens can choose to solve the problem themselves. When everyone partipates – with their own sets of skills, talents and insights – solutions can be developed that will be of lasting, public value. In short, citizen participation builds a better democracy.
In Norway, where I grew up, democracy has been around for quite some time, most prominently in the form of social democracy. We have a well-functioning welfare system, people have equal access to education, health- and social services, and it’s all very comfortable. Yet, we complain. We have become used to a system where we pay our taxes (though not without grumbling), and in return we expect the state to provide us with excellent services. Perhaps it is the strong individualist focus that is making us behave more like customers than engaged citizens. Perhaps democracy has become too matter-of-fact for us, and we have forgotten that we have to participate in order to solve societal problems. We have forgotten how to be active citizens.
Or have we?
Although individualism is on the increase, and the every-man-for-himself mentality seems to be growing, the spirit of solidarity and community is still present around the country. In fact, we have long traditions of community organising in Norway. Our concept and practice of ’dugnad’ is a manifestation of this. ‘Dugnad’ refers to work that is done on a voluntary basis, unpaid, and that has significance either for individuals or the greater community. In short – community service.
The concept of ‘dugnad’ is inherent to the Norwegian language and culture, and even little children will talk about going to ‘dugnad’, proudly carrying spades and buckets in their hands. ‘Dugnad’ is such a familiar and dear word for Norwegians that we voted it the national word in Norway in 2004.
In the village where I grew up, which has just about 800 people, there is little more than an old-people’s home, a primary school and an upper secondary school, a grocery shop and a church. The biggest building by far is the sports hall. It seems almost too large for a village of this size. You might be wondering what 800 people – of which 20% live in the old people’s home – might be doing with a giant sports hall, but you’d be surprised.
The people in the village decided they needed a space for the youth to play sports and for cultural events. The school hall was not big enough, as people from neighbouring villages would often show up for events as well. In cooperation with the municipality, the villagers took it upon themselves to construct this huge building. Funds were provided by the municipality, but this was not sufficient to cover all costs. Every weekend, for months, villagers would donate their time and resources and spend hour after hour at the construction site, contributing where it was needed. Some would build, some would provide food and others materials.
All around Norway, even in the cities, this phenomenon is present. When spring finally comes after a long winter, residents of apartment blocks will gather on a Saturday to clean up the garden and put a fresh coat of paint on the building. The local football club needs a new pitch, and players, parents and the rest of the community show up to help. The man next door is having a new garage built, but is short of resources, so neighbours come to help with the construction. Or, in the case of my village, we needed a place where the children and youth could play sports indoors, and all the villagers donated time and money and spent every weekend helping out at the construction site.
In 2007, Statistics Norway estimated that the value of this work amounts to NOK35 billion a year, or 3,8% of Norway’s GDP. But as much as this is about pooling resources and contributing time or money, it is also about creating a sense of community and building relationships with neighbours and community members. And – it’s about solving problems.
The tradition of dugnad in Norway shows that although Norwegians at times may take the role of a passive, complaining customer, most of us will not hesitate to participate in these activities that help foster change at the local – and sometimes national – level.
This tradition for community organising is not unique to Norway – barnraising in the US, talkoot in Finland and naffir in Sudan are all traditions that bring the community together to carry out tasks for the common good. It is the essence of these ‘traditions of change’ that iLEDA is trying to communicate to civil society in Africa through its leadership programme.
People have to come together – not just to protest – but to solve problems and build their own futures. Participation and active involvement from the citizenry is immensly important for the deepening of democracy, but even in democratic countries this cannot be taken for granted. In societies where traditions of communal work are present, people must be made aware of the democratic significance of this type of work, and the importance of keeping the practice alive. These traditions are essential to preserve democracy, and will – if cultivated – be a valuable resource for people in coming to terms with what it means to be an active citizen. Ultimately, democracy does not come from the state, but from the people.

Citizen leaders in Malawi eager to work on community organising

In April 2010, Idasa’s iLEDA programme completed the last week of the iLEDA School citizen leadership training course in Malawi. 29 out of 30 participants graduated. They are community leaders from the Mangochi and Zomba areas. However you look at it, these participants, mostly just matric graduates, had been asked to learn a lot during the four weeks of training.
by Amy Eaglestone
The iLEDA Schools course teaches the participants skills, knowledge and values through which they can improve community organising. A number of abstract and concrete issues are covered, including ethics, conflict resolution and advocacy, but also local government structures and project planning. To put their new found competencies into practice, each participant is expected to hold an awareness campaign for their community.
Besides the above, participants also grow as a group, learning to trust one another and work together, encouraging and supporting each other along the way. On the final day of the training course in Malawi students expressed their wishes to keep in touch.
“Coming together is just the beginning, staying together is actual progress” is how one participant in Malawi put it. Continue reading

Models of Hope in Ghana

The Community of Practice for African media practitioners working on HIV/AIDS was recently launched in Livingstone, Zambia by Idasa’s Governance and AIDS Programme.  Two of the participants speak in this video clip, about an initiative in Ghana called “Models of Hope” which provides positive role models for people living with HIV.  See more here.

Media and HIV – getting together

It was hot, humid and sweaty and the airline had lost my luggage.  After filling out a few bureaucratic forms with a smiling Zambian face, I joined the bus of strangers – new recruits to Idasa’s Community of Practice for African communications practitioners who write about HIV/AIDS.  We were to spend two days together, at the start of a 4 year relationship.  The bus journey to the hotel was peppered with polite, get-to-know-you conversations…

Two days later, many hours of sharing stories and exploring how to build citizen action through media and communication work, we were no longer strangers.  The group sessions promoted discussion and deliberation about the role of citizens, and the role of journalists – and how these two overlapped for people in the room.  Questions shot around the room about how to wear two different hats, how to manage conflicts of interest, how to avoid being used for personal agendas, and make sure your journalistic skills are not exploited.

The discussions were thought provoking and relationships formed in a way that will encourage deeper engagement over the next four years.  The workshop included a session on how we should keep talking to each other, especially in between meetings, and for the duration of the 4 years.  Following their suggestions, a social networking hub was set up for participants to keep talking – and a googlemap was also used to plot participants work and partnerships across the continent.  See some of the interviews on video here.


– Samantha Fleming was an Idasa participant at the launch of Idasa’s Community of Practice –

Tuning in to citizen’s conversations about HIV/AIDS

More public and less experts: how do we re-connect the work of journalists with the work of citizens?

– by Marietjie Myburg –

For the last 10 years I have been working in the field of HIV and AIDS Communication. During this time, I have watched in frustration what should have been a conversation between citizens and people with power to change things (policy makers, planners), but was actually a conversation between the well-intentioned funders and (often opportunistic) politicians and bureaucrats.

I have watched how, instead of challenging the course of this conversation, journalists become the channels for UNAIDS, USAID and Bill and Melinda Gates to talk to and on behalf of citizens to Departments of Health and AIDS Councils and Presidents and celebrities with an attitude which Donaldo Macedo aptly describes in his foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom: “There is no need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself (Freire, 2001:xxvi)”.

Continue reading

Live or Dead Aid – Who is responsible for development in Africa?

Who is responsible for development in Africa?

Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo

This is the question I’m mulling over, after a presentation by Dr Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid.  The book has caused quite some controversy, not least among NGOs and recipients of the aid that Moyo critiques.

Foreign aid is a complex subject and one that has many vested interests. Any discussion on the future of aid is likely to be heated and emotional.  There are those of us whose very livelihoods depend on it, for without that donor money, we wouldn’t be able to pay our own bills.  And there are those of us lefties who struggle with the politics of the author – neo-liberal, economic focus, seemingly aligned to the interests of global capital. Her work experience is at the World Bank (seen by some as an arrogant manipulative International Financial Institution (IFI)) and Goldman Sachs. Her background at these institutions dents her credibility in South African development circles, where your politics and credentials are judged before you’ve opened your mouth.

Some people view her ideas with skepticism and see her as an emissary from yet another global institution that is intent on imposing their own agenda. Moyo contests this vocally, saying she is born and bred Zambian and has strong roots in the heart of Africa.  For most of us, despite any critique, it is fabulous to have an African academic raising these issues for debate. Continue reading