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Great Lakes Policy Forum—Meeting Summary—March 4, 1999

Presider: I. William Zartman, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Speakers: Ibrahim Wani, International Human Rights Law Group, and Learned Dees, National Endowment for Democracy
March 4, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

This Great Lakes Policy Forum meeting continued last month’s discussion on “International Support of Congolese Civil Society” with a report from Ibrahim Wani, International Human Rights Law Group, and from Learned Dees, National Endowment for Democracy. Professor I. William Zartman, Director of the Africa Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University was the discussant and Susan Collins Marks of Search for Common Ground was the facilitator.

In order for sustainable changes to take place (such as regional and national peace agreements, establishment of democratic institutions respecting human rights, development of economic markets attracting foreign investment, internal reconstruction, and reconciliation process), it is important to recognize that those changes must happen with the participation of the civil society, at the grassroots level.

For international responses to be efficient, the purpose of international intervention should be to deal with the emergency of the situation but also to strengthen civil society. The goal of supporting civil society is not simply to support nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in their tasks, but also to develop a critical generation of leaders informed and responsible for the future of their country.

Who is the Congolese Civil Society?

After the National Conference in 1991, from which the civil society was excluded, different groups organized themselves to counterbalance the prevailing political forces. In 1993, many NGOs started gaining some financial support and became well founded and organized.

In preparing to engage and support the efforts of Congolese civil society, it is fundamental to reach a clear understanding of who constitutes the Congolese civil society. Congolese civil society is made up of a large range of groups of NGOs, but also churches and political parties with different agendas, ranging from negotiation to delivery service. It is not a cohesive body working toward a common goal. The groups are as divided as the picture of politics in the country.

International Community Support to Congolese Civil Society?

One of the participants stated that it is fundamental that international responses provide support and help after having listened to what civil society has previously identified as its needs and problems.

One of the participants stated that one of the biggest problems faced by Congolese civil society is the lack of political space. The government has always harassed them and suppressed their rights to benefit from freedom of expression and association. Congolese civil society must negotiate this space with government, but international actors could put pressure on Kabila to open up the space allowing those organizations to operate and be part of the different negotiations.

The process of bringing people together when the relationship has been broken is also crucial. For the Congolese it is important to have some opportunities to talk together and build trust in order to possibly have a dialogue within this very fragmented society. The development of regional radio, providing credible news and programs directed toward peace, can be a very efficient way of gathering people together.

One other problem faced by the Congolese civil society is its inability to get their message to the outside world. Providing those groups with technical assistance such as telecommunication and networking assistance, as well as by including them in events such as peace education and international meetings, would improve their communication and networking abilities. Many organizations have developed NGO networks, but need assistance setting up regional networks.

The whole system of service delivery by national and international organizations and NGOs should be better coordinated. For example, regarding the responsibility for service delivery, local actors should be assisted and trained rather than outsider organizations coming and opening new offices. Moreover, it is fundamental that such international responses be institutional and sustainable, in order to develop a collaboration between international and national organizations.

Civil society having identified its needs, can be trained to develop its own skills. For example, in order to find peace and reconciliation among locals, seminars on peacemaking can be organized with members of the population from very different denominations to set up some peace committees within the community.

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