Leaders at the African Union-European Union Summit held in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Photo by: European Union

ABIDJAN — Civil society organizations have expressed concern about what some call a “worrying precedent” set by last month’s high-profile AU-EU Summit, where many such organizations were denied participation in the high-level meetings.

The limited space for the groups was noted from the time of registration, as CSOs were not given a place on the registration application, and had to circumnavigate the multilevel security protocol and verification process to attend the event each day.

Civil society often work as implementers of local government programming or as monitors in unsettled, conflict zones. “During the Ebola crisis, civil society groups were the first responders, and their employees among the first doctors and medical experts to lose their lives while trying to save others,” Agustín Lasanta, advocacy officer of the German-based and youth-focused Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung told Devex.

Lasanta, who also served as the European Union representative for the joint civil society steering committee tasked with presenting the AU-EU civil society declaration, said he found it ironic and illogical that civil societies were not recognized as a key actor in trying to improve this political partnership while they are a principal player in fixing some of its main problems.

“What’s not important is that we didn’t get to make a two-minute speech, what is important is the political message it sends: That they are willing to sacrifice this, albeit symbolic, gesture of civil society organizations to share their views, which sets a dangerous precedent,” he added.  

The role of civil society in the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, or JAES, has fluctuated over the years since the initiative was launched in 2007 with a mandate to encourage mutual cooperation, and move beyond a donor-recipient relationship.

In 2010, a steering committee was created ahead of the third EU-Africa Summit to integrate civil society members into the partnership. The group was tasked to organize a civil society forum alongside the triennial heads of state meetings. Most recently in July, more than 80 civil society organizations from both continents, covering thematic areas relevant to the current JAES roadmap, convened in Tunis to discuss their role as part of the greater political partnership. The meeting concluded with the creation of a declaration which was to be read aloud during the AU-EU heads of states summit in November.

However, since 2014, CSO participation in the strategy has only taken place on a case-by-case basis, sector by sector and program by program, with few civil society representatives invited to sectoral EU-Africa conferences, and little opportunity for the exchange of ideas due to the lack of secretariat and financial support, one EU civil society member wrote in a statement.

“To be successful in implementing public policy and achieving impact for the citizens, you do need someone monitoring, saying this is working or not working, and this is very much civil society’s role,” France director at ONE Campaign, Friederike Röder told Devex.

The Joint Steering Committee of African and European civil society organizations condemned the censorship of CSOs, and pointed out that in doing so the partnership does a “great disservice to all” by not allowing them to serve as an accountability partner and point out the flaws of this partnership, propose solutions, and contribute to them into results.

Further, the committee’s letter to the AU and EU Commission heads said their role is to promote honest, critical, constructive dialogue among stakeholders. “We did not come to the summit to undermine any government, but to stimulate and challenge us all,” it said. “Neither to divide or spread discord … to propose, not protest so that we can contribute to the construction of a more peaceful, just, free and united society.”

Without ever receiving a formal justification, Lasanta said it’s difficult to know why the decision was taken or by whom. But he noted, the choice may have been prompted following a citizen’s forum led by the CSO joint steering committee in Abidjan just days prior, that ended with a demonstration that required police crowd control.

Lasanta said the move was African-led and that EU member states and institutions seemingly compromised on the issue, while pushing for other issues such as migration and sexual and reproductive rights. “The fact that we’ve seen such antagonism, and considering the situation and the trend of a shrinking space of civil society space in Africa, in general, sends a poor political message,” Lasanta stated. “The EU should have made a stronger stand of values because we do play a role and civil society is an important part of political processes and in our development cooperation policies.”

For some, the summit was a “missed opportunity” as no formal declaration was read before the closing. While a political declaration has since been released, a formal roadmap for the next 2020 summit must be drafted by February.

Read more Devex coverage of the AU-EU Summit.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.

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