By Sarah Hénon, Development Manager

Since autumn 2019, Forus and our African members have been on a rich journey to explore the dynamics of civil society in Africa. We worked with the team from the Centre for International Development and Training (CIDT) of the University of Wolverhampton, led by Dr Aurelian Mbzibain, with the researchers Téodyl Nkuintchua, Sarah Thomas, and Habiba Mohamed, to better understand African networks and platforms, and how to strengthen the collaboration in Forus.

This journey was a deep listening exercise to Forus members in Africa. The research team led us to ask the hard questions, and take a balanced look at both strengths and areas for improvement. For their insights and openness, I wish to sincerely thank the brilliant team from CIDT, and all African members of the Forus network that contributed their insights: from the 6 platforms that received the research team in their countries, including CNONGD (DRC), CFRONG (Benin), ZCSD (Zambia), TANGO (The Gambia) and CILONG (Chad), to another 14 platforms that participated in interviews ad discussions, to EU Delegations from over 10 countries, independent experts, and the organisations that are members of platforms. 

In July 2020, we held two webinars, in English and French, to discuss the preliminary results and findings with anglophone and francophone African members, and identified some exciting ways forward to strengthen our collaboration. Below we share 5 key areas that were discussed, and 5 ways forward following the study. The full Executive Summary of findings will soon be available in English and French.

Some of the key discussion points included:

1. The proliferation of civil society platforms, and the growth of new forms of civil society (such as movements): these raise the question of how to define “civil society”? Beyond an academic question, it has important implications for promoting an enabling environment for civil society, at a time when many African governments and parliamentarians are pushing forth legislation to regulate, and sometimes constrain, the voices of civil society. 

2. Balancing inclusion and efficiency: this is a key tension for networks. All platforms want to move fast and to be agile, while also aiming to be inclusive and make sure that everyone is on board. What is the balance between becoming “bigger” or “leaner”, and what does this mean for our representativeness?

3. Balancing a technical and a political focus: national platforms need to strike a balancing act between focusing on providing technical services to members, and being a powerful advocacy platform in a complex political environment. Both of these areas are important and can feed into each other, for platforms to act as legitimate and credible interlocutors of government. 

4. Creating a shared advocacy agenda at the regional level without “watering down” issues to the most common, generic denominator. African national platforms have good experiences of building common actions, with each actor leveraging their expertise. How do we continue to support and resource trans-national actions, while allowing for the unique contexts and specificities to emerge?

5. Supporting the renewal and adaptation of platforms: as civil society is constantly evolving, it is important for platforms to also adapt. This requires strong processes for leadership renewal, innovative methods to link to youth and movements, and the ability to take on and respond to new initiatives and issues. 

Some of the ways forward include:

1. Continuing to convene discussions on financial sustainability, as the issue of resources remains central. A key area of interest among our members is peer exchange around experiences of national platforms receiving financial support from their own government, and other ways to diversify funding and tap into African resources.

2. Deepening discussions of the role of platforms that are created by State & multilateral institutions, whether national governments or the EU. Forus and our members will continue dialogue with our institutional allies on this topic, as well as through an ongoing study on the role of platforms in promoting an enabling environment for civil society. 

3. Supporting members to manage diversity and the tensions emerging between different organisations, including faith-based, LGBTQI, and feminist organisations. Forus will explore ways to enhance solidarity and cohesion within the civil society movement, to ensure that platforms can be inclusive of a diverse range of organisations despite differences.

4. Facilitating discussions with platforms from other continents, to explore the commonalities as well as the differences with Forus members in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and Europe. Experiences and learning from the African continent will be shared, especially at the occasion of the 2021 General Assembly.

5. Pursuing our advocacy for funding for capacity development, and particularly institutional capacity development. Forus’ advocacy, including around Goal 16 and Goal 17 of the SDGs, will continue to emphasize that resources need to be directed to capacity development of organisations, for a flourishing and sustainable African civil society. 

We are confident that the results of this Study will allow us to strengthen the engagement and leadership of African platforms within the network, and in the long-term, the influence of African civil society on the global stage. Forus is dedicated to listening to its members and to continually challenge ourselves to improve our model and approaches. We look forward to replicating similar listening exercises with members from Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Europe in the coming years.

Photo: “Participatory exercise during the workshop in Gaborone, Botswana, March 2020”