14 February 2013

Uganda: Black Monday Movement Puts Citizen At the Centre


For many years, civil society in Uganda has been criticised for lack of social and political imagination.

It has been mentioned severally that civil society is known only for the workshops and the per diems we offer to participants.

As a result, several civil society organisations have become prisoners of this stereotype. We all seem to be stuck in the notion that we can improve the living conditions of ordinary Ugandans through 'technical' interventions such as capacity building, sensitisation and a host of other jargon-laden development interventions.

These frameworks are not only confined to civil society in Uganda, they are a global phenomenon. A case in point are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were founded on the principle that - by setting global development goals, the world would follow them and eliminate the targeted problems.

So, we all go out in all corners of the world with these noble goals prescribed for the poor and disadvantaged. The donors then open and close aid taps as and when they wish; NGO workers then projectise everyday life; and consultants ask everyone what they want to know, and then we tell them what they know already.

But this same development experiment has been repeated many times and never seems to yield any results. What citizens over the world seem to be showing us today is that, if the world is going to change then people must become agents of their own development. This is easier said than done.

What it calls for is 'participatory democracy'.

In this kind of democracy, citizens shift from the mode of only voting, paying taxes and then hoping to hold their leaders to account. We should be moving to a democracy where citizens participate in civic life as co-creators of the country they want.

A democracy in which the state enables the social and political construction of places and processes where differences engage rather than collide. A democracy where multi-stakeholder fora and mediated events are the hallmark.

Uganda has had many starts and stops, for example - the bimeeza - (open-air citizen debates broadcast live on FM stations) that were banned, as well as the participatory local government system that was a cornerstone of decentralisation in the late 1990s.

Other forms of citizen engagement, like sector reviews and budget and public expenditure consultative fora, are all important ingredients of participatory democracy. This type of democracy is not a new idea but, rather, one that has been resuscitated around the world because of the failures of several governments to live up to the promises of representative democracy.

The words of Mahatma Gandhi, "we must be the change we want to see in the world", have become an activist's buzzword and indeed one that we should all embrace in Uganda today.

It is clear to all citizens today that faith in the state that is absolute, and assumes that the state is the source of all services, to all citizens, is naïve. While the state serves people, it sometimes has to be compelled by the people it serves.

It is important to underscore that while challenging the state is an important factor in participatory democracy, providing alternatives is equally important. Citizens have the responsibility to ensure that every challenge on the state is followed by a set of alternatives that do not relieve the state from its duties but promotes new forms of solution seeking.

Black Monday

In Uganda, civil society started the Black Monday Movement in November 2012. The Black Monday Movement is a social movement that works to end theft of public money by government officials. Its vision is to contribute towards securing a life of dignity for all Ugandans.

The initiative calls citizens to action - to 'do' something. Participatory democracy is the cornerstone of the Black Monday Movement.

While the Black Monday Movement is about theft (aka corruption) in public life, it is also about growing capacities for citizens to participate in self-directed collective action. The actions should cut across differences in approaches to problem solving and build on individual and common aspirations.

The Black Monday Movement is, therefore, a social movement that depends on health workers, teachers, clergy, homemakers, cab drivers, trade unionists, business owners, civil servants, boda boda riders, hawkers, policemen and women, soldiers and several other people.

When we hear stories of people who have kept the Black Monday Movement newspaper in their taxis so that passengers can read, or churches that allow activists on the pulpit or a space to distribute the newsletter as a gesture of solidarity, or policemen that give a word of encouragement to activists, or bankers that are wearing black on Monday as they go about their business, we should all know that this is the DNA of a social movement anchored in people's participation.

In the Black Monday Movement, we should be able to see ourselves as part of a democratic culture that imagines a society that is built on the ethos of participatory democracy, a society that promotes citizen action, where the 'Citizen is Central'.

When citizens become central to our commitment to improving society, then an important element that should be at the heart of all our actions is 'self-direction'.

As Ugandans, we should get to a place where we act based on our own values and interests. These interests should not be our material desires or institutional mandates but, rather, the common good.

We should get to a point where 'lecturing' citizens does not matter but where 'serving' citizens matters. When we serve citizens, we concentrate on catalyzing action - and this is the heart of the Black Monday Movement.

"A luta continua, vitória é certa"! - (translated as, the struggle continues, victory is certain).

The author is Executive Director, Uganda National NGO Forum.

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