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Bolstering civil society in Darwin’s paradise

In this blog Ecuadorian mediator Alicia Arias Salgado explains the crucial role of civil society in managing conflict within the country’s complex political context.

By Alicia Arias Salgado

Ecuador, located in the north-western part of South America, is country known for its rich ecological heritage. We are, as you may know, the proud home of the Galápagos Islands and its many unique and friendly species of birds, sea lions and iguanas that famously inspired Charles Darwin to write his ground-breaking book on natural selection. Less well known is that we have also been the home of a government far less endearing than the creatures on our legendary island.

Over the last decade Ecuador has in fact been run by a post-neoliberal government that has dominated the parliament, the judiciary and all public institutions.  As part of this government political strategy, democratic space for civil society has shrunk, leaving many of us advocates unable to promote social, political, economic, and environmental change.

The government has pursued this strategy by passing anti-protest laws and cracking down on the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It has also limited civil society organisations (CSOs)’s ability to operate by introducing new regulatory requirements to register as a legal entity and placed restrictions on foreign funding.  All these tactics have culminated in a weakened civil society sector and prevented this actor from playing its role in preventing and managing political and social conflict. But things may be changing.

An opening for change

Just over a year ago in April 2017 former vice-president Lenin Moreno won the election and he presented himself as a conciliatory politician open to dialogue, which contrasted with the confrontational style of our former president. This presented a new opening for CSOs who over the last year have pursued a renewed dialogue process with the President and authorities. True, the same political party is still in power and trust has remained an issue for many, but a lot of social movements, informal collectives and grassroots groups have in the last year begun to advocate for crucial changes in the country.

Civil society groups have, for example, come together to identify public policy proposals that the government could pursue and would help prevent the development of violent internal conflicts. A decline in the country’s economic and political situation during the previous administration increased citizen discontent and protests, but it also increased government regulations and crackdown on civic freedoms, which in turn heightened the risk of violent confrontations. New policy proposals by CSO that promote transparency, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and due process are critical to confront some of these issues.

Addressing high polarisation among political parties and low citizen participation in government affairs, CSOs have also embraced their watchdog role by forming a network that monitors the fulfilment of presidential campaign promises. The network, established together with the academic and private sector, has created indicators and a methodology to monitor the campaign promises on education, anti-corruption, employment and entrepreneurship. A participatory online platform was also formed to promote the results and actions taken by the government in the first 100 days in office.

Given the lack of transparency and disclosure of serious cases of corruption in the former government, several CSOs and citizen groups (unions, youth, women, indigenous communities among others) have also created a network to organise dialogue with the government on these issues and share their proposals for changes to public policies.  The network seeks to be an independent watchdog to the political process, identify the changes needed, make proposals to accomplish these changes and help enable agreements between the government and other sectors.

Frameworks for joint action

CSO networks like the ones mentioned above can play a vital role in preventing social conflict from becoming violent by protecting rights, generating a dialogue process, promoting accountability and providing valuable monitoring functions. But Ecuador needs to develop adequate policies and create an institutional framework for joint action between civil society, the private sector and the government to prevent this emergence of violence.  It needs to re-establish trust.

There are some key factors to restore trust in the democratic process.  The first and more important is the generation of a dialogue process between civil society and the government to implement key reforms on issues such as transparency, justice and the respect of human rights.  We have already seen positive steps in this direction but only continued civil society engagement and mobilisation can keep reforms from stalling.

The second key factor is the strengthening of the civil society sector in social conflict prevention and management.  This would enable this sector to bring the government and the opposition to work together towards an agenda of change that would leave behind the authoritarian models and practices developed over the past decade. Sadly, little progress has been made on this front so far and Ecuador has few experts and organisations that work in the areas of strengthening dialogue process and conflict prevention and management.  Also, there is little international support for these issues.

Ecuador faces a unique opportunity to manage social conflict in a country with a complex political context and to demonstrate that change is possible, but without the appropriate support it will be difficult. If the right assistance and space is provided though Ecuadorian civil society can be a critical defender of good governance. It can build a trusted national process where civil society acts as a critical voice that shares policy ownership with the government but also holds the government and policymakers accountable.

Alicia Arias Salgado By Alicia Arias Salgado
Alicia Arias Salgado is an Ecuadorian lawyer and certified mediator with more than 15 years of experience leading projects in democracy, organisational development, governance, judicial reform, civil society strengthening, and conflict resolution. She has worked in the private, non-governmental, and public sectors and has experience managing projects for institutions such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations, and Counterpart International.