Turning civil society realities into policy

 
by Kulsoom Rizvi
 
For almost a decade, Counterpart has been working closely with representatives of Afghanistan’s civil society organizations at the local, regional and national levels, building their capacity to become agents for change. The development of civil society organizations has progressed significantly since 2005 with a more visible and vocal civil society sector. 
 
Through an active lobbying campaign by the Initiative to Promote Afghan Civil Society II (I-PACS II), a project funded by USAID and implemented by Counterpart and the International Center for not-for-profit Law (ICNL), President Hamid Karzai endorsed the Social Organization Law in early September; one of the final steps prior to official enactment of key legislative initiatives. 
 
“In order to enable civil society and strengthen their efforts, a supportive legal framework is essential,” Mohammad Maqsood, ICNL advisor to I-PACS II said. “This vision opens a bright future for social organizations in Afghanistan, as it affirms their right to take part in policy making and advocacy programs.”
 
The new legislation, which governs Afghan civil society organizations, included key amendments advocated by social organizations using critical technical support from I-PACS II and its partner ICNL. This improved legal framework will help insure a more supportive regulatory environment for the 4,000 social organizations registered in Afghanistan and promises a new freedom to operate effectively.
 
The need for advocacy
 
Social organizations in Afghanistan have been around since 2002. However, these groups’ ability to contribute to the country’s development was highly constrained due to the absence of a law recognizing their official status. 
 
The Presidential Decree of 2002, which governed SOs until the passage of the new law, prohibited social organizations from receiving donations from both foreign governments and private organizations, hindering their ability to expand their working environment. But with the new law, such groups have the right to access a diverse range of foreign resources. 
 
Previously, social organizations were unsure of their ability to participate and advocate in policy debates. Under the new law, social organizations have the right to pursue any objectives articulated in their governing statues without any restrictions – including advocacy. 
 
“Advocacy is an inseparable part of civil society work in Afghanistan,” Maqsood said. “The role of civil society is very important in the reform process, but reform will not take place if the law restricts. We need a much expanded environment for civil society and an expanded environment must be supported by law,”
These changes are a direct result of the advocacy efforts of Afghan social organizations with support from Counterpart and ICNL, to bring social organizations and parliamentarians to work on a joint commitment of ensuring that the new law complies with international standards. 
 
Over the past year, Counterpart, ICNL and the advocacy group conducted various advocacy meetings with the Parliament’s Upper and Lower House Commission’s Chairpersons to show how the legal environment contained many constraints for the civil society in Afghanistan.
 
The Social Organization Advocacy Working Group met with Parliament and presented 33 amendments to the law. Out of the 33 proposed, 29 amendments were passed. I-PACS II can boast an 88 per cent success rate in its campaign, a first in Afghanistan’s legislative history where an advocacy group had such success.
“Civil society is advocating for a lot of positive changes on the public policies and social organizations are looking forward to the benefits of the new law,” Maqsood said.
 
The I-PACS II program is a three year program, funded by USAID through Counterpart’s Global Civil Society Strengthening Leader with Associates (GCSS LWA). I-PACS II works to create and promote a broader and deeper civil society infrastructure that involves and serves the true needs of the population. Specifically, enabling Afghan citizens to more effectively participate in the political process, solve community problems, and demand good governance from their leaders. 

November 20th, 2013 | Tags: advocacy, Afghanistan, citizen participation, civil society, I-PACS II, social organizations | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Renovated preschool will improve health and education for Moldovan children

Children from Kindergarten #183 at the ribbon cutting ceremony in Buiucani. © Elena Zandelova/Counterpart International

by Kulsoom Rizvi

When Moldova became independent in 1991, the government faced an economic crisis and only funded programs deemed essential. This left scarce funding for early education, which led to many educational institutions falling into disrepair.

One of those schools was Kindergarten #183 in Buiucani District, roughly 20 km northwest of the Moldovan capital. It was one of the first educational institutions in the community, founded over two decades ago. At that time, construction materials were limited and the school’s staff did what they could with the little they had on hand – cutting and twisting pipes to create faucets, for example.

Since then, the school’s kitchen has been untouched. Cracked, moldy walls and constant flooding in the basement created unhealthy conditions, below even basic hygienic and sanitary standards. Making matters worse, the old ventilation system was extremely noisy and disrupted the children during their learning.

That’s all changed now.

Through Counterpart’s Small Reconstruction Project (SRP), the school underwent a $15,000 renovation to its kitchen facility, food storage facility and entrance hall, impacting more than 400 children, age 2-7, who attend the school each day.

“The completion of this infrastructure reconstruction project will lead to improved health outcomes and increased educational attainment for the children at this kindergarten for many years to come,” Rang Hee Kim, Director of Humanitarian Assistance at Counterpart said.

The opening of the newly renovated kitchen was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony where guests included William H. Moser, the U.S. Ambassador of Moldova; Ms. Tverdohleb, the Director of Education Department in the Municipality of Chisinau; and hundreds of smiling children and their families, dancing and singing. The ceremony captured the attention of the local media, with four TV channels covering the event live.

Ana Teaca, who is the Director of Kindergarten #183, said one of her dreams was to create a safer and healthier environment for the children and now feels that they have accomplished that goal with the support of Counterpart.

(L to R) Ana Teaca, Director of Kindergarten #183, Walter Kneib, Country Co-Director for Humanitarian Services, Latter-day Saints Charities; and William H. Moser, Ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Moldova at the ribbon ceremony for the opening of Kindergarten #183's newly renovated kitchen. © Elena Zandelova/Counterpart International

“The greatest gift in my life is these children who are coming every year to this school. Dedicating my work to them is my mission in life,” said Teaca, who has been the Director since 1990.

Renovations included repairing and repainting the walls and ceilings of all four rooms, assisted by volunteers, replacing and evening the floor titles, installing a modern ventilation and electrical system and completely renewing the pipes, faucets and sinks.

“This is not only a renovated kitchen, but an improvement in these children’s health and well-being which will benefit many generations to come,” Vladimir Cerbov, Country Program Director in Moldova said.

Children will now also have access to improved drinking water and properly prepared food, which will result in better health and educational outcomes. The completed project also impacted 10 kitchen staff who are now able to work in a safe environment.

The Latter-day Saints Charities (LDSC) donated a bread cutter and oven to the school and also brought in volunteers to help repaint all the walls. Counterpart has collaborated with LDSC since it began its activities in Moldova in 1998. It’s the partnerships, Cerbov said, that led to success of the project.

Counterpart International’s Humanitarian Assistance Small Reconstruction Projects (SRPs) are geared to address urgent humanitarian issues and improve the standard of living for communities. 

The projects are funded by the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe and Eurasia (EUR/ACE) and implemented by Counterpart’s Community and Humanitarian Assistance Program (CHAP).

Since 2006, Counterpart has completed 113 small reconstruction projects in former Soviet countries. Ten of these SRPs were completed in Moldova with reconstruction works valued at over $220,000. 

October 4th, 2013 | Tags: humanitarian assistance, Small Reconstruction Project, SRP Moldova | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

In Western Honduras, a slow path to a fast road

Potholes & corruption are good friends, civil society groups say

Accidents like this are frequent along the CA-4 highway in Western Honduras. Community organizations are joining together to fight the corruption that prevents the necessary repairs.       © David Snyder/ Counterpart International.

By Jennifer Brookland

The CA-4 highway in Western Honduras is an artery that links the industrial hub of San Pedro Sula with the country’s largest port, coffee roasters of Santa Rosa de Copan to distribution networks, and tourists with the Mayan ruins. It also connects Honduras with neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.

Instead of allowing visitors to flow in and exports out, however, the CA-4 highway is an eyesore, an obstacle and sometimes a deathtrap.

It is cracked, potholed and buckled. Every two or three months, crews are dispatched to patch up the road—but they never seem to really repair it.

Vice-Mayor of the municipality of San Nicolas Copan, Roberto Carlos Chinchilla Sorto, says this makes the CA-4 something else: a symbol of corruption. He suspects that some companies and public officials could be benefiting from illicit road maintenance deals.

From San Nicolas Copan to the capital of Tegucigalpa, people are seeing the problem.

“In the last six years, millions of lempiras have been invested in maintaining the highway,” says Dina Eguigure, Senior Program Officer at the nonprofit Counterpart International. “But if we do a tour of Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula to Copán, we will realize that the road is completely destroyed. So we do not know where the resources have gone.”

Advocating for transparency

Counterpart’s Impactos program is partnering with two civil society coalitions—the Asociacion de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales (ASONOG) and Espacio Regional de Occidente (EROC)—to mobilize residents, investigate road investments and work with the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Housing to resolve the CA-4 dilemma.

Developing these organizations’ capacity to advocate for better highways is one of the major contributions of the Impactos program, says Equiqure.

ASONOG and EROC are organizing and amplifying citizen voices calling for improved roads in Western Honduras, a region they say is historically neglected by politicians who find more votes elsewhere.

They have formed a citizen coalition of more than 20 organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, professional associations, community groups, banks and business, in three provinces of Western Honduras.

“Why? Because everyone feels harmed by the road,” Eguigure says.

Quality of life

José Ramón Ávila, the Executive Director of ASONOG, says: “It is of utmost importance for us in the west, which has 40 of the 80 poorest municipalities in Honduras. I think rebuilding roads and making them accessible will help improve the quality of life of an entire population—the nearly 30 percent of the national population that lives here.”

A smooth, safe road would allow residents to invest more in their families or businesses instead of on brakes, shock absorbers and suspension repairs. And proper, long-term road repairs would mean millions of lempiras now earmarked for upkeep could go to other sectors, such as health or education.

It might attract more tourists who would spend money on hotels and restaurants throughout the region. Fruit and lumber exports would be more cost-effective to truck out.

Noé Mercedes García, a community volunteer with EROC, says 45 percent of the country’s coffee comes from Western Honduras. “So why not have a road in top condition?” he asks.

EROC, a joint body that promotes public and governmental coordination to influence public policy, began by researching five years of appropriations assigned to road maintenance in western Honduras.  

More recently, it started working with authorities from the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Housing to investigate the use of funds assigned to the maintenance of CA-4.

“There are significant changes,” says Ávila. “First, we have put the construction of this road on the government agenda as a key regional development issue. Second, we have more sectors that are interested in this issue, and not just the problem of the road but what this means for the whole context.”

National transparency efforts

ASONOG, EROC and the notorious CA-4 highway are just a piece of the Impactos program.

With USAID support, Impactos is building up civil society organizations around the country to enable citizens, organizations and the government to increase transparency and accountability of public institutions.

“Our program works bottom-up and top-down,” says Gloria Manzanares, Counterpart’s Director in Honduras, referring to the approach of engaging both civil society and the government to address mutual challenges.

Progress may be slow, but it is underway, and it seems to be accelerating.

Click here to visit our full multimedia package on fighting corruption in Honduras >

April 20th, 2013 | Tags: | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

Counterpart “brightens the eyes” of Georgian deaf community

Jerry Oberndorfer from the U.S. State Department distributed rice, soup and school kits to the Union of Deaf of Georgia.

By Jennifer Brookland

Deaf Georgians in need may not speak loudly, but their words of thanks are heard.

Amiran Batatunashvili, President of the Union of Deaf of Georgia, welcomed Counterpart International and a delegation of other supporters and partners to his organization’s Tbilisi headquarters, and acknowledged them for their steadfast support.

“The people of our union cannot speak loud,” says Batatunashvili, “but you can see their appreciation for your support in their brightened eyes.”

Jerry Oberndorfer, the U.S. State Department’s Director of Humanitarian Programs, Lisa Lashinski, from the U.S. Embassy in Georgia, and Irakli Saralidze, Counterpart’s Country Program Director, were among the visitors.

They toured the organization’s community center, computer labs, classrooms (used for sign language instruction and dance classes) and offices used by fellow grantee hellenicare, which provides free medical examinations and pharmaceuticals.

Oberndorfer, Lashinski and Saralidze also distributed rice, soup and school kits. The items were donated by Counterpart and two other Department of State grantees, ACTS Georgia and the United Methodist Committee On Relief.

The Union of Deaf of Georgia serves more than 2,700 deaf, invalid, orphaned, sick, physically disabled and elderly people as well as large, low-income families in Tbilisi and regions of Georgia.

Most struggle with unemployment or rely on low-income jobs or meager pensions. They are indeed the “neediest beneficiaries,” says Batatunashvili.

The support Counterpart provides helps the Union distribute clothing and food, giving families the opportunity to spend money on other needs, such as medical services.

The local organization has been supporting the country’s deaf community since 2002, facilitating workshops focused on education and community-building, sponsoring health clinics, and distributing essential humanitarian aid like food and warm clothing. It has been receiving humanitarian assistance commodities from Counterpart and distributing them to beneficiaries throughout Georgia since 2002.

The assistance was made possible through Counterpart’s Community and Humanitarian Program (CHAP), which is funded by the U.S. Department of State and has operated in Georgia for nearly two decades. The program distributes food, shelter items, clothing, furniture, and medical equipment to vulnerable populations throughout the country.

April 2nd, 2013 | Tags: Georgia, Community and Humanitarian Program, CHAP, United States Department of State, disabled, Union of Deaf of Georgia, Jerry Obendorfer, humanitarian relief, humanitarian commodities | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

National media coverage brings acclaim to Kazakh youth organization

After a grant allowed the Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan to increase its publicity and online presence, the media took more notice of its efforts to prepare young people as leaders and volunteers.

By Jennifer Brookland

Political stories tend to dominate the daily papers and television headlines in Kazakhstan, leaving news about youth movements or civil society to take a backseat at best.

In this challenging media environment, a civil society organization called Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan (MISK) had a doubly hard time getting attention as it worked to raise public awareness of the problems—and possibilities—facing young people.

Though unemployment, social problems and low-quality education weigh on the nation’s young people, MISK envisions a world where they are empowered to address these challenges through civic engagement and volunteerism.

Its main projects include a “Civic education school” where accomplished experts deliver classes that educate youth on democracy, human rights, social responsibility and the rule of law, and an annual conference called “ZhasCamp” that convenes 300 youth activists to discuss and plan social initiatives and learn to manage them.

Young people are seeing the benefits from these camps.

“Being a volunteer gives me a confidence in myself and those invaluable starting opportunities which lead to conscious activity,” says Dmitriy Shubin, who participated in civic education school. “MISK is not just a non-governmental organization, it is our life.”

But limited media attention was holding the organization back from becoming more influential, attracting more sponsors and partners and gaining higher-level support from Kazakh authorities.

Setting up for success

A public outreach grant won under Counterpart International’s Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program allowed the organization to change that.

The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, competitively awarded $2,000 grants to MISK and either other partner civil society organizations for use in public outreach.

Institutional strengthening grants support the formal development of partner organizations, helping them acquire skills in strategic planning, financial sustainability, new media and volunteer management, says Counterpart’s Country Director Marat Aitmagambetov.

“We believe this would eventually result in the overall management progress of the partnering organizations, help them to become more effective and better advocate their mission to both beneficiaries and the Government,” he says.

Making MISK “exist”

MISK used its grant money to publish flyers and brochures about the organization’s work, as well as producing a short video about its mission. It shared the 90-second video entitled “Youth” on social media, and widely disseminated it via listserve to youth-focused NGOs, students and mass media.

Getting both traditional and new media interested in the organization’s work was crucial for MISK.

“It is a time when you realize that if you or your organization is not present in media, and social media, it may be seen as if the organization does not exist at all,” says Irina Mednikova, Director of MISK.

This time, the media paid attention.

Reporters from Kazakhstan’s only 24-hour television news channel, 24.kz, saw “Youth” on YouTube a few weeks after its release, and took a closer look at the organization.

Impressed with the video, and with MISK’s dynamic online content and social media presence, 24.kz produced a 25-minute news report about the organization in both Kazakh and Russian.

In turn, leading national TV agency “Khabar” used a clip from that broadcast in their news program as well.

More visibility, more results

The increased national media coverage generated measurable interest in civil education school and ZhasCamp.

The number of volunteers working with MISK soared—from 15 to 41 in its main office in Almaty. The organization was able to hire three additional staff members and coordinators.

New staff members are currently being recruited for branches in other places, after young people posted online inquiring about opportunities to work with MISK in their hometowns.

Focus groups are reporting a positive image of the organization, and invitations to events and meetings are mounting, especially as MISK strengthens its relations with youth organizations in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Poland.

Its social media following has swelled from 250 to 1,000 followers on the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

The combination of grant money and media coverage is allowing MISK to interact with its most important audience—the young people it is making more visible in Kazakhstan’s public life.

Additional reporting contributed by Fariza Mukanova, Kazakhstan Civil Society Strengthening Program Coordinator.

January 31st, 2013 | Tags: Kazakhstan, media, public outreach, youth, Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan | Category: Impact Stories | Leave a comment

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