Making change possible: Paving the way for civil society in Cyprus

by Marina Vasilara

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NGOs contribute on a volunteer basis to the NGO Law Initiative in order to push for a reform.

It’s difficult to talk of civil society in Cyprus if you have not lived it.

But if you’re working for an NGO in Cyprus, you know: the road is full of stumbling blocks.

February 26th was different: a landmark day for us. That day, the new draft legislation on associations and foundations went to the parliament to be discussed and finally be voted into law. The NGO Law Initiative has been working for this since 2007.

Over the last decades, the process of registration for anyone wishing to establish their NGO has been seeded with delays, problems, rejections. Often, Cyprus is anything but “enabling” for an organisation wishing to obtain a legal personality. Such an atmosphere creates very frustrating experiences, ones that do not fit international or European standards of Freedom of Association.

Imagine wanting to fight for an important cause in your society. You start your NGO, only to find out you have no support from state structures. What’s worse is that when you try to explain, nobody understands what you’re going through.

This is why seeing the draft law finally being given to Parliament for the final stages of approval has been such a relief. Marina blog 4 Working with the Initiative

As a member of the NGO Initiative for a number of years now, I have been extremely lucky to work with a motivated team that is looking into the future to build an empowering environment for NGOs.

We’ve been working very closely with UNDP-ACT, the Council of Europe, the European Center of Not-For-Profit Law and tens of NGOs along with the Commissioner for Volunteerism and NGOs who are supporting the NGO Law Initiative. We are also grateful to Parliamentarians who, being part themselves in civil society organisations, understand the value of reviewing and renewing the legal basis for NGOs’ functioning.

It has never been an easy ride for civil society in Cyprus. We are trying to find ways to make the ride a bit easier, so as not to burden already overburdened CSOs with extra bureaucracy. And I think we will have made a difference once this process of adopting the new draft laws is completed.

Of course, this is a long-term process and we understand that it will take place gradually. Still, it needs a plan of action. So in addition to the drafting of the two new legal pieces, we have committed ourselves together with Mr. Jeremy McBride, who represents the Council of Europe and the Commissioner of Volunteerism and NGOs, to the drafting of a Policy Paper on the future of Civil Society in Cyprus. The paper summarises the action steps that we need to work on to achieve our goals. Marina blog 1 The road ahead: Be a Part of the Change

Naturally, our work is far from finished. We are still waiting for an equally important draft law: the draft Public Benefit Status Law. This is a new legislation that is giving NGOs an added status together with a set of more strict transparency conditions and also benefits. Having this status will help many NGOs obtain under transparent and not politically motivated procedures, a status that will help their sustainability and work into the future.

We have seen in many ways over the last 3 years the withdrawal of citizens from the political process and their dismay with political parties. This may be a chance for civil society to prove that partisan politics is not everything there is to a democracy. Let’s remember together that active citizenship, as opposed to apathy, should be the rule and not the exception.

If you want to support our work, please go to our website. There you can check out the draft Policy Paper on the Future of Civil Society in Cyprus which is open to your comments by April 17th 2015. Your opinion is very important to us!

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Another brick (in the virtual wall): Reflections from an Alternative Education Experiment

by Haris Shekeris

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Recently, we launched a new online course for civil society activists and peace practitioners.

The online course is the continuation of a face-to-face course we delivered for the first time last semester in the Buffer Zone, when twenty-nine participants from across the island joined us.

The high interest in the course was unexpected and inspired us to go ahead with a new curriculum, this time in a virtual space. We hoped this would bring even more of the unusual suspects, who may be geographically or otherwise challenged to attend courses in a physical space.

We thought: Why not harness the power of technology to bring knowledge to the people, instead of always expecting them to come to us?

If our previous course was a success – with participating students from not only Cyprus, but also Palestine, Italy, Germany and Ukraine – offering it online has been nothing short of a miracle: 140 participants, hailing from as far as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya and Greece.

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But of course, offering a course online is not as simple as renting out a virtual space.

We have had to overcome several technical and practical difficulties to make the most out of this new format.

We’ve created a wealth of audio-visual lecture material, produced in collaboration with MediaZone. These are mostly 20-minute lectures accompanied by audio-visual interviews (some of them produced by the Cyprus Community Media Centre) and animated material.

We’ve designed the content of the course to stimulate dialogue on various aspects of the concept of citizenship.

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Our lectures include extensive interview material on a wide range of topics, such as the civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS and its impact on statehood in the region, as well interviews on the topics of legitimacy and legitimation crisis and a case study on Cyprus and the impact of the economic measures prescribed by the so-called Troika of the ECB, the European Commission and the IMF.

And the result? So far, it’s looking good – we are delivering lectures to a highly engaged audience. It’s great to see there are discussions taking place both in the lecture forum and in the Facebook group created for the course.

If you’re interested in our work, but missed out on the chance to register for the course, do check our project’s website (Resources for Democracy). We’ve started uploading a number of resources – and we’ll follow that up soon with interviews and discussions, both in audio and audio-visual form, with academics and civil society activists on the topics of discussion. Also, there’s a second online course coming up in May!

After all, the material, which is freely accessible to everybody, is intended to enable you – the reader – to take informed steps into making the most out of your rights as a citizen, so why not join us and demand more of it from their powers that be?