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!

Ioanna Demosthenous: “We want the same standards for NGOs in Cyprus that they have in Europe”

A group of dedicated civil society activists have been working passionately and quietly for the last seven years to push a reform on NGO Law in Cyprus. This week, we speak to the initiative’s Ioanna Demosthenous to find out more.

Hi Ioanna, you are the Project Officer of the “Cyprus NGO Initiative on Law Reform” project. Can you tell us about your interests and how you got involved with this work?

Ioanna DemosthenousI have a law background. I did my year long traineeship at the Law Office of the Republic of Cyprus in order to become a lawyer, and then I worked as a trainee at the European Commission and the Embassy of the Republic of Cyprus in Athens.

I am passionate about and have worked on youth empowerment in Cyprus and abroad. Recently, with a group of friends, we established Cyprus Youth DiplomaCY, an informal group (soon to be registered) aiming to give the youth of Cyprus the floor for expressing their opinions regarding diplomacy, politics and international relations.

What is the aim of the NGO Initiative?

We want to achieve the same standards for NGOs in Cyprus as those in Europe and the international arena.

When did the initiative come together?

We partnered with the European Center for Not-For-Profit Law in 2007 for a study on the framework behind civil society in Cyprus and its shortcomings. We’ve been hard at work ever since.

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What’s really fascinating about the NGO initiative is that it is made up of all volunteers, right?

Exactly. The civil society representatives that make up the NGO initiative have been putting in all this work on a voluntary basis for 7 years now. I am the only paid staff who works on a regular basis to support the process.

I think this is part of the reason for our success: the passion of our members, and the team work without the expectation of any personal benefit – except the goal of empowering the work of civil society in Cyprus.

What is your proudest accomplishment with this project?

Interesting question. I think my proudest accomplishment is that the NGO Initiative is closely cooperating with the departments of the Ministries of Interior and Finance, as well as with the General Attorney office and the Commissioner on Volunteerism and NGOs.

Was that a hard relationship to build?

In the beginning I can definitely say that there was a hesitation from the Ministries to cooperate with us. That comes from the general mentality of Cypriots who don’t really know what Civil Society is and how it works. But we remained persistent, and the initiative eventually managed to prove their mission.

istoselida 1I am really proud that our initiative is considered a relevant and important stakeholder in this process. Even when we may not agree on every single issue, we know that at least we have the opportunity to raise the issues that matter to us and discuss them from various angles.

How can interested people get involved with the NGO Initiative?

NGO Initiative is supported by a lot of Civil Society Organizations, including associations, foundations and not-for-profit businesses in Cyprus.

If representatives of NGOs in Cyprus agree with and support our work, they should feel free to send me a message at ngo.initiative.cyprus@gmail.com so we can add them to the list of our supporters. We would include their logo on our website and they can continue to regularly receive updates from us regarding the status of the law.

Currently we also have the draft of a Policy Paper which is open for public consultation and we are seeking input from Civil Society representatives. I recommend those interested to follow us via our website and our Facebook page.

Good things are happening in Famagusta

We continue to cover inspiring initiatives from across the island. This week, Maria Zeniou talks about her experience at the Green Streets action, organized recently in Famagusta.

green streets 1As the end of the year approached, things seemed to be slowing down with the peace process. The same could not be said for Famagustians. Indeed, it has been a pleasure for me to experience first hand the various activities organized in December by the people of Famagusta Walled City and Deryneia to work together for the future of their region.

Of the number of activities under RENEWAL that recently took place, I wanted to share with you one of the first and the most memimage002orable for me. It was one of the notoriously rare bad weather days (that Cyprus doesn’t see much of) where the sky was pouring, the streets were flooded and you could barely walk outside, let alone do outdoor activities. Well, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Not even the rain stopped them: Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots Famagustians, soaking from head to toe, planting trees around the walls of Famagusta. Two hours under the rain, and they managed to plant around 900 trees!

Perhaps the ‘Green Streets’ event is not what you would call a game-changer. But it shows that even under difficult circumstances, given the right opportunity, the people of Famagusta have the will to work for change. The RENEWAL project, currently underway in the region of Famagusta, is working to create exactly this kind of opportunity. After all, only if Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriot Famagustians work together can the social and economic change they envision for their region finally come.

green streets 2image001image004Editor’s Note: You can follow the RENEWAL project and its activities via their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/renewal2014

David Officer: “Our courses have been a real act of cooperation between Cypriots”

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Quiet and revolutionary actions are taking place in the Buffer Zone and online every day. One of these is the State, Civil Society and Citizenship course, offered in the Buffer Zone and soon to be offered online by David and his team. This week, we talk to David to find out more about their initiative.

Hi David! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in England and spent my working life in three main locations – London, Northern Ireland and Cyprus. I have worked as an academic, researcher, community worker and NGO activist.

You must have some very interesting insights that have led you to your current position in Cyprus.

Perhaps the most important and formative experience for me was leaving school at 17 and leaving England to work for a community education project in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This was during a particularly violent phase of the “Troubles” as the conflict there was euphemistically called. I gained the kind of education there you couldn’t get in a college or university.

That time gave me a very human insight into the factors which can drive some people to take up arms and prosecute a war against others, but also how even in the midst of conflict, life goes on. People continue to try and live as peaceful a life as possible. In many ways these early experiences set me on a course to try and understand the nature of inter-ethnic or inter-national conflict and how the neccessary difference between individuals and groups might be managed without lethal outcomes.

david 7You are part of the team behind offering a Civic Participation Course for NGO activists. How did the idea come about?

The initiative for this course arose out of a partnership established by three very different organisations responding to a call for proposals made by UNDP in Cyprus during the summer of 2014. The NGO Support Centre is based in Nicosia and largely serves the Greek Cypriot community. SeeD is a bi-communal organisation that is mainly concerned with attempts to overcome the deep-seated divisions evident on the island whilst the University of Nicosia is an academic institution, based south of the partition line but working with an increasingly international student cohort.

david 5What are you trying to accomplish with this project?

We know from our experience in Cyprus that there is a need to encourage a more creative engagement with factors which shape our daily lives. Decision-making on this island tends to reside with an elite, largely organised around established political parties. Our interest is to promote both the skills and knowledge for a much wider circle of people to make a difference within their own communities, set their own objectives and realise outcomes which may be neglected by those in positions of power.

Let’s remember also that the conflict on the island has become locked into a stalemate for at least 40 years. We need to be looking at people outside the established power structures who may have innovative ways of addressing this stalemate and moving the situation forward. This is what we wish to encourage.

What do you like most about the Civic Participation Course? 

What is innovative about this project is how we have combined the academic credibility of university modules with a careful attention to the needs of NGOs and community activists. We wanted to try and stimulate a dialogue between those who have considerable academic knowledge related to the role of civil society and the state with course participants who bring with them real practical knowledge about how these issues shape everyday lives. And it’s working!

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There has been a lot of interest from both communities in the courses offered within the Buffer Zone.

What is your proudest accomplishment with the Course?

Well, we are still at an early stage. But I am really pleased that we have already delivered an initial face-to-face course in the center of the Buffer Zone. We have had a mixed cohort of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot teachers and students. I think it’s been a quiet and undemonstrative act of real cooperation between all who were involved.

How can interested people get engage with the Course?

We will actually be offering an online version of the course soon! It will be University accredited. We would encourage anyone interested in the course or the project more generally to get in touch with us through our Facebook and Twitter. Please don’t hesitate to connect with us.

Editor’s Note: You can click here to see photos from the course.

Maria Ioannou on SCORE: “We’re working to make a complex tool easy to use”

As we continue to support a number of initiatives that work towards engaging more people in the peace process, we want to introduce you an innovative tool in progress: SCORE, a tool to measure the closeness between communities in Cyprus. This week, we are talking to Maria Ioannou to find more about herself, her team and personal efforts at SCORE.

MIoannouHi Maria, thanks for talking to us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a social psychologist. I got my DPhil in Social Psychology a year ago in the UK. Since then I have relocated back in Cyprus. Academically I’m interested in intergroup contact, prejudice reduction, and conflict resolution; personally I’m also interested in more clinical aspects of psychology, as well as a in exploring new places both within and outside Cyprus, and meeting people from all walks of life.

How did you get involved with SCORE? Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

imageI was introduced to SCORE when I was hired as a senior researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD). I am basically the person behind the data analysis for SCORE.

What is SCORE attempting to do?

SCORE is basically a tool to measure Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (hence the acronym).

Through SCORE, we are hoping to be able to provide information how warm or cold relations are between various groups. We also aim to identify what kind of factors are affecting people’s willingness for a political compromise.

What excites you most about SCORE? 

In Cyprus, SeeD is about to launch an outreach campaign to communicate SCORE’s results to a number of important actors but also to the general public. I think that it is the latter that excites me the most about SCORE; that its findings can be shared and discussed with the general public.

Maria works with the SeeD team. The SeeD offices are located at the Home 4 Cooperation in the Buffer Zone.

What are some of the findings you can share with us today?

One of our key findings is that young people feel left out from decision-making. And when people feel left out, guess what happens? They become less willing for a political compromise with the other community.

Another interesting finding for me is that women particularly in the Greek Cypriot community are particularly resistant to coexistence and to a political compromise. Results such as this are suggesting that there are certain segments of the population that are most vulnerable so to speak. It is my opinion that SCORE results should be communicated primarily to these groups, not least to understand the findings but also to provide the floor to these groups to speak up and to discuss.

What is your proudest accomplishment with SCORE?

People who are more acquainted with SCORE talk about a very complex tool whose usefulness they can see but whose essence they can’t quite grasp. When I entered the SCORE team I realized myself that SCORE was indeed a complex tool and that the analysis of SCORE data was quite a handful. After some intense work with the data, I can say we are now at a place to present key findings which are straightforward, thought-provoking, and right in the heart of the peace process.

We are also excited to be rolling out this tool in Bosnia and Nepal. The lessons we are learning through using this tool in Cyprus will be applicable in those countries. We have already collected data in Bosnia in 2014. Data collection in Nepal will take place in 2015.

How can interested people get involved in/engage with/explore SCORE?

There is going to be a number of events taking place in the next few months in Cyprus, to present and generate discussion on the findings. One event will be bi-communal and the other four mono-communal (two on each side of the divide). People who don’t attend these events (or even those who do) should keep an eye on media. SCORE will also have its own Facebook and Twitter account soon.

Finally, we are working to establish a platform through which everyone can interact with SCORE and its findings (SCORE Bosnia 2014, SCORE Cyprus 2013, and SCORE Cyprus 2014). We want it to be easy to consume and very accessible, so our work is about how best to visualize the data.

We also hope to generate lots of discussion, so we are creating a platform where users can leave comments and provide input into the work.

For more information on SCORE, you can check out the Facebook page for Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD).

What’s the latest on the NGO Policy in Cyprus?

This week, Maria Tsiarta from the UNDP ACT office catches us up to speed with the latest developments from the NGO Law Initiative, who have been working hard to update the law related to civil society in Cyprus. The efforts of the NGO Law Initiative are supported by UNDP ACT.

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Commissioner Yiannakis talks about the NGO Initiative.

On Tuesday, the 9th of December, I participated in an event organized by the NGO Initiative. Present at the event was Jeremy McBride, the expert of INGO Conference of the Council of Europe whom the Initiative has been cooperating with for the past year. He presented the outline of a policy paper on how Cypriot civil society can be strengthened. Next, Yiannis Yiannakis, the Commissioner for Volunteerism and NGOs, commended the efforts of the NGO Initiative, stressing that the policy paper currently being drafted will lay the foundation for a stronger cooperation between the civil service and civil society. As he explained that ‘the government acknowledges and supports civil society in Cyprus,’ I had a moment to reflect on how far the Initiative has come in their work.

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In discussion for a new policy with NGOs, October 2014.

Where we are now is indeed the result of tireless efforts put forth by the NGO Initiative since 2007. They have been working together non-stop to advocate for the modernization of the legal framework in the Republic of Cyprus. With the support of the Commissioner, the government has put forward several drafts of the law to replace the 70’s law on Associations, Clubs and Foundations and a new law that will grant Public Benefit status to organizations, replacing the Charities law. Through consultation and cooperation between the government and the NGO Initiative that is supported by the Council of Europe and European Center for non-for-profit law (ECNL), we’re now closer than ever to a legal and regulatory framework that corresponds to the current needs of Cypriot civil society.

This year, the long process has led to the common decision by the Commissioner and the NGO Initiative to develop a comprehensive strategy and vision on how civil society and the government can work together to create an enabling environment for civil society in the island. The policy paper that will be presented in the spring of 2015 will be a product of joint work and consultation that has started back in September 2014, taking on board the opinions and suggestions of civil society organizations, parliamentarians and government officials.

The challenge of the coming months that all parties are committed to is realizing the ideas that will derive from this paper, in their continued efforts to work together. The new laws will be the capstone to this effort.

You can follow the latest updates of the NGO Initiative via their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/ngo.initiative.cyprus.

Innovation: How is UNDP in Cyprus building up?

Here at UNDP ACT, we decided to start a blog to create a space in which we can reflect on some of the work we are doing in Cyprus. This week, Christopher Louise, Programme Manager of the UNDP-Action for Cooperation and Trust, shares with us some of his thoughts on the current work and future road map for UNDP ACT.

Why has UNDP-ACT decided to build up?

Earlier this year, Nilgun Arif, from my office, was lucky enough to attend the inaugural iteration of Build Peace at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, USA. She spent two full days among 250 peacebuilders, activists, social innovators, and academics discussing how technology can be used to build peace in the 21st century. Her experience left a profound impression, and on her return we set about harnessing this energy. UNDP-ACT had just launched its Crossroads for Civic Engagement programme, which seeks to connect Cypriot peace innovation knowledge with Arab and European peace builders. Convinced that Cyprus’ geographical position at the crossroads between the Arab and European regions would offer something special, we soon secured an agreement to host Build Peace 2015 on the island.

That’s right, this April we’ll be sitting together, 250-strong, in the world’s last divided capital, where UNDP-ACT and Build Up will welcome the world of peace technologists and practitioners to Nicosia to discuss how the use of technology can build alternative infrastructures for peace.

Where Build Peace 2014 explored how technology can enhance the impact of a broad range of peacebuilding, social cohesion, and peace advocacy initiatives; this year we will ask the ‘so what?’ question.

Participants look at the big issue: how do these technology tools make a difference to the rarefied table of the political elites which negotiate a peace deal. Build Up’s Jen Welch put it like this in her recent blog post:

Build Peace 2015 will begin to examine issues of ‘depth’ – how the use of technology is resulting in the creation of alternative infrastructures for peace.

In Cyprus, I hope to draw inspiration from the many creative thinkers and practitioners who have been applying this question to the peace negotiations. I am convinced that innovation can bring grounded legitimacy to the island’s search for a political settlement, and other peace processes can learn from our experiences. This is why I am eager to showcase three initiatives in particular, which I believe sets Cyprus apart in its innovative peacebuilding efforts:

1) Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Index (SCORE)

This new peace measurement tool, first deployed in 2013 and repeated in 2014, pinpoints the societal connections, which if leveraged correctly, carry the most likely positive outcomes, while also identifying areas where the impact of project and policy interventions will be less significant.

The innovation of SCORE not only provides new ways of understanding conflict which push towards predictive outcomes, but it can act as a diagnostic tool to support innovations in bringing legitimacy to the peace negotiations. This includes the more traditional instrument of…good, old-fashioned dialogue!

Picture 2_Eide and CDF2) Open Dialogue Forum

For the past 12 months, we at UNDP-ACT have been working to nurture an open space for politicians, business leaders, heads of trade unions and NGOs to design a forum, which can act as a feedback loop to the formal negotiations and provide recommendations to the leaders. This is a first in Cyprus, and whereas today the formal peace talks have stalled, the Cyprus Dialogue Forum provides an effective venue where politicians and other civic actors from both communities meet to continue the discourse on the island’s future.

3) Mahallae

Picture 1_MahallaeUNDP-ACT’s flagship peace innovation platform, Mahallae has been using the power of technology to democratize the playing field for civic participation in reconciliation and conflict resolution. This “digital neighbourhood” for civic engagement was developed by Cypriot civil society and innovators from the Euro-Mediterranean region, directly designed to effect social change using the smart technologies in our daily lives.

Spinning the axle

In Cyprus we have found that innovation which has a strong (but not exclusive) focus on technology can be the axle grease that lubricates the values required to legitimise the peacemaking project. As Build Peace organizer Helena Puig Larrauri describes it: “this is “innovating from the ground up”, speaking directly to the “empowerment, behavioural change and impact” features which characterise tech for peace approaches.

The strategic connections between SCORE, the Cyprus Dialogue Forum and the Mahallae platform do well to set the scene for Build Peace 2015. Together these innovations, underpinned by the human courage to make change happen in the face of daunting odds, can bring legitimacy to a peace process struggling to gain momentum. It is this optimism that I’ve seen time and time again on this island, that we will be bringing as well.

I hope Build Peace 2015 looks beyond questions of empowerment and behavioural change, and participants set their eyes firmly on the question of bringing grounded legitimacy to peacemaking – as we have seen in Cyprus this is where the demand for innovation truly resides.


By Christopher Louise, Programme Manager, UNDP-Action for Cooperation and Trust, Cyprus, December 2014