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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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.

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.