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.

online course 1 Umut

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?

What can innovation do for Famagusta?

This week, Lina from the Renewal team shares with us how a team of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots from the Famagusta region have joined forces with the innovation platform Mahallae to crowdsource creative solutions from a community in need.
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I have been working with the Renewal team since September 2014. We work closely with citizens and municipalities in the greater Famagusta region to address specific problems the region is facing.
Our efforts are focused on the walled city of Famagusta as well as the three communities of Deryneia, Frenaros and Vrysoules. Although quite diverse within itself, this region is nonetheless subject to a great deal of shared problems, among which is a very difficult economic situation.
The greater Famagusta region suffers from the highest unemployment rate among yimage (3)outh in the whole of Cyprus. The unemployment here has reached 40%. As you can imagine, the side-effects of this level of unemployment are devastating psychologically, economically, socially. We have a lot of young people leaving their homes in search for opportunities in other cities over the island or abroad. As we took a look at this grim picture, we wondered what we could do as the Renewal team that has never been done before. We began by offering a series of seminars on entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Cyprus Enterprise Link (CEL). This allowed us to build capacity and create an extended network of young people who were meeting frequently to learn together.
But we wanted to go beyond merely offering skills – we wanted to offer the Famagustian youth a chance to put their newfound skills to use.
This is how our collaboration with Mahallae was born, to launch what we are calling the Famagusta Region Challenge. Using the Mahallae platform, we are taking an in10922361_600964856717103_3025988399328892618_onovative approach to supporting positive economic and social development in the region. We are asking young people to submit their ideas; the winners will receive the funding and support from our team to kickstart their efforts. We are giving Cypriots a chance to put their ideas and talents together in order to create a service or product that benefits the communities on the island.
I feel like what really makes this project special is the fact that it has been directly designed based on the needs of the people in the area. As the Renewal team, we are constantly in dialogue with the citizens of the region. The Mahallae Challenges is our response to the ideas and experiences you shared with us on how you can spark change in this region. We are open to everyone’s suggestions, so please don’t hesitate to join us on this journey. And don’t forget to visit Mahallae’s page and read all about our Famagusta challenge. We want to work with you and make you innovative ideas come true!

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

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