Published on Arab Voices

Arab voices loud and clear

It’s so uplifting to walk into a room that’s crackling with energy. I was a little late for the opening session in Rabat today for a workshop focused on Supporting Citizen-State Engagement in the Arab World. That’s ok, I thought, forgiving myself a little too easily, it’ll take a bit of time to warm up.

How wrong I was: some 90 people in the room from seven different countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Tunisian, Palestinian and Yemeni teams. The debate was whipping around with everyone pitching in about whether this workshop should be open and transparent – thus twitterable etc. Or should there be some care about confidentiality?

Image“It’s a non-question,” offered one participant (and I love how in Arabic things always sound a little more steamed up, it’s such an emphatic language).  “If we’re talking about social accountability the very principle of the idea is against confidentiality,” he said. Someone else, equally emphatic: “People who talk openly shouldn’t fear and people who fear shouldn’t talk.” There was some worry about when “the media” would arrive as though a newspaper made something more public than a tweet. “We are the media,” countered another voice. “What we are doing is important for our countries so let’s be open.”

Result: #ANSA established on Twitter during the coffee break, while I met two young women from Yemeni human rights organizations who’s faces beamed with excitement about the hubbub and events back home.

So how do you do four days of “State-Citizen Engagement” and what is social accountability in all this? The 90 people at this workshop are civil society representatives and some private sector and government all engaged in various efforts in their respective countries to eke out a space for citizen voice, one of the very core things that the various revolutions, sudden or creeping, bloody or gentler, have been about. Thus the challenge to redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state, the very social compact.

And the concept of social accountability, which sounds like soc-sci jargon, is nothing less than the flow of information and responsibility between citizen and state. Who is accountable and what for? But how do you do this? Especially after decades of autocracies, dictatorships, military rulers and all other manner of recently challenged ruling styles around here.

The 90 participants are all part of an emerging group, the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability – Arab World, ANSA, who started meeting with World Bank support “before the revolution” (now common shorthand in MENA for contextualizing things). With the Arab Spring, ANSA’s time had surely arrived, networking switched into high gear and culminates in the official launch of ANSA here this week.

“Our challenge is to help our colleagues really get the concept of social accountability so they can explain it to their grandmother, no problem,” said Amr Lashin, of CARE Egypt, which has been key in supporting the birth of the network.

As I write, the post-lunch conference room (usually a low-energy moment at events such as these as people drift off) is loud with clamorous groups in roundtable conversations. If this is MENA citizen voice, it’s insistent, it will be heard. Tune in, we’ll have more, and share your thoughts too. Are your civil society representatives working for you?


Dale Lautenbach

Communications Advisor

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