Chiara Butti of NCVO Speaks with CIVICUS about the Building Bridges Project in North Africa

Chiara ButtiChiara Butti joined the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in November 2012 and currently coordinates the Building Bridges project in North Africa. After graduating from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies with a Master's degree in 2009 she moved to Beirut, Lebanon where she lived until October 2012. She has considerable experience working on development projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, including studying the political society of the Middle East, gender, sustainable development and good governance of the region.

What does the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) hope to achieve through the Building Bridges project?

The Building Bridges project is a great opportunity for NCVO to share best practice and knowledge on civil society and its structure, its relations with government and the best ways to participate in the decision making process. We believe, thanks to our decades long experience in representing civil society and its voice in the UK, that we can bring our expertise to a region where civil society has been repressed by harsh dictatorship.

In line with our main visions and mission we hope to promote the emergence of strong civil society coalitions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. We believe in the importance of civil society to get together at time of challenges and change.

On the other hand our involvement in the region is also a learning experience for us. It is certainly inspiring to see and feel the enthusiasm and hunger to participate from people that suffered lack of freedoms and rights. In the UK, often, participation and rights are taken for granted and not exercised, especially by youth. There is a lot to learn on that level and the exchange is clearly two-way. We hope our experience with the Building Bridges project can inspire civil society in the UK as well.

Why is a project like Building Bridges important and relevant for North Africa right now?

NCVO launched the Building Bridges project following the Arab Spring to share our experience in supporting civil society with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia where people came together to overcome decades of dictatorship. Civil society can now play a crucial role in the reconstruction process and in establishing an open and equitable future.

Indeed, decades of harsh dictatorship, lack of freedom of expression and associations reduced the possibility for civil society to have a crucial role in the decision making process, all while enhancing rivalries and division.

Now that the environment where civil society operates in the three countries has changed, it is crucial to support civil society organisations in developing the different skills and capacity needed to become a crucial actor in the reconstruction of their country. It is indeed a unique time for the region and we need to make sure that this opportunity is not missed. If civil society gets together it could become a crucial interlocutor of the new government and will ensure that the conflicts and the division of the past will not be repeated.

What successes and challenges have you encountered so far?

It is always challenging to work in unstable countries, in terms of security issues, logistics preparation and peoples' perceptions of foreign organisational support.

However, I believe we managed to overcome those challenges and that the project has been really successful thus far. My knowledge of previous experience in the region has helped me to foresee, avoid or overcome some of these potential risks and challenges. In addition we have great relations with project partners and other main UK stakeholders based in the region that support us in organising consultations in each of the countries.

The main success was expressed by the enthusiasm shown by civil society organisations towards this project, which has been recognised as very needed and helpful. As a foreign NGO working in post-colonial contexts there is always the risk of being perceived as imposing our rules and models upon the local civil society. However, our approach of meeting civil society organisations to assess their needs and listen to their realities on the ground and hearing their opinions and suggestions on the ways we could support them before delivering capacity building, has been strongly appreciated and perceived by local civil society as a very genuine and transparent, participative process.

Indeed a key for our success has been our partnership and close, positive relations with regional and global organisations that brought a crucial added value to the success of the project.

Why is NCVO partnering with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) on this project?

NCVO and in particular its European Union (EU) and international team has worked with CIVICUS on various projects in the past. NCVO is the chairing member of CIVICUS' Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA). We believe in the same principals of the group and of the overall work CIVICUS does to support citizen participation and national civil society coalitions worldwide. In addition CIVICUS has a broad expertise in working globally with a wide network of experts that can promote and support our work.

ANND is a crucial partner in the delivery of events in the Region. It has a strong experience in networking with Arab countries and other very dynamic partners in the region. ANND is deeply rooted in the region and has great knowledge of its challenges and opportunities. It has been working with different donors and on different aspects of development in the Arab countries, demonstrating strong and independent analytical thinking and believes in the power of national and regional coalitions as we do. Through the first phase of the project ANND proved to be a crucial asset, bringing deep in-field expertise as well as credibility and support to the project.

I really enjoy working at NCVO, coordinating such an important project with these two valuable partners.

What does the future hold for NCVO's civil society strengthening work in other regions?

The EU and the international team are working now in the Arab region with the Building Bridges project but we strongly believe that the same kind of support is needed in many other different countries and regions. This project will give us the opportunity to assess the needs, develop tailored material and deliver training with the final objective of promoting the emergence of national associations. Indeed, if proven to be successful we believe that it could be replicated in different regions. This year we had requests and visits from different umbrella bodies around the world that asked about us and the way that we work. The UK is still seen as one of the best models in terms of civil society/government relations and the NCVO is a strong representative of civil society; we certainly hope that in the future we could share our knowledge and expertise with other countries and regions, as we would be glad to bring our support, connect civil society world-wide and to learn from others experiences like we are doing now with the Building Bridges based in North Africa.

Learn more about the Building Bridges project, read the interview with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND).



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