For many years, civil society in Uganda has been criticized for lack of social and political imagination. It has been mentioned severally that civil society is known only for the workshops we hold and the per diems we offer to participants. As a result, several civil society organizations have become prisoners of this stereotype. We all seem to be stuck in the notion that we can improve the living conditions of ordinary Ugandans through ‘technical’ interventions like capacity building, sensitization and a host of other jargon laden development interventions.
These frameworks are not only confined to civil society in Uganda, but also are a global phenomenon. A case in point are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were founded on the principle that - by setting global development goals the world will follow and eliminate the targeted problems by achieving the targets in these goals. So we all go out in all corners of the world with these noble goals prescribed to the poor and disadvantaged. We descend on communities as multilateral and bilateral donors – who open and close our aid taps as and when we wish; as NGO workers who projectize everyday life; as consultants, we get people to tell us what they want to know and then we tell them what they know. Like well-intentioned amateurs we descend on rural everyday life to provide ‘useful’ advice, money, education and training, and sometimes also apply pressure on rogue regimes in an attempt to make poor communities a little richer and the world a little better to live in.
But this same development experiment has been repeated many times and never seems to yield any results. What citizens, the over world seem to be showing us is that, if the world is going to change then people must become agents of their own development. This is easier said than done. But what it calls for is a radical shift in democratic thinking so that while we continue to celebrate and enjoy ‘representative democracy’, mediated through institutions like Parliaments and other forms of representative governance, time has come for us to move on to another type of democratic culture known as ‘participatory democracy’.
While participatory democracy may seem like a ‘wooly’ term – the crux of this kind of democracy is that it should be one where as citizens we shift from the mode of only voting, paying taxes and then hoping to hold our leaders to account. We should be moving to a democracy where citizens participate in civic life as co-creators of the country they want. The Government in this type of democracy should be acting not as a provider of development but as a catalyst that helps citizens achieve what they want. For participatory democracy to be effective it should be anchored on people power. In a participatory democracy, the state needs to enable the social and political construction of places and processes where differences engage rather than collide. Multi-stakeholder forums and mediated events should be the hallmark of this kind of democracy. Uganda has had many starts and stops, for example - the bimeeza - (open air citizen-debates broadcast live on the FM stations) that were banned, the participatory local government planning that was a cornerstone of decentralization in the late 1990s. Other forms of citizen engagement like sector reviews and budget and public expenditure consultative forums are all important ingredients of participatory democracy. It is also important to note that participatory democracy is not a new idea but one that has been resuscitated around the world because of the failures of several governments to live up to the promises of democracy. The words of Mahatma Gandhi, “we must be the change we want to see in the world”, have become an activist’s buzzword and indeed one that we should all embrace in Uganda today.
It is clear to all citizens today that faith in the state that is absolute, and assumes that the state is the source of all services, to all citizens, is certainly naïve. While the state serves people, it sometimes has to be compelled by the people it serves. It is important to underscore that while challenging the state is an important factor in participatory democracy, providing alternatives is equally important. Citizens have the responsibility to ensure that every challenge on the state is followed by a set of citizen-alternatives that do not relieve the state from its duties but indeed promote new forms of solution seeking.
In Uganda, civil society started the Black Monday Movement late last year, 2012. The Black Monday Movement is a social movement that works to end theft of public money by government. This initiative calls citizens to action - to ‘do’ something. Participatory democracy is therefore the cornerstone of the Black Monday Movement. While the Black Monday Movement is about theft (aka corruption) in public life, it is also about ‘growing’ capacities for citizens to participate in a ‘self-directed’ collective action. The action should cut across differences in approaches to problem solving and build on individual and common aspirations.
The Black Monday Movement is therefore a social movement that should depend on health workers, teachers, clergy, homemakers, cab drivers, trade unionists, business owners, civil servants, boda-boda riders, hawkers, policemen and women, soldiers and several other people.
In this Black Monday Movement we should recognize the civic potential of all citizens of Uganda and be aware that our liberation as citizens is not only in one action but also in larger meaning and increased civic energies this work generates. When we hear stories of people who have kept the Black Monday Movement Newspaper in their taxis so that passengers read while on board, or churches that allow activists on the pulpit as a gesture of solidarity, or policemen that give a word of encouragement to activists, or bankers that are wearing black on Monday as they go about their business, we should all know that this is the DNA of a social movement.
In Black Monday we should be able to see ourselves as part of a democratic culture that imagines a society that is built on the ethos of participatory democracy, a society promotes citizen action across state, civil society and markets/business community, in a manner that generates emphasis on institutional and cultural change for us all with a common denominator that the ‘Citizen is Central’ [CisC].
When citizens become central to our work and our commitment to improving society then an important element that should be at the heart of all our actions is ‘self-direction’. As Ugandans we should get to a place where we act based on our own values and interests. These interests should not be about satisfying the material desires we have but should be for all of us to work collectively towards a common good. When ‘self-direction’ by citizens becomes the organizing principle of our work then as elites, intellectuals and consultants we have to acquire a different role.
We should be at a point where lecturing citizens does not matter but where serving citizens matters. When we serve citizens, we concentrate on catalyzing action - and this is the heart of the Black Monday Movement.
“A luta continua, vitória é certa”! - [translated] - The struggle continues, victory is certain!