Over the past few days, I had the opportunity to meet a number of leaders and economic and social players from Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries gathered together for the 26th meeting of ACP-EU economic and social interest groups. Under the Cotonou Agreement, the EESC is tasked with organising regular consultation with representatives of ACP economic and social players in order to strengthen ACP-EU relations. I believe that wherever and whenever possible, we can promote gradual political change. We need to support the African countries – provided this support is accompanied by economic, social and political reforms. We have to act in solidarity, and make a shift from aid to smarter development policies which include the involvement of civil society in the reform processes
For me, it has always been a revelation to meet African people. Ever since I started my work for the Swedish Farmers' Association (LRF), I have been able to get to know the African economic and social environment at grassroots level thanks to our development work with African farmers. I also feel that African civil society leaders, who are so eager to make a change in their countries, can be key players in future development and cooperation policies. Encouraging the participation of civil society in public decision-making process is all the more important as African governments face huge challenges. In my view, the contribution of civil society organisations to economic, social, agricultural and environmental strategies can be fundamental in lifting billions of people out of poverty. We strongly believe that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) should remain a vital reference point for African civil society, and African civil society leaders need to ensure that MDGs remain top priorities on the agendas of African political authorities. This gives me great hope.
Economic and social councils are of course in my view the best possible bridges between civil society organisations and political authorities. I know that sometimes they place themselves at risk. One of our counterparts from Fiji was once threatened and assaulted because of his activities as a trade unionist. When that happened, we could not stand idly by, but we informed all relevant partners at EU and international level.
When we met the Union of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions of Africa (UCESA), we touched on good governance and participation –issues that are our very raison d'être. Together with the UCESA, we would strongly stress the key role of the participatory approach in democratic governance and call on the EU and the African Union to use participation as a benchmark to assess progress towards good, inclusive, bottom-up governance. One of my Senegal counterparts admitted that there is a lot to learn and that Senegalese society was only at the beginning of a long road. However I think it is vital that they take that road. This is not about criticising governing political parties in African countries. Economic and social councils have the potential to offer solid expertise to bring added value to the policymaking process and could well act as forums for dynamic compromise among various interests. If they are independent and can freely express themselves – if, in other words, they carry enough credibility – then they can easily and efficiently exert an influence on policymakers. By their make-up and the way they operate, economic and social councils must spread good examples of participatory democracy.
One African journalist asked me the other day a very good question about how farmers in Africa could learn about all the support they can access from the EU and the international community. The answer is again – civil society. Strengthen farmers' organisations in African countries, and the information that the farmers need will filter down to the grassroots level. This is one of the recommendations we made to G20 agriculture ministers when they discussed global food security last month. And in fact this is what Africa needs at the moment – not just economics and politics, but a true strengthening of civil society by helping non-state actors organise themselves and negotiate for their rights, and by bringing both state and non-state organisations into genuine dialogue.