By Gina Romero
As part of a series of writing about my experiences with dialogue as a tool for citizen diplomacy, in this post I will be sharing my thoughts on leading dialogue processes within a specific sector – in this case civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), based on my experience as founder and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (Redlad).
Redlad’s origin is associated with the assemblies of the World Movement for Democracy (WMD), where representatives of Latin American civil society met in exotic parts of the world to talk about global democracy, but felt that they did not have their own space to exchange thoughts on what was happening on the continent. This is why, in 2008, a small group of people who had met at two or more of the WMD Assemblies decided to create a space for encounters and dialogue between social actors from the continent who are working to advance the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Thus, Redlad was born: a space for dialogue between civil society organisations and activists, who are both similar (social and civil society actors who had participated in initiatives led by the National Endowment for Democracy – NED – or its affiliated organisations, and who therefore were part of the WMD) and somehow also different (NGO representatives, journalists, academics; from the right, centre and left; from different countries).
In those initial years of shaping the organisation, dialogue in Redlad took the form of forums, seminars and round tables in which many diverse people debated the reality that the different civil society actors faced in their countries. They share experiences, sounded alerts, and carried out political advocacy actions that led to the creation of policy recommendation for governments, as well as concrete actions at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with a view to promoting and protecting HHRR, activists and and different vulnerable groups across the continent. At that time, the fracturing of civil society was not as evident as it is now; although the debates were often heated and discussions on controversial issues went on for hours, respect was always the basis of disputes between friends.
It is important to mention that, like any other sector, the third sector, the social sector or civil society, is very heterogeneous. Its groups and organisations differ not only in size, but also in their objectives and action lines, scopes of work, tools used, etc. But in all cases, when mentioning civil society, I refer to organisations (it does not matter if they are registered or not), that bring together a group of people, that last in time, and work for advancing any number of social, political, or economic issues from the citizen perspective, as opposed to pursuing political electoral action or a business viewpoint¹.
We have promoted hundreds of discussion events on a myriad of topics relevant to the continent, such as justice systems, the rule of law, indigenous and Afro-descendents’ rights, antidiscrimination policies, civic space, freedom of religion and belief in LAC, among other things, through both public and private activities in which we have managed to create or lead a dialogue about common realities to foster solidarity between people from different countries, or to share different experiences that at first glance appear similar.
Being a network that brings together more than 100 members and some 400 allies from at least 15 countries, the diversity of Latin American civil society is well represented in our dialogue actions. These dialogues sometimes have a low level of complexity, due to the affinity of themes and personal closeness. We do not always fully agree with the friends with whom we work, but as we do agree on the central basis of our convictions as social actors (respect for human rights, the importance of safeguarding the rule of law and democracy) and the disagreements that we have are actually minor.
I want to highlight precisely this need to agree on central values as being the key for trust building and sowing the seeds for agreements that can be turned into practical agendas and advocacy actions in the sphere of citizen diplomacy. When reality is tough, the dialogues help to lighten the burden, get inspiration and also encourage action by joining others. This is when working in a network goes hand in hand with dialogue experiences. Sharing to release the let off steam is very important – but if you can then set common goals and create collective agendas of action, dialogue can become the spark for action.
One process I can highlight is the creation of the Citizen Forum of the Americas (CFA), a network created by Redlad to articulate the activities of civil society groups on the continent (beyond our own members). Through the past five years, 15 countries created permanent scenarios for dialogue that involved around 1,000 people, and whose results are the seeds for the building of civil society agendas, which are in turn the basis for national and hemispheric advocacy plans, with a view to demanding solutions from governments and international organisations, and to following up the commitments that governments make in multilateral foraum. In summary, this is citizen diplomacy in action.
The Organization of Americans States (OAS) is our governmental regional body and is the space where the advocacy actions agreed in the agendas come to play. These agendas, created through dialogues, are at the centre of civil society actions with Ambassadors, OAS officials, and representatives from other international organisations. These actions form the core of citizen diplomacy across the continent. And, as in any other negotiation environment, if a group acts as a block, it has a better chance of success than if each of its members were to act individually.
So, dialogues among similar people – in this case, similar civil society actors – are a source of inspiration, hope and successful collective action.
In the following posts, I will be talking about dialogues among civil society and other sectors, starting with the religious actors (post 5), the private sector (post 6) and governments and multi- sectorial dialogues (post 7). And to end the series, I will be sharing experiences on dialogue of knowledge (post 9) and intergenerational dialogues (post 10).
¹ This ‘business viewpoint’ point can be controversial, as we have seen two phenomena arise in Latin America in over the past decade, and I guess in other regions, too, the rise of two phenomena: i) the creation by different enterprises of non-profits as a part of their corporate social responsibility strategy, ii) the trends on social entrepreneurship related with to the creation of corporations that have a social goal but are that operate as for-profit enterprises. As the combination of these phenomena make even more complexfurther complicates an the understanding of the civil society and the social sector, I will not take them into account in the experiences I will be presentinghere.
About the author:
Gina Romero is the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for democracy and part of the founding groups regarding different civil society organisations of every level (Ocasa (Colombia), Redlad (Americas), the World Youth Movement for Democracy, the Global Youth network for Democracy (global)). She has therefore much experience and knwo-how in topics such as public diplomacy, integrity and networking and many more.
Published on February 23, 2022.
Photo credit: Gina Romero