Democracy on the Rebound?

May has been an exciting month with elections in both Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq – even for a street sports fanatic like this blogger. In the first two countries, it was the first municipal and parliamentary elections, respectively since the Arab Spring in 2011. So what’s the verdict in these three countries, which are all a bit better than the region’s poor democratic image according to The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The index lists Syria at the bottom of the list only one spot above North Korea as the very last and 167th least democratic country in the world. For the three ballot ticking countries you find Tunisia placed #69, Lebanon #104, and Iraq #112.

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The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index map for 2017. Bluer colors represent more democratic countries.

Back in 2011 the whole world was watching and many (including this naive blogger) thought that the democratic wind of change sweeping through the region would allow for transformational and systemic change for the long term. As we all know history took another turn and today the region is in more despair than before with high unemployment and several ongoing civil wars. Covering the basic physiological and safety needs is therefore higher on the agenda for many of the 411 million people living in the region, than the name of the political system. This is not surprising. But it’s a shame, if it results in a less transparent and just governance of the country, because the people aren’t holding the ones in power responsible.

The recent elections can therefore be seen as an indicator of whether there is still a belief in a democratic system in the region, where the people hold the politicians accountable and where the voice of women also matters. Let’s just say that prior to the elections my hopes were high. And that the actual results are mixed.

Low voter turnout

In terms of voter turnout I must say, that I was disappointed to see that in all three countries less than half the voters fulfilled their civic duty and showed up on election day. In Lebanon voter turnout was 49%, in Iraq 45%, and in Tunisia as little as 34% showed up.

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Supporters of Joumana Haddad, a novelist and candidate running on an independent list, protest against what they say are clear signs of fraud to deny her victory (source: money1055.com).

Another highly anticipated and much debated aspect of the elections was the number of female candidates in the race. We all know that you can’t win if you don’t run. That’s why several NGOs have focused on getting more female candidates on the ballot. This resulted in an impressive 700% increase in Lebanon, where 86 candidates ran for election compared to only 12 in 2009. Unfortunately the election didn’t go as well as the nominations. Only six women were elected for the parliament’s 128 seats, indicating a 50% increase compared to the 4 women elected in 2009. But having only 5% women in parliament is just not good enough.

Collaborating for transformational change

In Tunisia and Iraq the final results haven’t been published yet, but the situation is less grave, as both countries have a quota of seats reserved for female candidates, resulting in at least 25% of the decision makers being women in Iraq. I like this idea for several reasons. First of all because it is an effective way to move towards gender equality on a political level. Secondly, it helps NGOs break the illusion that we can change the world on our own. Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Abe Grindle describes this quite convincingly in their article “Audacious Philanthropy”, which illuminates how to achieve transformational change:

“Audacious social change is incredibly challenging. Yet history shows that it can succeed. Unfortunately, success never results from a single grant or silver bullet; it takes collaboration, government engagement, and persistence over decades, among other things.”

Over the years GAME has implemented several programs in Lebanon focusing on gender equality with the audacious long term objective to increase the number of women in parliament. By teaching and promoting the skills of democratic citizenship and by inspiring young women to take on a leadership role in their communities and challenge the traditional views on what women are capable of, I like to think that GAME has played a role (however minor) in the increase of women daring to engage in politics today. And encouraged young men to vote for them.

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Female role models in GAME pitching their advocacy campaign targeted the public and politicians of Beirut Municipality.

But the result of the election also shows that more is needed. If we want to see real transformational change we have to work together with the politicians who are the primary duty bearers in providing for the people who elects them. Only then can we succeed, whatever the challenge may be.

I guess the activist and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King was right:

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won you earn it and win it in every generation.”

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Lebanon – an example for the world to follow?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of opening the 2017 Season Start-up Playmaker Camp for 102 young volunteers in Beirut, Lebanon. With street sports activities starting up in new neighborhoods across the country from Sour in the South to Tripoli in the North, it was a great opportunity to let the young role models know how special they are. In this blog-post you can read part of the speech and learn why:

I would like to give you a special welcome to all our newcomers – I hope you will find the program today both interesting and empowering. And when you leave this afternoon you may even know one or two people you wish to add on Facebook. And to all our returning Playmakers, let’s make sure to reach out to all our newcomers and make this Playmaker Camp as good as the previous ones.

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The world needs you

The world needs you more than ever! With Trump in office in the US, Britain leaving the EU, and the evolving civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the world is becoming more divided as we speak. Minorities are under pressure – from Muslims in the US, Jews in London, to Kurds in Turkey.

Here in Lebanon you have a proud history. Yes, you’ve been through a civil war and there are still many things that do not function as it should. Electricity, internet, waste management, etc.. But you have also shown time and again that a multi-ethnic state is possible. Lebanon is a very unique mosaic of culture and civilization, that can provide learning and be an example for the rest of the world.

With 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country Lebanon is the country in the world with the highest percentage of refugees. In fact we have some of them here with us today. You ought to be proud of having opened your door, when other countries continue to close theirs. This gesture calls for good efforts all over the country in order to create opportunities for the less advantaged who are living under tough living conditions.

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10 Years Anniversary

For 10 years GAME Lebanon has done just that. Together we have created access to street sport for children and youth around the country – including refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. And with the street sports compendium you will be using today, we’ve been able to teach them skills that they can use in other aspects in life. Over the years we’ve reached a total of 10,000 children and youth, with more than 2,000 in 2016 alone.

With new GAME Zones in Maachouk, Ansaar, and Tripoli, this year we are looking to set new heights. As Playmakers you are the backbone of our organization, as your volunteer efforts makes it possible to create social change in 10 neighborhoods across the country.

Female leaders

And watch out! This work will most likely affect your personality. Your engagement as a Playmaker has the potential to change you to become a more organized and responsible being. Something you can later use in other aspects of life.

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If you already see yourself as organized and responsible, you may use GAME to gain leadership experience and become even sharper. In fact a survey from last year shows, that 7 out of 10 (of the Playmakers, red.) believe that they could have a future political career if they decided to. With only 3 % female politicians in Lebanon, you are part of the solution. You are this country’s next generation of leaders. Whether it will be in your own community together with GAME or at a national level at a later stage.

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I’m looking forward to a great day together with you. Let’s meet some new people and have some fun!

[ In 2017 the Playmakers are part of the project Youth-led Street Sport for All funded by The European Union and MS:ActionAid ]

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