Democracy and Civil Society:
The United Nations Democracy Fund
As UN Member States embark on ambitious national plans to implement the sustainable development agenda, the support of civil society to this process remains crucial. Yet in 2016 for civil society activists and organizations in a range of countries from every continent, space is shrinking — or even closing. Governments have adopted restrictions that limit the ability of NGOs to work or to receive funding.
As the Secretary-General has said, the hallmark of successful and stable democracies is the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society -- in which Government and civil society work together for common goals for a better future, and at the same time, civil society helps keep Government accountable.
The United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) supports projects that strengthen the voice of civil society, promote human rights, and encourage the participation of all groups in democratic processes. It is the only UN entity that has the word “democracy” in its name; the only UN body with the primary purpose of supporting democracy through empowering civil society; and one of the youngest entities in the UN system.
Since Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan created UNDEF as a UN General Trust Fund in 2005, it has supported nearly 650 projects in over 120 countries, with a total disbursement of more than 150 million dollars. These have ranged from supporting civil society efforts for accountability and transparency to building capacity for strengthening good governance and the rule of law. The large majority of UNDEF funds go to local civil society organizations in countries in both the transition and consolidation phases of democratisation. In this way, UNDEF plays a new, distinct and unique role, complementing and enhancing the UN's traditional work with Governments to strengthen democratic governance around the world. It targets the demand side of democracy, rather than the supply side.
UNDEF projects are in seven main areas, all of which support specific sustainable development goals as well as the integrated and inclusive approach to achieving the 2030 agenda:
- Community Activism
- Rule of Law and Human Rights
- Tools for Knowledge
- Women's Empowerment
- Youth Engagement
- Media and Freedom of Information
- Strengthening Civil Society Capacity for Interaction with Government
In 2015, UNDEF received over 2,600 project proposals. Grants average around USD200 ,000 and applications are subject to a highly rigorous and competitive selection process UNDEF’s project selection in the Tenth Round of Funding places a deliberate emphasis on civil society support to the SDGs with a particular focus on projects that interact with governments to deliver change. Initiatives from civil society groups that can hold all levels of government to account will play an important role in helping governments deliver on the sustainable development agenda. Such projects cut across all of UNDEF’s main areas from youth engagement to rule of law.
The Fund depends entirely on voluntary contributions from Member States. So far, it has been supported by over 40 Governments, who have contributed a cumulative amount of more than 170 million dollars. The biggest donors are the United States and India.
UNDEF is committed to transparency and knowledge sharing. External evaluations of completed projects are available on the UNDEF website.
Democracy in Action
The following are some examples of UNDEF projects around the world:
Strengthening civil participation in journalism and data-based investigative reporting in Argentina
In Argentina, a project funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund has launched a number of investigative journalism initiatives to promote citizen involvement in the monitoring of public affairs and improve their access to data and information. The project aims to engage citizens in the production of news content and enhance their access to data. It works with local journalists to give citizens more of a say in gathering and processing data for investigations and to use the opportunities made available to them for monitoring and demanding accountability from their leaders. The project also aims to provide better data about the topics covered by the investigations, and innovate in media and journalism by conducting data-based and crowdsourced investigative reporting for the first time in the country. The project will be complemented by a media and social networks campaign
Mainstreaming the Sustainable Development Goals in the Arab civil society agenda
Sustainable Development Goals
An UNDEF-funded project works in five Arab states to enhance the participation of civil society organizations in the sustainable development agenda. It works in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia aims to increase accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals through building a permanent Arab forum that will build capacity, promote social dialogue and influence policymaking. In a recent report on the Arab Millennium Development Goals,1 it was shown that Arab countries had achieved progress on many indicators, especially progress towards education targets. However, they had failed in promoting inclusive development and were faced with tackling socioeconomic development challenges to address the aspirations of citizens. The project aims to address the process of democratic transition in the Arab region, with a focus on socioeconomic reforms.
Youth Web TV in Morocco
A project funded by the UN Democracy Fund in Morocco, Youth Web TV, aims at greater democratization of public media by opening up access to young people in a backdrop marked by their use of new technologies for communication and political participation. The project is being implemented by Médiateur pour la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (MDDH) located in Rabat. The project aims at capacity building of the youth through their involvement in the design, development and implementation of television programmes addressing various topics related to current political, economic, social and cultural issues. This project builds on a previous UNDEF funded project “Jeunes pour la démocratie au Maroc” that brought together students in a youth council providing Moroccan youth an exchange platform to debate and express their opinions. The project Youth web TV sustains the outcomes of this first initiative and reinforces the involvement of the youth in the public space by creating a bridge that will strengthen the technical and artistic skills of the youth normally confined to the alternative media. This will be done by involving a group of young men and women in producing web TV content such as podcasts and publicity advocacy spots and also in creating a sustainable Web TV program that will offer an alternative to traditional media content.
Access to information for open expenditure and budget transparency in Liberia
An UNDEF project in Liberia works against corruption by fostering transparency in the run-up to the third post-civil war national elections taking place in 2017. The project started by identifying local citizen-based organizations that can engage at the community level with discussions and awareness-raising on the impact of corruption. The project also identified individual journalists working at local radio stations to investigate development projects and be trained in anti-corruption reporting. A team of anti-corruption champions based at community radio stations is being activated to advocate for redress and monitor and increase public awareness in the fight against corruption.
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