The Trust at The World Forum for Democracy
Last week Building Change Trust organised a group of NI-based VCSE representatives to attend the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg.
The WFD is an annual three day gathering organised by the Council of Europe and describes itself as: “a unique platform for political decision-makers and activists to debate solutions to key challenges for democracies worldwide. By identifying and analysing experimental initiatives and practices, the Forum highlights and encourages democracy innovations at the grassroots and their transfer on a systemic level in order to strengthen the foundations of democratic societies.
"The Forum thus contributes to the evolution of democracy towards more participatory and inclusive structures and institutions".
The Trust has been investing in democracy innovations over the past couple of years through its Creative Space for Civic Thinking work and brought together representatives from projects funded through the Civic Activism Programme as well as the NI Open Government Network to attend the summit in Strasbourg.
The group was hoping for some practical ideas as well as a little inspiration and some international connections and wasn’t disappointed.
The Forum was held in the foreboding Council of Europe building with around 2000 delegates representing an eclectic mix of young people, activists, VCSE professionals, diplomats, politicians and even one Prime Minister.
The overall theme of WFD in 2016 was education and how both formal and informal education can and is being used to support and deepen democracy in countries around the world.
The first day of the forum focused on the big picture with some scene-setting remarks from the Nowegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, who emphasised the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed last year at the UN, an organisation she described (quoting a former Secretary General) as “not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell”. She emphasised the importance of citizenship education as a long-term investment in conflict resolution and sustainable societies.
The French Minister for Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem tapped into the mood of trepidation about the rising tide of far-right populism and extremism by highlighting “when our continent has faced challenges in the past it has not given in to extremism - it responded with resistance & democracy”.
From the lofty and rhetorical to the practical, the forum was also packed with examples of innovative approaches to stimulating grassroots democracy.
For example, the Israeli democratic schools pioneer Yacoov Hecht talked about his journey since establishing the first democratic school 30 years ago and explained his extraordinary model where the principal has an equal vote alongside pupils in the weekly meeting where learning priorities are set.
Another example was the Citizens Foundation in Iceland who have developed the open source ‘Your Priorities’ online platform that has been used to engage citizens in urban planning and also in directly deciding how public money will be spent through a participatory budgeting process.
There were also stories of courage and determination in the face of division and conflict, such as the Afghan educationalist Sakeena Yacoobi who got a standing ovation when she insisted that education, especially girls education, can change a nation and that despite all the years of violence it will ultimately change Afghanistan for the better.
There were also movies, lightning talks, storytelling, cardboard box building and the Soweto Gospel Choir.
Far too much to describe in one article but fortunately to NI delegation are at hand to blog about each of their favourite bits, so watch this space.
In the meantime if you’d like to watch/listen to any of the WFD sessions, they are available to watch/listen online.