– It’s a busy week for movers, shakers and policymakers attending a global gathering of civil society activists here in Fiji. For the first time, the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) is holding its sessions in the Pacific. It’s a sign of a growing awareness of the problems facing these remote islands – problems they cannot be ignored any longer.
When in Fiji, it is easy to get into a holiday mood. The picture postcard beaches, spectacular mountains and friendly faces can temporarily distract many workaholics. But not so for the participants of Civil Society Week. Already on arrival at the international airport of Nadi, the activists, civil workers, social entrepreneurs and journalists start mingling quickly and exchanging business cards. The debates are not confined to conference halls.
More than 700 participants from 109 countries are gathering in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to discuss key global issues, including human rights, global warming, gender empowerment, and many more. CIVICUS, an alliance for citizen participation, has organized the global event in cooperation with PIANGO, the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisation. Their goal: to strengthen the civil society sector and to look for common solutions to global challenges.
“Raise your voices and be heard,” the president of Fiji encouraged participants at the opening ceremony of the ICSW. That is exactly what the CEO of CIVICUS had in mind. “We are in a unique time in history: democracy is in crisis, trust in institutions is declining and we fail to act on climate change,” Danny Sriskandarajah says. “This is not only an important time to talk about these issues. We want to create a space for action.”
There’s plenty of action on the pretty campus of the University of the South Pacific where the event is organized. There are dozens of panel discussions, workshops and lectures every day. The participants talk about sexual exploitation, fair trade, land rights, volunteering and peace building to name just a few.
Najmin Kamilsoy, a bright and energetic young man, is an activist for the NIDA Civic Movement, a pro-democracy youth organization that defends human rights in Azerbaijan. “I want to meet people from other countries who face the same problems,” says Najmin, who has been arrested several times. Devesh Gupta of New Delhi is building an international education organization for the Dais Foundation. “I’m here to promote Dais and find new opportunities for growth.”
“We want civil society to take global action to counter the growing restrictions on civic freedoms. But that is not possible without local grassroots movements,” Sriskandarajah says. “That’s why we have to bring activists together, also to keep them motivated. The weight of the world is lighter because in Fiji they can meet people who care as well.”
For the first time, Civil Society Week is organized in the Pacific. Many participants of the conference are eager to meet people from exotic places like Micronesia, Tonga or the Cook Islands and listen to their experiences, ideas and hopes.
The Pacific is regularly overlooked by many, although it deserves more attention for the disasters that rising sea levels and stronger cyclones are causing. Emele Duituturaga, the executive director of PIANGO, told participants that it’s hard for the Pacific to be visible. These micro states are remote, small and politically weightless.
“But this year the region has become the epicenter of activism,” she says. In November, Fiji held the presidency of COP23, the UN Climate Change Conference. Thousands of government delegates and leaders from all sectors of society gathered in Bonn, Germany. The Civil Society Week adds to this growing awareness. The many island nations of the Pacific use these global platforms to remind the world that “we are all in the same canoe when it comes to climate change.”
Brianna Fruean, a 19 year old student from Samoa, explained how best to navigate a va’a, a Samoan canoe. You need to put the old boatsmen in the back and the youth in front. Steering is best done by experience and for powerful peddling you need muscles. Connecting a sense of direction with the sheer will to get things done, that’s what this conference is all about.
This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific and small island states who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world will meet in Suva, Fiji from 4-8 December for International Civil Society Week.