The eyes of the world have been trained on North Africa since the 25th January, when the people of Egypt took to the streets to protest against the regime of President Mubarak. Since then protests have erupted across the Middle East, with millions of people, from Algeria to Yemen, rising up to rebel against corruption and call for democracy. Libya’s protests have now exploded into a bloody civil war, and a UN military intervention fully underway in the attempt to subdue Colonel Gaddfi’s regime. Is it right that war is the price of democracy? Is it right that for decades, Western leaders have supported dictators in the Middle East, choosing stability over the free expression of the people? These are big questions – so what does all this have to do with COCO’s work on the ground?
COCO does not take a political stance or work at a governmental level. We are a small charity, and sadly do not have the staff or resources to run successful projects in insecure regions suffering through conflicts or wars. However, we know through our work on the ground that democracy is just as complex within communities as it is on the international stage. We don’t want to impose our own systems and values onto the communities we work with. We want to make sure the people on our projects are given a voice when it comes to what we do and what our aims are. But at the same time, we want to challenge prejudices and discriminatory practices, the kind which prevent girls from going to school, and perpetuate myths about HIV/AIDS. Our projects often require a difficult balancing act, as we try to juggle respect for cultures and traditions with a need to fight injustice wherever we find it.
Last month, COCO’s own Projects Coordinator John embarked on a six-month trip to our East African projects. His aim is to ensure that everyone on our projects has a say on how COCO’s money is spent, while ensuring that our core values are upheld. Can we really strike this balance? Like the situation in the Middle East, entrenching democracy in grassroots projects is a hugely complicated and difficult task. But if there is anything the past ten years have taught us, it is that when it comes to development and democracy, there are no easy answers.
– Mel Punton, COCO Projects Volunteer