MANY OF US might not have been aware of this, but this week on the 15th of September was the International Day of Democracy. The theme for this year is ‘Space for Civil Society’, and while there was no specific activity organised for this event in Vanuatu the United Nations Secretary-General delivered a statement that supported and recognized the important role that civil society performs within a democratic state.

“Civil society is the oxygen of democracy” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. “Civil society acts as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. It plays a critical role in keeping Government accountable, and helps represent the diverse interests of the population, including its most vulnerable groups.”

The United Nation (UN) website reports that in 2007, the UN General Assembly (in resolution A/62/7) encouraged Governments “to strengthen national programmes devoted to the promotion and consolidation of democracy, and also decided that 15 September of each year should be observed as the International Day of Democracy”.

The UN further emphasizes on the role played by civil society, “the role of civil society has never been more important than this year, as the world prepares to implement a new development agenda, agreed to by all the world’s Governments. However, for civil society activists and organizations in a range of countries covering every continent, space is shrinking — or even closing — as some Governments have adopted restrictions that limit the ability of NGOs to work or to receive funding”.

Vanuatu is a state that functions on democratic principles. Democracy is a universal value that is based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.

Democracy allows us to choose our leaders, likewise it provides for us the right to inherit our individual powers and responsibilities (rights and duties) that are specified in Vanuatu’s national constitution.

Equally, where the civil society is concerned democracy plays a supportive role that is why “the theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy is ‘Space for Civil Society.’ It is a reminder to Governments everywhere that 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” explains the UN statement.

In Vanuatu we have many NGOs and community groups, some are small in size while others employ hundreds of people. Some of these NGOs are financially well-off while others face regular budget restraints, many of them are well established across Vanuatu but some operate from one specific headquarter and decimate their services and assistances through the networks that they established. But whatever the differences that exist, NGO’s continue to perform tasks that the government has overlooked or is not able to reach.

Fortunately, compared to less fortunate states Vanuatu has practically experienced positive collaborations between the government and civil society groups. The message for this year is to allow space for civil society to operate freely to ensure that the civil society keeps the government accountable.

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