USAID CITIZENS’ VOICE PROJECT STRENGTHENS CITIZENS VOICE TO ADVOCATE FOR ELECTORAL REFORMS
The citizens’ confidence level in the electoral processes of Pakistan has been weak. In order to build the confidence level of the citizens, there is a dire need to strengthen the electoral mechanisms of the country.
A close analysis of past elections carried out by national and international election observation groups after the General Elections 2013, identified areas of improvement in the electoral process of Pakistan. In this context, USAID Citizens’ Voice Project (CVP) strategically focused on strengthening citizens’ voices through electoral reforms by actively engaging with political parties, media, professional associations and election management bodies. More specifically, CVP is focusing its interventions for electoral reforms by concentrating on by – elections, up- gradation of electoral rolls and delimitation of electoral constituencies for greater transparency and accountability.
In order to further demarcate the areas for improvement and to find best possible solutions to the current ailments in the electoral system, CVP is carrying out the largest household survey in Pakistan’s history that is covering 110 districts across the country. Up to 25 non – partisan volunteers are in the process of being identified, selected and trained in each National Assembly constituency. These volunteers are being capacitated to assess voter lists, covering 16 households in up to 2,500 randomly sampled polling areas in in Pakistan for ‘list to people’ and ‘people to list’ assessments. CVP is also providing opportunities to community members to interact with Election Commission and NADRA officials.
The volunteers will also observe by- elections, polling station assessments for accessibility, provisions and their neutrality for more than 200 National Assembly constituencies. This mixed method research will provide a solid evidence based foundation that will inform CVPs interventions by investigating constituency delimitation for local government and general elections. Another output of this research will be the development of a district wise desk review report on the assessment of local, provincial and national assemblies’ electoral boundaries based on applicable laws and rules.
In addition to this empirical research, CVP is also facilitating the formation of 15 member District Electoral Reforms Groups (DERG) which are being formed and trained in each target district and comprise of representatives of civil society organizations, media, lawyers and marginalized groups. These DERGs are engaging with district level Political Party leadership, provincial and national legislators to stress on them the need for electoral reforms These multiple interventions supported by CVP are facilitating the strengthening of the electoral processes in the country by providing a clear picture of the present day discrepancies in voter lists, demarcation of constituencies, provision of polling stations and the immediate effective steps required to remedy these shortcomings. Furthermore, these interventions are also establishing a baseline to compare the performance of relevant institutions in every consequent election and reforms exercise.
USAID Citizens’ Voice Project interventions to strengthen citizens’ voice for electoral reforms are being carried out in 110 districts of Pakistan; 25 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 23 districts of Sindh, 33 districts of Punjab and 29 districts of Balochistan. So far, under USAID’s nationwide research-based advocacy campaign for electoral reforms, 29 District Electoral Reforms Group (DERG) groups have been created engaging 546 male and 101 female citizens throughout Pakistan.. Under USAID’s nationwide research-based advocacy campaign for electoral reforms, a total of 599 DERG members (514 male and 85 female) have been capacitated in 30 districts of Pakistan. USAID’s Citizens’ Voice Project (CVP) is supporting 3 day capacity building workshops for youth volunteers. The workshops are focused on developing the youth’s technical capacity to assess the transparency of the electoral process. So far, 315 male and 129 female youth volunteers have benefited from these trainings in a total of 18 districts throughout the country.
YOUTH SENSITIZED ON RIGHT TO INFORMATION LAW IN SINDH
A ‘Citizens’ Capacity Building Session’ was organized in Karachi by Shehri, a USAID Citizens’ Voice Project partner organization, working in Sindh. This activity falls in a series of efforts, being facilitated by Citizens’ Voice Project under Grants Cycle 7, that focuses on ‘Strengthening Transparency and Accountability’ in the functioning of public institutions. A total of 49 participants (27 men and 22 women) attended the event which focused on creating awareness about Shehri’s project amongst the youth and motivate them to raise their voice and demand a better Right to Information (RTI) Act in Sindh. The training also capacitated the students on the operational utilization of RTI law along with drafting and following up on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Training kits that included educational material, guide books and promotional items were distributed among the participants. Dr. Syed Raza Ali Gardezi, Program Manager Shehri, gave an overview of the aims and objectives of the workshop. He said that the goal of good governance cannot be realized unless transparency is guaranteed in government affairs and citizens are empowered to hold the public institutions accountable. One of the most important tools available, which can be used to ensure transparency, is Freedom of Information.
After introducing Article 19 – A of the Constitution, it was stressed that an effective and enabling provincial RTI law will empower citizens to hold the government accountable for its actions. This law will also provide a framework to promote citizen-government partnership to carry out public welfare projects. An effective RTI law will build pressure on the government to strengthen governance mechanisms by curtailing obscure practices.
To enable an informed demand of provincial RTI law, a comparison was made between the RTI laws enacted in Pakistan with those present around the world. In this context, the RTI laws from Punjab and KP were discussed. Furthermore, the participants actively demanded that the Sindh Government should devise an RTI law that is responsive to the demands of the citizens and strengthens transparency in governance processes.
During the meeting, the participants were also trained on the how to file a FOI application. Taking active interest in the event, the participants signed post cards addressed to the Governor Sindh, Chief Minister Sindh, Speaker Sindh Assembly, Opposition Leader and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Government of Sindh, sanctioning their demand to enact a better and effective “Right to Information law” in the province.
After the session, the participating students, most of whom did not know about the law at all, realized the importance of FOI, and were inspired to use the law to achieve transparency and accountability in the governmental affairs. Most of the participants were of the view that this session enhanced their knowledge about the access to information law in practice nationally and internationally, and promised to spread awareness.
SOCIAL AWARENESS & DEVELOPMENT ORGANIZATION (SADO)
Social Awareness & Development Organization (SADO) was one of the grantee organizations working on local government issues in Upper Dir. Community members of the area sensitized by the organization appeared satisfied with the new local government system whereby they were adamant that political representation at the grassroots level will resolve all community level problems. In this regard, a Youth Candidate from the constituency expressed his desire to invest in youth development by setting up a career counseling service and by constructing a cricket ground in his area. However, the top most priority of a candidate for the General Councilor seat was to build the damaged road that connected his village to the city: the intervention would benefit village residents with health issues, especially pregnant women who faced considerable problems in accessing health facilities in the city. Finally, community members also called for local government involvement to improve the state of female education in the area.
In the past, women in Dir were barred from voting, even though a considerable number of community members supported their voting rights. In this context, a candidate for the seat of General Counselor informed that community elders disallowed women to vote. He further highlighted an obvious paradox in this decision as the same women who were allowed to stand in queues to register for their Computerized National Identity Cards (CNIICs) were prevented from casting votes during elections.
In 2015, for the first time in more than 30 years, hundreds of women in Upper Dir came out to vote in the local government elections. This is a major achievement for SADO and the Citizens’ Voice Project as both played an important role in bringing about this profound democratic change in the region.
The candidates informed that the trainings arranged by SADO helped them in understanding the voting process and their roles and responsibilities as candidates contesting the local government elections. Furthermore, the organization also helped them in filling and filing their nomination papers whereby a substantial number of these candidates either attended the training sessions offered by SADO or were exposed to the IEC material distributed by it. In the latter case, one candidate even distributed the IEC material among his village residents to improve their knowledge about the local government system.
Information camps set by SADO were very popular amongst the public. People from all walks of life came to the stalls to inquire about the new local government system and elections: some people took a handful of IEC material back home and distributed it among their families and neighbors.
TAKAL WELFARE ORGANIZATION (TWO)
Takal Welfare Organization (TWO) was the Citizens’ Voice Project’s grantee organization in District Swabi. A youth volunteer with disability, working with TWO informed that the organization relied on motivational techniques to mobilize female voters. In this regard, candidates were told that if they allowed female members of their family to cast their votes, it will increase their vote bank and improve their chances of winning the elections. He also recommended that special arrangements should be made for persons with disabilities to cast their vote. The government should also consider introducing a separate seat for people with disabilities to resolve the issues faced by this vulnerable segment of society.
PEACE AND DEVELOPMENT FOUNDATION (PDF)
Peace and Development Foundation implemented a project to improve people’s knowledge of the local government system in District Hangu. Muhammad Israr, Assistant Coordinator PDF said that there was a high demand for IEC material on the local government system in the province. Keeping this in view, PDF established their Kiosk/Stall in Hangu Press Club from May 18 – 22 and a large number of people from Hangu and nearby villages visited the Kiosk/Stall and collected the IEC material: most of them have found this material very useful.
During a visit to a female polling station, it was observed that over 300 female voters were present inside the polling station premises; these women were very enthusiastic and eager to exercise their right to vote. The female participation in election was even more impressive considering that a few mainstream political parties of the region had mutually agreed to bar women from voting in the local government elections