The power of spaces
Civic Space is defined as the freedom to express, assemble and associate. But what role do actual physical spaces play in nourishing the freedoms connected to civic space?
What kind of spaces are needed for civic actors to organize, collaborate and create?
This is something I have been thinking about for a while now, especially within the context of Juba, South Sudan. The civic society in South Sudan has largely been NGOized by the heavy presence of international organizations, the UN and significant donor funding since 2005. This has presented challenges for more organic organizing to take place. Even the NGO Act sees organizations through a lens of delivery humanitarian services. The norm for organizing in Juba has become workshops in hotel conference rooms with bottle water, buffet lunches and transport stipends. Can you be seen as a civic leader without the title of Executive Director? Can you mobilize members without an office and bank account? Can you share ideas and do a campaign without a donor approved budget?
The context continues to be challenging for more organic ways of organizing to flourish and part of this can be blamed on the lack of physical spaces to allow people to assemble freely. Working with a range of civil society actors in recent years I have seen this to be a growing challenge for them to be effective in their work.
Juba as a capital city has grown significantly over the past 15 years. Buildings have been constructed, neighborhoods/hilas been formed, yet the development has largely been driven by profit not the needs of people. While hotels are plenty, public spaces have been consumed. Public land and spaces that existed have quickly disappeared and those that remain are few and poorly maintained.
So where do people meet to organize, discuss and share ideas? Those who can afford often meet at hotels, restaurants and or bars. There are the infamous tea places on the side of roads. Some organizations have offices but often they are small due to the high rental costs in the city. The current spaces and venues are often not conducive for advancing civic space.
So, what makes a space conducive? After having this conversation with a number of civil society actors in Juba some of the following themes have surfaced:
Safety: Is the space one that people can feel safe in. Many stated the importance of a level of privacy that allows them to speak, think and organize freely.
Affordable: Using a space should be affordable for a range of people. Can they spend some hours or a day there without a large bill?
Useful services: Does the space offer services that organizers need to be effective? Is there decent affordable Wi-Fi? Can events be hosted there?
Ownership & Inspiration: Do you enter the space and feel like you belong? Can you meet people to collaborate with? Does the space make you feel at home and also inspire you while you are there? People want to share a space with those who share values and ideals, meet people who challenge and encourage them.
While this list might seem ambitious, there are a few spaces in Juba that are attempting to provide such conducive environments for their clients, guests and members.
One example is Scenius Hub who define themselves as "a vibrant youth space that supports entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation, and collaboration amongst the youth in South Sudan. We act as a catalyst for empowering youth ventures in South Sudan.”
The space located in the Hai Malakal neighborhood of Juba. They are using a membership model and currently have over 70 registered members from diverse backgrounds. Many of them are young entrepreneurs , journalists and activists who use the co-working space that is offered equipped with Wi-Fi, power and shared workstations. There is also a café, a stage that can be used for events and performances and a studio.
Walking into the outdoor space one feels the energy of those who use it. The walls are painted with art and graffiti. It is common to see a video being shot, an interview being conducted or a podcast being recorded. On a weekly basis you can also find a range of events being hosted in the space from workshops, trainings, journalists meet-ups to sold out comedy shows, innovation labs and book launches. They even hosted the AU youth envoy in 2020.
The benefits of such spaces are many. They contribute towards healthy communities that value the well-being of their citizens. They also contribute towards fostering social cohesion, bringing people together around issues and shared interests. They are specifically for important for youth, many who are struggling to find or create employment opportunities, define their identity and find their place in society. Organizers working on a range of issues and causes need spaces that allow them to meet and mobilize people without high costs that distort the work.
Scenius Hub, Juba. Photo Credit: UNDP
Improved urban planning in Juba and other cities in South Sudan, especially as the urban areas grow. Cities should be for the people who live in them. Juba needs parks, community centers and spaces that allow its citizens to foster a sense of community.
NGOs, UN and others should aim to support spaces that are local and not just for profit but creating communities. If you have an event, workshop or training don’t rush to a hotel but look for the alternative venues that exist. ( some suggestions: Women’s Union, AMDISS, Sceinus Hub, Baobab House, Marcus Shabab - youth center, Nyakuron Cultural Centre)
The Business Community should aim to think outside the box in terms of investment. Through CRS policies they can also partner with local social entrepreneurs such as Liquid Telcom has done in providing Wi-Fi to Scenius Hub. The Dr.Biar Sports Complex is also a great example of business creating spaces that foster healthy community in Juba.
Community groups should think outside the box when it comes to their own spaces. Your working space should be a place that attracts people and fosters creativity and ideas. Typical office setups may not be what you need for effective organizing space.
As we continue to live with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially future similar challenges, outdoor spaces make sense, especially in the tropical climate of Juba. As health measures may continue to restrict large groups of people, it is proven that transmission is much higher in closed spaces. Creating spaces that allow people to work and interact outdoors with good ventilation is key.
The South Sudan Transitional Constitution 2011 states that:
24. 1. Every citizen shall have the right to the freedom of expression, reception and dissemination of information, publication, and access to the press without prejudice to public order, safety or morals as prescribed by law.
25. 1. The right to peaceful assembly is recognized and guaranteed; every person shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form or join political parties, associations and trade or professional unions for the protection of his or her interests.
As South Sudan is on the eve of its 10 years anniversary of independence let us move beyond demanding for these rights from duty beaters alone but look for opportunities to create and support the physical spaces that nourish these freedoms and allow citizens to organize, collaborate and create.