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Bottom-up engagement in policy-making affecting rural areas: The state of rural civil society

PLAAS has been working to strengthen it's links with rural civil society. In light of this aim, we are beginning to develop a workable model to engage civil society in policy dialogue and policy processes. To this end, in July 2011 we kicked off a project to explore ways in which researchers and organisations in rural civil society can work together in linking research to policy engagement, and using research to empower rural civil society organisations in their dealings with government and with other role players.

PLAAS recognised that if we are to use research to empower the democratic policy process, or civil society engagement must be informed by a deeper understanding of the current state of rural civil society and its relationships to the state.  Much thinking and talking about this problem is informed by a lack of new information. Discussions of rural civil society often focuses on the ‘usual suspects’, without looking at the range of new organisational formations (self-help organisations, farmers’ unions, community organizations, and so on) or the full range of ways in which citizens (and non-citizens) and government bodies relate. PLAAS also recognised that we need fresh thinking and a deeper understanding of the strategic issues involved in relations between poor, marginalised rural people, their organisations, and organs of the state.
We therefore undertook a rural civil society scan, and are in the process of finalising the research report. We also linked up with various civil society organisations - using our existing contacts and developing new ones through a range of activities including social media engagement. At a workshop in March 2012, members of civil society, activists NGOs working with civil society, researchers and members of parliament - as well as PLAAS information brokers took part in two days of meaningful, vibrant public debate on rural development and economic transformation, including agricultural development, land reform and land rights in South Africa. The workshop created a common space where we could collectively: assess our strengths and weaknesses; build relationships and strengthen existing connections; and come up with new ideas about how to improve rural civil society’s engagement in policies affecting the state of rural communities. An overview of the research findings of the rural scan and a new model for understanding civil society organisations was also presented at the workshop.
PLAAS is now developing new ways to engage with rural civil society around policy issues, informed by the scan and the workshop outcomes.