Picture of a panel discussion during the hybrid conference "Civil Society Driving Change" showing digital and physical participation. Copyright: VENROWith more than 500 participants from 24 African and 13 European countries, the VENRO conference “Civil Society Driving Change: Towards a New Quality of the Africa-Europe Partnership” on 16 October 2020 attracted an exceptionally high level of interest. Held in a hybrid format with digital as well as on-site participation, it showed in practical terms that the partnership between Africa and Europe is more than just a formal process between governments and that civil society from both continents can greatly contribute to more inclusive and transparent relations.

In 2021, the African and European Heads of State and Government will meet in Brussels to adopt a new strategy that guides the partnership between our two continents for the years to come. Although the AU-EU Summit was meant to take place this October and become a highlight of Germany’s EU Council Presidency, its postponement to next year provides the chance for civil society to contribute its own priorities for an inclusive, fair and sustainable partnership.

The policy fields in which Africa and Europe would both benefit from closer collaboration are constantly increasing: They include the need for radical climate change measures; equitable trade relations; rural development and nutrition; functioning social protection and health care systems; the creation of legal migration routes; intergenerational and gender justice, among others.

The inclusive discussions during the hybrid VENRO conference proved that it is not at all impossible to work closer together. Jutta Urpilainen, the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, assured participants in her keynote address: “The Africa-Europe Partnership is one of our top priorities and we need you, the civil society, by our side with your knowledge and expertise. It is my personal priority to have an inclusive and transparent dialogue.”

This message was re-echoed by other political decision-makers like the current EU trio presidency countries’ State Secretaries responsible for development policy. However, civil society representatives including VENRO Chairman Bernd Bornhorst urged national governments as well as the AU and EU to live up to their promise to enable a far-reaching involvement of citizens on both continents: “Active civil societies have pushed and will continue to push governments to make political decisions work for all of us. That is why this conference is called Civil Society Driving Change”, Bornhorst explained.

The strong commitment of civil society was not only evidenced by the large turnout but also by more than 40 workshop proposals that VENRO had received ahead of the conference. Eventually, twelve sessions on issues like climate change, corruption, gender, health, migration or peace and security were selected. Most of them were conducted together by African and European civil society activists.

As one of the few political actors engaged from the grassroots to the international level, the civil society participants showed how important it is to connect everyday life experiences with distant AU-EU policy processes. The conference provided the space to develop new approaches for a revised AU-EU strategy that actually helps to improve people’s lives.

The results of the conference and the workshops as well as the “Africa-Europe Civil Society Survey” (presented at the beginning) will be processed by VENRO and its trio partners from Portugal and Slovenia together with CONCORD and published in the run-up to the AU-EU Summit 2021. Further activities around the summit will be defined once the new date is set.

Keynote speakers and panellists included (see programme):

# Jutta Urpilainen (European Union Commissioner for International Partnerships);

First panel:
# Sophia Bachmann (German Youth Delegate for Sustainable Development);
# Abu Brima (Director, Network Movement for Justice and Development Sierra Leone);
# H.E. Jestas Abuok Nyamanga (Ambassador of the United Republic of Tanzania and Chair of the Committee of Ambassadors of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, standing in for OACPS Secretary General Georges Chikoti);
# Chrysoula Zacharopoulou (Member of the EU Parliament for Renew, Vice Chair of the Committee on Development and EP Rapporteur on the EU-Africa Strategy)

Second panel:
# Martin Jäger (State Secretary, Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany);
# Tone Kajzer (State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Slovenia);
# Rita Leote (Director, Portuguese Non-Governmental Development Organizations Platform);
# Jane Nalunga (Director, The Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute, Uganda);
# Teresa Ribeiro (State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Portugal)

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