Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship - strategic vision 2017-2020
For the past three years, the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship has been working to become a regional hub for a dynamic community of academics, practitioners, and civil society actors in exploring traditional and innovative forms of associational life and in advancing realistic solutions to the obstacles to effective civil society and citizenship in the Arab region. In doing so, the Institute has encouraged and provided evidence-based research, broadened its outreach and support of researchers, represented AUB in larger national, regional, and international academic venues, and, throughout, convened discussions and events on critical issues of civil society and citizenship.
This past year, the Institute developed several multi-year research projects, strengthening existing partnerships and collaborations. With the Arab Studies Institute and Legal Agenda, a research project and workshop on non-governmental organizations’ legal and fundraising challenges in the Arab region successfully produced a bi-lingual book. In partnership with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), research projects on ‘Labor Unions and the Pursuit of Social Justice in the Arab World’ and on ‘The Impact of Civil Society on Public Policy’ have culminated, with final research papers being submitted for editing. The ‘Human Rights Discourse in the Arab Region’ project, with IFI and Lund University, is still ongoing. The Institute also launched two new collaborative research projects. In an awarded-research project in collaboration with institutions in Spain, Turkey, Bolivia and India, the Institute is leading the documentation and study of environmental justice in the Arab region. Through this fund, the Institute has hired a full-time researcher. A second new partnership has been developed with the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit at AUB on researching women’s participation and local governance in the Arab region through women’s cooperatives, and five first draft research papers were submitted.
The Institute has consolidated its niche and broadened its outreach on ‘bridging academia and civil society’ through seminars, workshops, and conferences. The Institute’s public seminar and lecture series gathered significant interest and participation, as highlighted by its 8-part series on the intersectionalities of the protest movement in Lebanon and its 6-part series on citizenship and civil society in Syria. Four training workshops were organized to encourage critical thinking and empowered citizenry among civil society experts and leaders on issues of cross-media tools, public speaking, local policy making, and refugee rights in international law. In addition, a graduate level seminar on political ecology and social change in the Arab region was developed and taught by Dr. Masri, and has encouraged the development of a university-level class on environmental justice in the Arab region to be taught in the Spring 2017 semester. As planned, the Institute organized its second annual conference, with more than 20 researchers exploring ‘Academia and Social Justice’ by discussing the role of academic institutions and actors and concluding with forward-looking thoughts on the opportunities for publicly engaged scholarship.
Building on this extensive work, the Asfari Institute presents in this strategy, fine-tuning document its new orientations that aim to crystallize its mission around three pillars: educate, research and convene, and disseminate. Civil society and democratic advocates are facing hard times in the region and need safe spaces, sound reflective education, and deliberation among champions of change to strengthen their organization and mobilization, protect the vulnerable, and continue to push for democratization and accountable political systems.
As a hub for civil society actors, from social activists, scholars, media professions and business leaders, interested in building accountable, transparent and inclusive new forms of Arab States through an incremental approach, our pathways thus re-prioritizes the diverse activities of the Institute. Based at AUB, our new strategy will focus mainly on achieving three goals: (1) consolidating our educational mission; (2) focusing our research and convening activities, including increasing our work on citizenship through well-defined lines of work; and (3) reaching out to and disseminating about civil society and citizens’ initiatives in more countries in the region. The outcomes of these activities would provide support and empower a more informed, educated and skilled civil society actors and a more engaged Arab scholars equipped with greater experience in mapping and analyzing mobilization and civil action, and would provide more inclusive information and logistical knowledge, including an annual report on challenges related to building equitable citizenships in the region and an annual report on positive models of CSOs and social initiatives in the region.
To attain these goals, our governance system will need to be strengthened to get more public figures from the region on its advisory board and to launch an academic steering committee for the accreditation of the Asfari Institute MA program. Therefore, a selection of several well-known regional figures will be made between January and March 2017. A new steering committee focusing on the MA program will be appointed in collaboration with the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Provost, and will include three to four Departmental Chairs, two research centers Directors, and select AUB faculty.
Block One: Educate
Our first priority for the coming two years will be the fine-tuning and development of our educational mission. The focus will include three programmatic activities, not provided by other AUB-based research centers, to help strengthen civic voices in the region: the capacity building program, called Arab Social Activism Program (ASAP) to be held annually in June; the development of the first MA program exclusively focused on civil society and citizens mobilizing in the Arab region, called the MA on Activism and Transformative Change in the Arab region; and support for young Arab scholars interested in bridging social activism and academia.
The Arab Social Activism Program - (ASAP) / برنامجدعمالناشطيةالإجتماعيةالعربية (بدنا), an annual, 18-day training program, will be launched in 2017. The objective of ASAP/بدنا is to teach critical thinking skills and understandings needed to empower change among the new generation of social leaders. The same set of modules would be offered annually and in Arabic, and thus the program would build case studies, develop a database of training material in Arabic, and work to enrich the Asfari MA library on the long term through convening with similar MA programs offered in the region the rule of law, social justice, forced migration, or gender studies. ASAP / بدنا would become one of the Institute’s key branding features, and would allow regional networking among civil advocates in the region going through difficult challenges to build alliances and break the growing sense of isolation and despair.
A core set of six, twelve-hour modules will be centered around three themes: Arab states and citizenship; civil society addressing the state; and reflecting on new forms of collective actions. In addition, six, six-hour skills training units will be offered annually. The program will recruit twenty advocates from organizations working towards change, key municipalities, social movements, and investigative journalism and digital activism. All participants will be residents from throughout the Arab region. Individuals who take the full set of the six modules and three of the six skills trainings will be eligible for a certificate, and, once the program’s accreditation is achieved, recognition from the AUB.
An equal priority within the educational mission is the development of the Asfari Institute MA on Activism and Transformative Change in the Arab Region by September 2018. The Institute will achieve this goal by undertaking various and complementary tools. The Institute will offer course release for faculty to develop new courses. In this manner, four new courses will be developed a year, beginning at the start of the next semester (Spring 2017), including gender, citizenships and social mobilization. Pre-existing relevant courses at AUB, such as new social movements, research methods, and public finance, also will be enhanced and updated, and collaborations will be built with existing MA programs and academic departments to identify cross-listed courses, such as public finance and a crash course in micro- and macro-economics. Eight meetings and a workshop have been held to date with relevant AUB faculty at various departments, including the Department of Political Studies and Administration, Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies, and the School of Business. Finally, the Institute’s own academic team will produce two to three additional, new courses, namely - the use of law by civil advocates, and environmental justice and mobilization. Thus, within two years, twelve to sixteen courses would have received AUB approval, and the MA program would be ready to be launched.
Conjointly, the Institute will consolidate and expand the support to graduate students from other universities via several approaches. Currently, the AI Team is providing tutorial and logistical support to two graduate students from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, recognized to be one of the finest universities in Europe. Building on and learning from this now formalized academic relationship, the Institute will announce this service and open its doors to other graduate students from other universities, both from within the Arab region and internationally. The Institute will also provide support for young scholars to organize AI panels in well-known academic platforms such as Middle East Studies Association (MESA), World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES), and American Political Science Association (APSA) to enhance the visibility of its intellectual footprint on topics related to mobilization, social justice, refugees, and rights-based movements. While requiring only a small amount of time from the AI team, these activities will critically empower young scholars from the region who need that extra boost for networking and academic support, and will assert the visibility of AI as a research hub on civil society and collective action.
Block two: Research and Convene
Research supported by the Institute will be structured and focused under two program areas (please see the table below). Rather than supporting multi-year research projects, the Institute will consolidate its work under one-year research projects that have tangible and measurable outcomes. The Institute will begin by creating program areas under two particular themes: citizenship and law and governance. The program of ‘citizenship and contentious politics’ will go beyond the legal, normative approach of citizenship and focus on discriminative and exclusionary forms, including those related to gender, religion, refugees, and class. In each of these cases, both the constitutional and legal frameworks, as well as the discriminatory practices, will be highlighted as a prerequisite to consolidating an updated research citizenship agenda. The program of ‘law and governance’ will explore the various means that civil society actors and the state impact each other, including the legal frameworks that govern civil society by the state, the ways civil society actors attempt address the state and its policy production processes, and civil society organizations and movements’ own internal structure.
Under the administrative support of two newly-appointed program officers, each research program area will focus on two research projects a year and produce approximately ten, bilingual, commissioned research papers geared towards scholarly publications. Thus, within one year, approximately twenty research papers of direct, current relevance to the region would be produced, either by the Institute itself or through scholarly, commissioned publications.
Citizenship and contentious politics
Civil Society: Law and Governance
Equal and equitable citizenship for women, refugees, minorities and the poor
State legal and constitutional framework governing civil society
Governance of Diversity between theory and practice
Civil society addressing the state through the use of law, civic organizations, and building campaigns
Civil society’s own internal governance structure
Asfari Institute’s Research Program Areas (2017-2018)
This new vision on one-year research projects comes at a time when the Institute’s current multi-year projects are concluding, namely the studies on labor unions and the search for social justice in the Arab world, the human rights discourse in the Arab region, and the role of civil society in policy making. Furthermore, the one new research project, begun in the summer of 2016 and focusing on women’s rural cooperatives, is itself a one-year project rather than a multi-year project. The goal here is to produce timely needed knowledge in these areas that are instrumental to strengthen citizens’ initiatives and accountable political regimes.
In parallel, the Institute will preserve in developing its partnerships among like-minded institutions in the AUB, Lebanon, and the region. The focus will be on producing academic publications and situation papers in collaboration with scholars, think tanks and specialized NGOs. Networks will be sought with international institutions like Chatham House, Carnegie Middle East Center, and European Council on Foreign Relations, and regional institutions like the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, the Arab Council for Social Sciences, and Economic Research Forum, and national institutions like the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Legal Agenda, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, and the L’Observatoire des Droits Economiques et Sociales in Tunisia.
Block Three: Disseminate
The events and outreach activities for which the Institute has been known over the past two years will be re-centered in several arenas. First, the Institute will launch ‘Active Citizenship Monthly Meetings’. These monthly seminar discussions will focus on a particular issue of active citizenship in the region, and produce one to two short, commissioned papers tackling the exclusion or discrimination processes affecting citizenship, in the broadest sense, in the region. The papers will be published in a bilingual Active Citizenship Annual Report at the each academic year.
Accompanying these monthly meetings will be a monthly book launch or book discussion. For example, in October 2016, when we held our first monthly meeting on ‘the discourses around sexual violence and women citizenship - the case of Egypt and Lebanon,’ we supported it with a book launch and panel discussion on a new book entitled ‘women’s emancipation and civil society organisations: challenging or maintaining the status quo?’ Both events were held in the same week.
A third component of our outreach will be the production of ‘Civil Society in Action’ monthly interviews. The AI team will conduct field trips and meetings focusing on positive models for social change and equality in the country and in the region. These interviews will also be compiled and published annually in a bilingual Civil Society in Action Report to disseminate a more positive note on champions for social change in the region.