When you’re having a conference of more than 1000 participants, like the conference we’ve got here, you cannot expect real dialogues inside the sessions. Most of it will be one-way and although the discussions might be interesting, it won’t be engaging.

Unless you’re lucky and plung yourself into one of the People’s Empowerment Special Sessions, tucked inside the Ballroom A, nearby the registration booths.

The rules here are different with other sessions. There are four circles with different focuses. Each circle is populated by about 40 people. You can choose two of them, each lasting for 40 minutes. One or two panelists will talk first for about 5-10 minutes, and then it’s the participants’ turn to tell their own stories.

Today’s topic is Mobilising People. First focus is People Count: Citizen Empowerment, Grass-Roots Action, Corruption Disruption. There’s also Quit Playing Dumb: responsible citizens and accountable representatives. Third is Squashed between a rock and a hard place: 5 positive actions to save civic space. And last but not least, Civil Society Empowerment – Political Vuvuzelas or Development Partners?

The great thing about the session is that there’s no real panelists, and participants are given more time to share. But time is still limited to around five minutes per speaker, so it’s similar with elevator pitches where adrenaline rush makes you more excited.

Plus, the absence of microphone pushes people to talk louder, they sound to be more passionate, while people in the circles have to lean closer and concentrate well to hear the stories.

I chose the circle discussing about People Count. Hussein Khalid from Muslims for Human Rights, Kenya, told the importance of making people connected and empowered before they can be mobilized to fight corruption.

Don’t forget, ‘We have to make the corruption issue closer to the people. Don’t just tell them that corruption costs us 10 million dollars a year,’ he said. It’s a difficult concept to understand for people with lower income than two dollars a day.

Vijay Anand of 5th Pillar, India, shared an interesting story of campaigning anti-bribe movement. 5th Pillar is campaigning on printed ‘Zero Rupee’ bills. Bearing Mahatma Gandhi’s face, a sign of non-violence fight, he said, the pseudo-bills have two strong sentences: ‘Eliminate corruption at all levels’ and ‘I promise to neither accept nor give bribes.’

5th Pillar provokes the students’ thoughts and anger against corruption, and then convinces them that they can definitely change it. Anand’s organisation then asks the students to spread Zero Rupee to their friends, families, and give it to the officials who usually want to be bribed for public services.

Funny thing is, the officials who receives the bills usually suddenly do not ask for bribe — at least not to the ones who give it — and give proper public services in return. Some honest officials even sometimes put the Zero Rupee in their office, showing people that they don’t take bribes.

Danang Widoyoko from Indonesia Corruption Watch told how last year they mobilise the people to join the movement to support the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission). Two vice chairmen of KPK was said to ask for bribes, an allegation engineered by the police and attorney general office. ICW contacted the law professors to voice their concerns against the criminalisation in press conferences and in television talk shows. Widoyoko and other anticorruption watchdogs organised huge demonstrations in 20 cities, bringing thousands of activists and students to the street in the same day.

They also used popular artists and music bands to aid the movement. ‘It’s to get more attention and reach more people,’ he said.

The most popular rock band in Indonesia, Slank, even made a song for the movement, making it a hit ringtone and ring back tone home. The President, fearing that the movement would cause him losing his chair, finally asked the police and attorney general office to stop the investigation.

The conversation kept going on and on with different success stories on mobilising people, making me left the room with a wide smile, despite all the challenges facing the anticorruption agenda: we’re definitely empowering the empowerment.

I’ve decided that I’d go back to another People’s Empowerment session tomorrow, discussing how to support victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers.

See you there!


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