Lydia Sijp and Jeanette Daysh outside the new CICSO office

From old shed to state-of-the-art centre for democratic engagement. That’s been the recent journey for Cook Islands Civic Society Organisations Inc (CICSO) - an umbrella group for more than 120 Cook Island non-government organisations and community groups.

For Lydia Sijp, the General Secretary of CICSO, the building represents a milestone. “We’ve all been operating from our mobiles, from our cars from our (non-CICSO) offices you know so we sat down to develop our application for VSA for our own office space and because of COVID it’s taken two years to get Jeanette here so we’re very thankful that she’s here now.”

This isn’t Lydia’s first project. She’s been working to build civil society and democratic engagement in the Cook Islands for nearly thirty years including working to establish and grow the National Olympic Committee, holding office in the National Council of Women, and the Cook Islands Family Welfare Association. These are all sectors she remains closely connected with in her current work.

“I really want to focus on getting civil society up and running and focused because there’s a lot of work to be done. Part of that was getting this hub office and getting Jeanette to give us a hand because we need to develop our policies, our communications, and our strategic plans for the next five-ten years.

“It’s taken a long time for us to get to the point where we now sit at the round table talks with government and with international donors, so that we can be part of the conversation about where development should go for the country.”

Jeanette and Bryan arrive in the Cook Islands

In May this year VSA volunteer Jeanette Daysh arrived in the Cook Islands with her husband Bryan to support CICSO members through sharing her experience in strategy, processes and communications. The hub will play a strong role in developing that voice says Jeanette. “It’s early days yet but we see this as a place where groups can meet and find opportunities to work together.

“We work with youth-focused groups, women groups, cultural activities, agriculture and environment groups and so we’re hoping in time what we’ll be doing is running workshops pertinent to those particular groups. For instance, I’ve just been speaking to someone who is very keen on promoting financial literacy amongst youth. We can help facilitate that by putting together a workshop with them and bringing our youth organisations to it.

As Lydia says, “It’s about building and strengthening democratic participation by strengthening these groups’ voices in civil society.”