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"A successful citizens’ initiative is not the end but the beginning”

"A successful citizens’ initiative is not the end but the beginning”

09-09-2013

Interview with Xavier Dutoit, the IT-brain of the ECI “Water is a Human Right” - Today on 9th September the campaigners of the European Citizens’ Initiative “Water is a Human Right” start handing over the collected signatures to the competent authorities in the EU Member States, which now need to certify the signatures. Overall, about 1,9 million  citizens signed the ECI “Water is a Human Right” that proposes EU legislation to implement the human right to water and sanitation and to promote the provision of water and sanitation as essential public services for all. Out of all 31 ECIs launched since first April 2012, “Water is a Human Right” is the first European Citizens’ Initiative that reached the necessary quora to be submitted to the European Commission: The ECI requires one million signatures from at least seven EU Member States in proportion to their size in order to be finally submitted to the European Commission. I had the chance to speak to Xavier Dutoit, the person who set up the software to collect online the signatures for the ECI “Water is a Human Right”.


Democracy International: First of all congratulations. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “Water is a human right” is the first ECI that reached the necessary amount of one million signatures. Why was the ECI “Water is a human right” successful?

Xavier Dutoit: We had a strong network of partners and organsiations supporting the campaign and what is most important we had a message that  resonated with people. Political developments in the countries coincided with the topic, such as the Troika in Greece trying to force the privatization of water or the mayor in Hungary who cut access to water for the Roma People. It is always small things that help people to connect their own concerns with European issues. Another reason was money: We had 100.000 Euro, the biggest budget of all ECIs so far. 

Are you happy about how the ECI succeeded? 

Of course I am happy to have the first successful ECI.  However, my job is to solve problems in order to achieve goals and I have to focus on things that do not work. In this case there were unfortunately many things that did not work. Most importantly, the online collection tool developed and provided by the European Commission did not function properly at the beginning. Also, the software hinders people from engaging with the campaign. Overall, the European Commission’s Open Collection Software is a blackbox that only fulfils the obligations of the ECI regulation but does not take into account the EU citizens who are using the tool as part of their democratic freedom to engage in the public debate.

So what do you expect from the online collection software?

The online collection software must be designed as a campaign tool. The software must be official and user-friendly at the same time – the layout must be cleaner and it must be better designed.  For example: When someone signs an ECI he does not get a “thank you” note at the end but just a reference number. For me, this is a typical example that citizens perceive the EU as something clinical and bureaucratic. The human touch is missing.

Which challenges do you now see for the ECI Water is a human right? 

The next step is to get the about 1,9 million signatures certified within the next three months. The European Commission now has to come up with a proposal on how to respond. The challenge is to keep the momentum. That is the problem of every petition. A successful citizens’ initiative is not the end but the beginning. The goal now is to transfer the signatures into actual law. 

What did you do exactly for the ECI “Water is a human right”?

My background is in IT and politics. I developed the website for the campaign as well as the software tool in the backend (CiviCRM) to help EPSU communicate with the national coordinators. Overall, I have been an online activist for 15 years. During that time I have been working with a variety of progressive civil society organisations to help them with their software and their websites, their fundraising and their campaigning. I have been working with EPSU for 10 years and they were  among the first to launch an ECI.

What do you want to improve with the ECI in general?

There are things to improve in the regulation. For instance, removing all requirements of ID data like passport numbers. Many people complained that it was too intrusive. Also, making it easier to keep in touch with the supporters if they want to. We need a software that is developed by and for the people and that is not a showcase of EU bureaucracy.  That is the software I want to develop.

What motivates you to spend all your talent and knowledge on helping NGOs? 

The honest answer: it is fun and interesting. And then of course I always see that the world has a problem, there are plenty of things that must be improved. They will not improve by themselves and therefore I want to help. I like the idea that technology is not neutral. It is up to me to decide whether I use it for a good or bad cause. 

In that regard, what do you think of Edward Snowden’s relevation?

What he has shown is how much of a surveillance state we became. I think he did the right thing because it is important in a democracy that we can exchange ideas without fear of being spied. It's not because it's online that it's less intrusive. If I tell someone that there is a camera in his bathroom the person would freak out. The NSA does the same with online communication: It is as private as the bathroom. Snowden is one of the first to react and take the risk of raising the issue.

Interview by Cora Pfafferott

Further information: 
-    The website of the ECI campaign “Water is a Human Right"
-    The European Commission’s website on the ECI 
-    Information by Democracy International 
-    Brochure by Democracy International: “ECI Briefing: The first year with transnational direct democracy in practice” 

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