By Beatrice Paez
MONTREAL, Canada, Aug 23, 2010 (IPS) – Six hundred delegates from more than 80 countries flocked to Montreal Aug. 20-23 for the CIVICUS World Assembly in search of innovative ways to approach global challenges like poverty and climate change.
An international alliance of about 1,000 civil society organisations, CIVICUS concentrates its efforts on strengthening citizen action and civil society, especially where citizens’ right to freedom of association are threatened.
This is an opportunity for civil society to grow together, said Anabel Cruz, the chair of the board of CIVICUS. “The world assembly is always a very interactive platform for sharing experience, learning from each other and discussing solutions. I hope people can come back to their countries with more knowledge and joint projects,” Cruz told IPS. “This is the start of a process, not the end.”
The conference took on three broad issues â€“ economic justice, development effectiveness and climate change, with economic justice topping the agenda. Among the headliners of the discussion was Sanjeev Khagram, the lead author of “Voices of the Vulnerable”, a U.N. report on the impacts of the economic crisis on the poor.
Khagram stressed the need for civil society to shift where it channels its efforts. He told IPS that relative to the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the real forces in setting the rules for the global financial system are the Basel institutions and the Financial Stability Board (FSB).
“Ordinary citizens have no engagement there but the real power is there because they are the ones that coordinated the bailouts and set new regulations for the future,” he said.
He argued that as these institutions attract a host of actors – bringing together private bankers, central bankers and ministers of finance – this is the place where civil society should be lodging its appeals.
Civil society has the responsibility to develop, promote and hold these financial institutions accountable to norms and principles that reflect human rights, said Khagram.
Taking stock of how civil society organisations can improve and where potential lies also underpin the spirit of the conference.
Ingrid Srinath, the secretary-general of CIVICUS, noted the importance of overcoming internal divisions, which manifests itself in the competition for funding. “If we are actually going to achieve the synergistic benefits of both development funding and climate fundingâ€¦the climate folks and development folks need start working together a lot more closely,” she said.
“I think we have to begin to say the struggles to end global poverty and to avert catastrophic climate change are two sides of the same coin,” said Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International.
Tomas Brundin of the Swedish Foreign Ministry addressed the need for governments to recognise that civil society is the real agent of social change. “We need to move from rhetoric to action and change our deep-seated behaviours,” he said.
“One of the problems that we face is that we tend to talk to our equals and to focus on the executive branch but not where the real ownership should be â€“ with parliament and civil society,” he added.
While not on the agenda this year, civil society organisations continue to envision and pursue ways of demonstrating accountability.
Cruz said the best self-defence for civil society organisations is self-regulation, which means setting out to collectively agree on certain principles and standards that are then presented to the public. Naidoo suggests that on top of self-regulation, NGOs can also be subject to the Accountability Charter.
Cruz and Naidoo cautioned against the process of certification, a service offered by an external party â€“ an NGO or from the private sector. The process evaluates the quality of the organisation to assess whether it is representative and accountable to the people.
Naidoo argues the Charter is a more authoritative measure because while major civil society leaders brought it about, it consists of an independent panel that makes judgments and includes a sanctions component.
“There were some organisations that approached me and I felt that they had no empathy with the sector, they were just trying to develop some income-generating profit,” he said.
He also cites diversity as an important consideration, given the differences in resources and the scope of its focus – civil society organisations cannot be subject to one standard.
“I’m not sure that an external party can assess the real value of civil society,” said Cruz.