It is late Sunday afternoon and the end of the second day of the 10th CIVICUS World Assembly, being held in Montréal. There is one more day to come. I am a bit weary and almost ‘conferenced out’ but I’ll use this post to offer some initial observations. At the end of the conference, I’ll provide another post with some concluding comments.
This is the fifth World Assembly I have attended since my first – in Manila in 1999. I’ll touch on a few differences I have noted between this and the earlier World Assemblies. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I served as Board Chair of CIVICUS from 2001 to 2004, which may colour these comments to some extent.
It is a shame that Brian O’Connell couldn’t have been in Montréal for this Assembly. O’Connell, the co-founder and first President of Independent Sector in the US, died earlier this year. He played a pivotal role in the creation of CIVICUS and his contribution was acknowledged in the opening panel.
Brian and others, including but not limited to Miguel Darcy D’Oliveira, Bill White, Rajesh Tandon, James Joseph and Miklós Marschall, were early believers in the need for a global association that would focus on the then relatively new concept of civil society. In spite of some sceptics who thought such a venture was doomed to fail, those early adopters persevered and informal meetings that began exactly 20 years ago this fall resulted in the formal establishment of CIVICUS two years later. Those civil society pioneers may not always have agreed with the directions taken by CIVICUS in subsequent years, but they should all feel a sense of deep satisfaction. Their vision means that there exists an organization with a strong global reach that continues to shine a light on the vital role played by an engaged citizenry. They deserve our thanks.
This World Assembly saw the impressive participation of over 860 delegates from more than 135 countries. Certain sessions were livestreamed so that many more were able to participate ‘virtually’.
Not surprisingly, given the Montréal venue, more than 350 delegates were from Canada. But the remaining 500 + delegates reflected a good mix of participants from countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. There was also a good regional and national distribution of delegates. So, while the UK had 20 delegates, so too did South Africa. France had 16 registered delegates and Pakistan had 18; the Netherlands had 13 and the Philippines had 12.
Especially timely, given recent and ongoing events, was the involvement of delegates from the Middle East and northern Africa, as well as the Gulf States. Interestingly, in spite of Montréal’s proximity to the United States, there were only about 70 American delegates. Relative to the early days of the World Assembly, the 2011 iteration had a much larger and far more diverse mix of participants.
One other aspect of participation differentiated this World Assembly from earlier Assemblies. Unlike the early days, there were relatively few private foundations in evidence in Montréal. On the other hand, there were more representatives of bilateral aid donors. This may be the result, in part, of the move of the CIVICUS headquarters from Washington to Johannesburg a decade ago. That move substantially increased the funds CIVICUS received from bilateral donors. This may also explain why international development is now more central to CIVICUS’ activities than in the early days.
The 2011 Assembly was much better organized than it was the previous year. To be fair to last year’s organizers, however, they were hampered by the failure of the Canadian government to commit funding until the 11th hour.
There were fewer large plenary sessions and more, and more varied, small group sessions using a variety of modalities, from buzz sessions to training workshops to Pecha Kucha flash presentations.
The overall theme for the Assembly was Civil Society and Global Decision Making: Doing it Better. The small group sessions were organized along four tracks: development effectiveness, climate justice, connecting people through technology and civil society, and democratic space. While this provides some focus to a topic as broad and amorphous as civil society, those four tracks might be seen by some as too narrow a conceptualization of civil society. And if delegates had selected only one track to follow throughout the Assembly, their perceptions of and learnings from the Assembly will have been completely different than delegates who followed a different or several tracks.
The discussions in the sessions I attended were earnest, passionate, intelligent and respectful. At the same time, however, they were also contradictory and inconclusive, tending more towards monologue than dialogue and, in some instances, self-serving. In other words, they were much like civil society itself.
The only sour note was sounded at the formal opening. As is its habit, CIVICUS offered the opening comments to two politicians: the Canadian Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Co-operation and the Quebec Minster of International Relations. And, as often happens in such situations, the comments were vapid, self-serving and, in the case of the Parliamentary Secretary, inaccurate. Mercifully, she kept it short although her Quebec counterpart droned on. And, as usual, the politicians left the room and the conference almost as soon as they had finished speaking.
So, why were these politicians accorded the honour of making the opening comments? No doubt because both the Canadian and Quebec governments have provided significant funding for the World Assembly. Both levels of government should be thanked, of course, but we needn’t be sycophants. And let’s not forget, it is actually the citizens of Canada and Quebec who deserve the recognition. It is their money that is funding the World Assembly. The politicians are simply the stewards.
At best, inviting politicians to open events like the World Assembly is annoying. At worst, however, it reinforces and reduces the nature of the government-CSO relationship to one of donor-supplicant. My gratuitous advice to CIVICUS? Stop inviting politicians to provide the opening remarks to the World Assembly.
Patrick Johnston is founder and principal of Borealis Advisors and was a member of the CIVICUS board from 1998 to 2004, serving as Chair in the years 2001-4