When Forum International de Montréal (FIM) began its dialogue with G8 planning officials in 2002, our intention was to shepherd the process until a more representative body from within civil society could take over. Our initial assumption was that the process would not be viewed as legitimate unless and until this happened. But how was this to happen? One of the tenets of representative democracy is that it must be the product of universal suffrage, but there is no civil society electorate.
How could any organization bring to the table delegates representing the vastness and diversity of civil society around the world? The answer, we decided eventually, is that it can’t, nor should it pretend to do so. In spite of this, we believe that the FIM/G8 dialogue still has legitimacy.
In retrospect it appears that there were three major constraints to this process of becoming representative. One was very practical in nature, one was strategic. The third, a conceptual one, developed later out of the other two.
Because of financial constraints and also because we wanted to ensure a fully participatory dialogue, we were faced with an immediate practical constraint on achieving broad-based representation. We therefore decided, both internally and with G8 officials, that we would limit civil society participants to 15. We took great care to ensure regional and gender balance in these 15 slots, while always respecting the FIM mandate to ensure that southern participation dominated. But this of course was merely scratching the surface of the representation question. Even within these limits, there was no ‘suffrage’ – these people were nominated by FIM, not selected by their own groups. And it would have been impossible to ensure that every minority linguistic, lifestyle, religious, ethnic, and/or disadvantaged group was involved.
Given these inevitable constraints, and while never actually using the term, we sought other means of ensuring some degree of ‘legitimacy’. In addition to the two ‘group’ selection criteria we used, we also drew up a short list of ‘individual’ selection criteria. We felt that we needed individuals who brought, through their experience and reputation, wide-scale credibility. We also sought people who had extensive experience in multilateral negotiations. Because of the delicate nature of the dialogue (the 2002 G8 came on the heels of the Genoa tragedy and no one could predict whether Kananaskis would also be subject to large-scale violence), we looked for people who worked well in a team and who had proven diplomatic skills.
FIM’s niche is in civil society/multilateral relations and, as with all professional communities, the major players are by and large known to each other. We were reasonably confident from the outset that we could bring together a team that would have the required skills and also receive broad external moral support.
While recognizing the importance of this dialogue, FIM was concerned that our entering into it could have two consequences we were anxious to avoid. First, it could imply that we recognized the G8 as a legitimate global governance mechanism. Secondly, the G8 might confer on us the status of being ‘representative’ of international civil society, and as a result feel justified in claiming they had consulted with civil society. We therefore stated at the outset, in writing, that FIM was in no way a gatehouse for international civil society and that our entering into this dialogue did not mean that FIM recognized the G8 as a legitimate global governance mechanism. The G8 organizers accepted these terms.
In view of our concerns over representivity and legitimacy, this manoeuvre may seem odd, but since there was in any case no practical possibility that we could be truly representative, we were anxious that representative status should not be ascribed to us for purposes we disapproved of.
So we had both practical and strategic reasons for disclaiming representative status. But were the factors underlying these reasons specific to our situation or systemic? It began to seem to us that our particular difficulty was part of a larger whole. And the more we disclaimed representivity and the less we aspired to be representative, the more we questioned the premise that representivity is an essential component of legitimacy, especially for a civil society organization.
But if the legitimacy of the FIM project was not rooted in any claim that we represented international civil society, what was it rooted in?
Tacit acceptance by civil society
We expected criticism from within civil society. We did receive some, the most vocal being from colleagues who held positions of responsibility within ‘representative bodies’. The criticisms were (and are) largely conceptual in nature, centring around our right to enter into a dialogue ‘on behalf of civil society’.
Surprisingly, there has been relatively little criticism about our decision to actually undertake dialogue with the G8. This seems to reflect a mature understanding and acceptance of the diversity of civil society, and the prevailing attitude might be summed up as: ‘We prefer to deal with the root problem and to protest the existence of the G8, but in the meantime hopefully you can mitigate the damage.’ I am not aware that any of our participants have been personally criticized for taking part in this exercise.
We receive suggestions for agenda priorities and we are sometimes seen as being naive if we seriously expect to achieve any concrete results. At this stage, however, our objective remains basic: to demonstrate to G8 organizers the value of open and frank dialogue with international civil society. Every time the new host country decides to continue the exercise, we are achieving that objective.
Credibility with the G8
The process of dialogue with the G8 is unusually complex. The G8 is a virtual organization. Each 1 January, its leadership changes and the new host head of state assumes final authority for decisions on agenda, staffing, budget, etc. There is no permanent secretariat, and the agenda is agreed only months before the actual meeting. Each year sees a turnover of sherpas, the designates of the G8 heads of state. For FIM, beginning this project was quite high risk.
Yet the French were sufficiently satisfied with the results of our discussions prior to Kananaskis in 2002 to decide to continue the process in 2003, and the British have considerably strengthened the process this year. It was increasingly clear that by some means we had established credibility and, by extension, some degree of ‘legitimacy’. (No American G8 official attended the 2002 and 2003 meetings, so with them we had no credibility, and we were unable to convince them to agree to a meeting in 2004.)
In our internal reviews after each meeting, the FIM Board also reiterated our commitment to continuing this difficult project, which we knew would take time to produce measurable results. For the first two years FIM limited its public reporting to a short resume of proceedings on its website. This year, we collaborated with Chatham House in London, and the process was more visible than previously and also included a greater degree of outside consultation than before. In part, this growing transparency reflects a greater security in the overall credibility of the exercise and a corresponding easing of tensions between civil society and G8 organizers.
Legitimacy based on acceptance
So, if FIM is not representative, how is the process credible and how accountable are we? There is a parallel with the business sector here. We are, in a very real way, dealing with market forces. Our ‘good name’ depends upon our product in a similar way to that of a business. We provide a service and we have stakeholders. If we fail to deliver a service that is acceptable to our peers (our civil society stakeholders), we will be forced to abandon the project. It wouldn’t take long for G8 organizers to realize that we are not respected by our colleagues and that they are not receiving credible advice and/or opinions.
Our view has changed, therefore, over the course of this initiative. At the outset, we assumed that it would be legitimate in the long term only if it became the responsibility of a representative civil society organization which, for the reasons outlined above, FIM could not and would not claim to be. But it became increasingly clear to us that any existing organization would have similar difficulties in making and substantiating such a claim. Does this fact limit the potential of civil society to play a vital role in global governance? We did not and do not believe so. In FIM’s case, we gradually found other means to develop credibility and legitimacy for the process. The mutual agreement, by G8 organizers and by FIM and its partners, to continue the process conveys credibility and legitimacy.
One of the many reasons why civil society is participating more directly in governance issues is because of a growing frustration with current practices of representative democracy (the democratic deficit). It would be ironic if civil society strove in its turn to fill the representative vacuum. The FIM experience with the G8 suggests that this is neither practical, strategic, nor based on sound thinking.
Nigel Martin is President and CEO of FIM. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are not official FIM policy. Nor are they personal conclusions. They reflect an ongoing process of discussion and analysis that many of us continue to exercise daily. They will, no doubt, be different tomorrow.