This 4-day event (20-23 August) was a microcosm of civil society itself. Its 700 participants quite faithfully reflected the geographic, demographic and issue diversity of the associational world. It comprised people from environmental, human rights and development NGOs (operational and advocacy); there were trade unions, think-tanks, foundations and donor institutions represented; activists from youth, women’s and disability groups were there.
Some were small community-based groups, others represented the world’s largest NGOs or the major networks; some were concerned with issues at the national or local level while others had a global view; and there was a good geographic spread (although the Middle East and North Africa were poorly represented).
The plenary sessions had interesting speakers – though there was an emphasis on informing the audience about global concerns rather than discussing roles and challenges for civil society in tackling those concerns. The declared World Assembly (WA) theme was ‘Acting Together for a Just World’, but ‘Why the World is Unjust’ might have been more appropriate. The most engaging session was on economic justice, largely because it was moderated by a skilled communicator (from the BBC’s World Have Your Say programme) and the speakers came from very different backgrounds. Unfortunately I found the least exciting session was the opening plenary. Most sessions didn’t allow much audience participation.
There were 36 workshops and special events, of varying quality, of course. Some, such as the one on ‘protecting and expanding civil society space’, were huge and really needed much more time (especially given the sensitivity of the subject matter). Similarly, the sessions on participatory governance, working more effectively across sectors (‘getting out of the silos’), and assessing CSO impact in complex change processes were very well-attended. Some others, though, were of minority interest and some were little more than showcases for the work of particular CSOs.
Least successful were the three ‘Open Forum’ streams that met for three consecutive afternoons, with sharply diminishing participation (the one on responding to the economic crisis had just 9 participants in its final session); not much can be expected from them. On the other hand, participants welcomed the chance to network or form their own ad hoc discussions.
In fact, the main value for such events is the opportunity to network with both old and new colleagues and friends – and there was plenty of chance and space for this. Without a doubt, the WA’s contribution to building transnational social capital is worth the investment.
Before the WA, those close to CIVICUS were asking two questions: how will the new Secretary General, Ingrid Srinath, compare with CIVICUS’s former head, Kumi Naidoo, and what will the Montreal venue be like compared with Glasgow (this is the first of three WAs in Canada, the previous three having been held in Scotland). On the first question, Ingrid clearly showed that she has her own strengths and did not attempt to emulate Kumi’s oratory and political passion. CIVICUS members went away confident that their organization was in good hands, and pleased too that there has been a relatively smooth transition to a largely new board. Following the WA, the Civicus Board elected David Bonbright of Keystone as its new chair.
On the second question, the general response was ‘not really as good’. The facilities were fine, if rather cavernous, but there was not the impressive support structure that Scotland had provided. There was an emphasis on the ‘fun and quirky’ rather than making the event as smooth as possible, and local groups tended to gear their events (culture, workshops etc) to fellow Quebequois, rather than the general audience. The main complaint, though, was that many who booked were unable to get Canadian visas.
Perhaps the most powerful theme running through the assembly was the political backlash we seem to be facing, with governments becoming increasingly hostile to CSOs. Visa problems represent just the tip of the iceberg; the WA heard countless examples of activists – especially human rights defenders – being jailed on trumped-up charges, beaten up or killed, and dozens of examples were shared of repressive new laws or policies being introduced that make life harder for civil society advocates. Specific solidarity campaigns were launched calling for the release of detained activists, and there was discussion about how CSOs and more liberal governments could work more closely together to protect civil society.
Perhaps the most salutary note was sounded by Kumi Naidoo. He noted that CSOs now have a seat at the table in a wide array of high-level places, but wondered whether changes are made as a result. He warned that access to power shouldn’t be confused with real influence.
John Clark is a principal of The Policy Practice and an independent development consultant. Prior to 2009 he was at the World Bank as head of its civil society programme and then as lead social scientist for East Asia.
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