CIVICUS moves from Manila to a new millennium

Caroline Hartnell

‘For CIVICUS, this Assembly marks its progression from a young toddler to a young child.’ So spoke Secretary General Kumi Naidoo in his opening address. It is a metaphor that leads to some obvious questions. How long will it take for this child to grow up? And what sort of adult do we want it to grow into?

Around 600 people from more than 80 countries gathered in Manila on 21 September for the opening of the CIVICUS 3rd World Assembly, symbolically 27 years to the day since the proclamation of martial law in the Philippines. The next four days saw an intensive programme of plenary sessions, breakouts and presentations, starting briskly at 8am, with CIVICUS delegates debating three core themes: social cohesion, governance, and business–community engagement. The very fact of such an event occurring remains an impressive achievement. A press release described the Assembly as ‘a kind of world summit primarily for NGOs’, and there is indeed no other forum in which such debates can take place.

But questions remain to be answered. What is CIVICUS? Who are – or who should be – its members? Who should not be its members? What is it for?

There are some familiar dichotomies here. Is it a convening organization or should there be some programmatic content? Is CIVICUS a membership organization or a civil society movement? Sara Melendez, President of US national non-profit coalition Independent Sector (IS), questions the need for this last dichotomy. ‘Why not be both? There will always be people who don’t know what you’re doing.’ She clearly feels this is true of IS after 20 years.

A vision for CIVICUS

Graca Machel, speaking at the Assembly formal dinner, sketched out a vision for CIVICUS. She called on delegates to revisit our ‘democratic building’, which has parliaments and governments that ‘don’t have the diversity and composition of our societies’. To make this building work, she said, we have to ‘establish regular mechanisms of communication, of dialogue, with these institutions’, and this is something that CSOs should be doing. Moreover, governments and businesses come together in regional forums, and CSOs should also be coming together and developing a common agenda. Together CSOs can effect change; it was civil society that set the agenda for the international landmines campaign and the debt campaign.

Fidel Valdez Ramos, former President of the Philippines, also identified the ‘basic challenge of civil society’ as ‘making democracy work for common people’ and ‘limiting state authority over a free people’.

Bill White, President of the Mott Foundation, seems to share the vision of CIVICUS taking its place among the world’s councils. Though originally, he said, ‘We just thought it might be nice to have some people get together’, eventually ‘CIVICUS will take its place and have an effective voice with the multilateral organizations and with big business.’ CSOs will also be able to share knowledge: ‘If they’re engaged in educating youth, they’ll be able to share curriculums, they won’t have to reinvent them.’

What about the CIVICUS Assembly?

The very fact of people coming together to talk and argue and exchange ideas was certainly enough at the first ever Assembly in Mexico City, and even in Budapest. Perhaps it will always be enough; it is certainly a unique event. Kumi spoke of the Assembly ‘recharging people’s batteries’. ‘I’m here to gain the courage to go back and do it again for another couple of years,’ said one woman whose job involves feeding 6,000 people a day.

While CIVICUS certainly has a key role to play in bringing together the different sectors of society, the Assembly itself may not be the place to do it. While there was a good sprinkling of people from the corporate side, and impressive support from the Philippine business sector, a World Assembly is unlikely ever to be the main forum for a meeting of non-profit and business sectors. As stressed by some of the corporate delegates — AnnaMaria Hynes of American Express for one — business is always looking for clear, concrete outcomes, and four days of wide-ranging and exploratory discussions is unlikely to deliver in this respect.

On the NGO side, as pointed out in the CIVICUS column (see p39), attitudes to the corporate sector are still very mixed. While many NGOs are already engaged in sophisticated ‘partnerships’, others still see relationships mainly in terms of ‘pricking the conscience of the business sector’ – an understandable view but not one that is likely to be a good basis for the sort of engagement business is looking for.

The real meetings between business and NGOs will surely take place elsewhere, as part of the work of CIVICUS’s corporate engagement taskforce, as part of Business Partners for Development (see report on p7), at a specially designated meeting being organized by CIVICUS North America in Mexico City in May, to be held alongside the EMPRESA conference on ‘Business and Social Responsibility in the Americas’.

And what about the government sector? One journalist not familiar with civil society asked a significant question at a breakout session: ‘Why is everyone here always talking about the corporate sector? No one ever mentions government.’

And the trade unions? A Canadian delegate noted their absence – and the constructive role they play within Canada.

Resource mobilization in the new millennium

Barry Gaberman’s lunchtime address on the closing day of the Assembly provided a thought-provoking drawing together of some of the themes of the Assembly. Asked to talk about the challenges facing CSOs in resource mobilization, he preferred to talk of opportunities.

  • The probable departure of much of the foreign funding that has sustained CSOs in the South and in Eastern Europe can be seen as an opportunity to lessen dependency, leverage resources as part of the exit strategy, and recommit ourselves to developing local resources.
  • The increasing fuzziness of the boundaries between public, for-profit and civil society sectors gives rise to increasing opportunities to forge partnerships.
  • The almost universal retreat of governments from functions they used to perform means that they will naturally turn to CSOs, and there will be greater opportunities to bring grassroot organizations into partnership with local governments.
  • The increasing mobility of people, which often results in their loss of roots and commitment to local communities, means that there are significant populations in the North with connections to the South, and perhaps the innovative notion of diaspora philanthropy will come to the fore at last.

‘We are moving from the dependency reinforcing notion of donor and donee to a new notion that uses terms like partnerships, joint ventures and strategic alliances,’ Gaberman concluded.  ‘It may be unsettling in some ways, but it suggests that we have more and more control over our destiny.’ 

CIVICUS – some views from the outside

Journalists from all over the world were invited to the CIVICUS Assembly in Manila. The idea was to improve media understanding and coverage of civil society. This is what some of them wrote about the experience.

A young do-gooder still finding its way

If I had to pick the strongest feature of CIVICUS and the Assembly in Manila, I would say it is the people. They came from different countries and backgrounds and had different pet concerns, but they all had passion — definitely vital if CIVICUS is to realize its objectives. When is a different issue.

CIVICUS struck me as a young do-gooder still finding its way. But then again, with the charming dogged grit and determination of the young, CIVICUS believes that no project (for example the Civil Society Index) should not be pursued just because it is too difficult.

Being a pragmatic person, my main difficulty at the Assembly was that there were really not many answers to the questions I had. While my ‘why’ questions were generally answered by reading the mounds of material I picked up, the ‘how’ questions remain. The main one being how practical can CIVICUS be? Is it just a coalition of the converted who come to share their personal experiences and get intellectually fed? I can see it maybe moving a global boycott, but could it move, cajole, strong-arm governments/businesses in repressive albeit democratically elected regimes to make changes?

That aside, I would recommend CIVICUS Assemblies to anyone.

Shaila Koshy, Chief Reporter, The Star, Malaysia

Overcoming antagonism and suspicion

The corporate and voluntary sectors have a shared history of mutual antagonism and suspicion. Businesses have seen civil society organizations (CSOs) as an impediment to economic growth while the latter have viewed business as anti-people, trying solely to make money. With both sides slowly changing their attitudes towards each other, the CIVICUS Assembly was clearly a useful and well-timed forum for the two sides to sit face to face and make a serious attempt to set aside their fears and suspicions and see how they could forge a useful partnership.

One area which I felt was neglected is the role of the media and how they can be used by both corporate sector and CSOs to build a positive public opinion in their favour. But a word of warning here: the corporate sector will have an inherent advantage in accessing the media given their position of power and their well-oiled PR departments. CSOs, on the other hand, invariably complain that the media gives them inadequate coverage or dwells only on the negative. Capacity-building of CSOs to enable them to use the media more effectively is surely worth pursuing.

Anita Katyal, Special Correspondent, The Times of India

There are media and media

I knew precious little about CIVICUS before Manila. I was initially very reluctant to be there, and my initial reservations have not been entirely dispelled. It is very difficult for an economic daily like mine to create a niche for this variety of news — which is also the challenge the assignment offers.

It also offered a learning experience. For one, the new concept of corporate responsibility came out clearly in some of the seminars and the case studies that were discussed. In fact, I propose to do a detailed story on corporate responsibility and the Indian experience. I understand that it is gaining momentum in India, especially since it offers a win-win situation for all players.

In the final analysis, the conference did expose me to an entire milieu of people and ideas. The hospitality left nothing lacking. My only grouse, if any, is the lack of internet facilties, which would have probably eased the task of filing copy for my paper. But that I guess is a fallout of the fledgeling relationship between NGOs and the media in general. NGOs should drop there suspicions about the media. There are media and media, just as there are NGOs and NGOs.

Anil Padmanabhan, Economic & Infrastructure Affairs Editor, Business Standard, India

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