The Alliance roundtable – some reflections

Caroline Hartnell

It is widely held that nothing will ever be the same after September 11. The Alliance email roundtable, held during December and early January, was an attempt to gauge views from around the world as to how September 11 and its aftermath has affected civil society.

Two threads of the discussion are particularly interesting. One centres on the civil society’s values and how good we are at influencing others to accept them. The other leads naturally from this: is civil society powerful enough to influence other sectors of society? If not, how can we start to operate at a more powerful level?

Participants
David Bonbright, Director, NGO Enhancement Programme, Aga Khan Foundation
Miljenko Dereta, Executive Director, Civic Initiatives, Serbia
Seema Ghani, Managing Director, Khorasan, a UK-based charity supporting Afghan refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Zuhra Halimova, Executive Director, Open Society Institute, Tajikistan
Rustam Ibrahim, Chair, Yappika – Civil Society Alliance for Democracy, Indonesia Marcos Kisil, President, Institute for the Development of Social Investment, Brazil
Ezra Mbogori, Executive Director, MWENGO, Zimbabwe
Ghassan Sayah, Chairman, Lebanese Parliamentary Forum
Mohammed Shadid, Executive Director, Palestine NGO Project
Peter Shiras, Senior Vice President for Programs, Independent Sector, USA
Facilitators
Caroline Hartnell, Editor, Alliance
Andrew Kingman, Director, Allavida

The opening questions

  • Do you feel the role or priorities for civil society organizations (CSOs) have changed since September 11, either at a global level or specifically in your own country or region? In what way have they changed?
  • How do they need to change?
  • How should Northern funders be responding to this new situation?

As Michael Edwards points out, a recurring theme of the debate was the need for CSOs both to change and to stay the same. The need to stay the same relates to the need to continue to espouse the values that civil society stands for.

Continuing to do what CSOs have always done …

This was first expressed by Peter Shiras: ‘CSOs, now more than ever, need to do what they have always done. They need to speak out for justice and they need to empower marginalized and vulnerable communities to speak out for themselves. They need to meet the needs … of the homeless, the poor, the hungry and the millions of others whom CSOs serve.’

Ongoing debates about whether the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups are part of civil society notwithstanding, other roundtable participants seem to agree that fighting for social justice and democracy is what civil society is all about. Rustam Ibrahim, identifying ‘so-called NGOs as the most liberal and democratic elements of society’,  agrees that CSO in Indonesia should ‘continue to fight for the promotion and protection of human rights and democracy, to combat corruption and to promote the rule of law’ – as well as remaining involved in programmes for the poor and needy. Mohammed Shadid speaks of ‘the unique ability of CSOs, in that they are not bound by national borders or national interests, to embrace peace and justice in global proportions’.

… but doing it better

There was equally general agreement that civil society doesn’t in practice stand up for these commonly espoused values as well as it should. Peter Shiras speaks for many when he writes of the ‘need to speak out for the values that motivate us as CSOs … and to hold government accountable for its actions, both domestically and internationally. We in the North do a very poor job of effectively influencing either the politics or the policies of our own governments.’

In fact, at this point one has to question whether the dichotomy between changing and staying the same is as sharp as it first looked. Both Ghassan Sayah and Rustam Ibrahim suggest that CSOs need to increase their commitment to their values. ‘The promotion of and education in democracy … should become the new objectives of all CSOs.’ ‘CSOs in Indonesia should also increase their roles and priorities in ethnic and religious conflict resolution, anti-terrorism, global humanity and justice, peace, and so on’.

How much influence does civil society have?

Seema Ghani’s contribution represents a powerful challenge to civil society practitioners everywhere (see box), but many others were ready to admit that CSOs’ influence is limited. According to Miljenko Dereta, ‘It is obvious that monitoring human rights and educating for democracy, tolerance and peace is not enough.’ David Bonbright talks of the civil society approach to development being ‘marginalized in the response thus far … Politicians and power brokers in the United States clearly do not see Afghan civil society as a powerful “part of the solution” in Afghanistan.’ Peter Shiras talks of the ‘relative powerlessness of CSOs, both in northern and southern countries, compared to government, military and corporate power.’

More serious still, Ezra Mbogori suggests, recent events actually threaten to erode what power CSOs do have. The situation he describes is one that will have echoes all round the world. ‘Most countries in eastern and southern Africa are now hastily promulgating anti-terrorism legislation. This inevitably curtails civil liberties and, as most “sane” people might expect, no one dares oppose it for fear of how this might be interpreted.’ The danger as he sees it is that ‘the actions against terrorism are going to roll back the gains made in terms of encouraging free-spirited democratic thought and action. The confidence that had begun to build up is diminishing rapidly.’ How can this confidence be built up again? Or, as Miljenko Dereta puts it, ‘How can we more efficiently influence politics with our basic values?’

Focusing on the achievements

Participants were ready to admit that civil society has made some real gains. David Bonbright refers to ‘the global struggle for human rights of the past three decades, the anti-apartheid struggle in particular, and, more recently, the successes of campaigns against landmines and for debt relief’. Peter Shiras reminds us that ‘it was a people’s movement that forced the US government to pull out of the Vietnam War’ – though he admits that CSOs in the US that have been working hard to change the priorities of US foreign policy have little success. Miljenko Dereta claims that the overthrow of Milosevic’s dictatorship would not have been possible without the activities of NGOs. ‘They were the only consistent force that never accepted violence and nationalism and fought for civilized values.’

Ezra Mbogori contrasts ‘the apparent powerlessness of CSOs in many respects’ with some ‘resounding achievements’. ‘Just last year the then Zambian president tried to test the waters in a bid to change the constitution of his country in order that he could run for a third term. It was largely civil society that blocked this move.’

Looking at what CSOs have achieved may also give us a clue as to why they don’t achieve more. ‘What is paradoxical’, Mbogori says, ‘is that often, following the results of a struggle like this, citizens seem happy to leave the rest of the process – whatever it might be – to the “experts”, who almost invariably botch it up. We have just not cultivated the staying power. … We have to get better at maintaining and strategically using our “collective clout”.’

Miljenko Dereta makes a very similar point. ‘We have proof’, he says, ‘that NGOs foresee the development of crises in many political issues, but they are incapable of preventing their transformation into violent conflicts.’

Meeting the challenge

David Bonbright ‘cherishes the hope that civil society is gaining in strength relative to government and corporate power’ but admits that ‘we are still relatively marginal’. For him the challenge is ‘pretty clear’. ‘We need to organize to operate at a whole other level, a much more powerful level. We need to widen and scale up our efforts … in today`s world in which the organizations of government and commerce operate at a global scale, there is a need for citizen organizations to operate effectively at this level.’ Bonbright is an optimist: despite the ‘ructions of September 11’, he cannot recall a ‘more promising moment’ for civil society to advance.

Marcos Kisil also refers to the CSO movement around the world as lacking ‘the level of organization required by a global society’. He sees greater collaboration between North and South, including funders, as an answer: ‘Transnational corporations could take an important lead in this respect.’

Interestingly, Miljenko Dereta sees working at the national level as the main challenge for CSOs: ‘I have the impression that we have a lot of common points at the level of small local communities (as they deal with everyday lives and basic values) and a general agreement on most global issues (such as human rights, the environment and globalization). It is on the national level … that our influence is really challenged because it collides with the political and economic interests of powerful groups.’

Mohammed Shadid, too, points out the need for political solutions – though not necessarily at the national level: ‘Palestinians see the problems of development here as basically a political problem, which cannot be solved by increasing funding. Aid is welcomed but must be integrated with a political solution.’

Transplanting models for civil society

When thinking about how best to strengthen civil society, the vexed question of ‘models’ inevitably arises. Miljenko Dereta reminds us that ‘it is now obvious that imposing models on societies gives little result’. Marcos Kisil echoes this view, from the perspective of Latin America. ‘It is clear that “top-down” models are inefficient and ineffective.’ He describes how models imposed from the North failed ‘because they were detached from local reality, and they were managed by foreign “technicians” and “programme officers” that often did not know or understand the local culture’. Zuhra Halimova talks of civil society itself being ‘so to speak an “implanted idea” in the former Soviet Union space. … Of course it needs time and much effort to be absorbed and assimilated to become a national idea.’

But Halimova sees adaptation of models as more promising. She sees Seema Ghani’s  ‘Western experience of such institutions’ as ‘a big chance to find what is best to do in her country for the benefit of her people. … You can always use your own experience and expertise and create a model which will be applicable for a country like Afghanistan.’ Miljenko Dereta, too, recommends adapting models to specific situations. ‘Slovaks, Croats and Serbs had similar NGO campaigns for political change. We learned from each other, but the differences in approach guaranteed success in each of the countries.’

Seema Ghani
“We all keep stating that CSOs play a major role in today’s world. It is a shame to notice that they didn’t have a say in what was going on in the USA or its foreign policies. Can we deny the fact that CSOs didn’t have a say or the power to advise the government of such a country that its foreign policies needed reform? Wasn’t this the cause of the September 11 tragedy? …

If it hasn’t yet worked in the North and the so-called ‘civilized’ and ‘advanced’ world, do we think it is going to work in the South? … I think third world countries such as Afghanistan will need many years before they can start thinking that the concept of CSOs will work there. … I attended the Afghan civil society meeting in Bonn in early December. Is the interim government going to take this meeting and its findings seriously? Or are they going to get busy being played by the Western powers once again and forget why they are there?”


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