Interview – Kumi Naidoo

‘Kumi, I have to say to you that I struggle getting a hold on CIVICUS. It’s like an opaque, jelly-like entity – each time I think I’ve grabbed it and understood it, it slips out of my hands.’ So said Srilatha Batliwala of the Ford Foundation to Kumi Naidoo when he first took up his post as Secretary-General and CEO of CIVICUS. Three years on, a lot of people are still not too sure what CIVICUS is and does. Caroline Hartnell talked to Kumi Naidoo and tried to get a clearer picture.

How is CIVICUS achieving its mission?

CIVICUS’s mission is to strengthen civil society and citizen participation. What are the most important things CIVICUS is doing to achieve it? Kumi Naidoo has several answers. First, CIVICUS is contributing to a more focused debate on civil society. ‘In the last ten years, much of the discourse in this area has been pretty bland. CIVICUS is now asking the question about the public purpose for which civil society works.’

A second contribution centres around deepening knowledge in a practical way. CIVICUS has been doing work around the enabling environment. In certain countries, members have requested information, resources, assistance with struggles that they’ve been having with their national governments. In Egypt, for example, when the government was passing an NGO law, several members contacted CIVICUS and asked to be sent draft laws from other countries.

CIVICUS also plays a critical role as an inspirer, an energizer, encouraging CSOs not to let themselves be reduced to a role as solely service providers. ‘This is on every public platform that I and my staff speak at. Right now I see things that we’ve written or said two or three years ago being quoted by people.’

The convening role is another important one: one of CIVICUS’s strengths is that it can bring people together. Naidoo cites the example of promoting youth participation. He certainly doesn’t think CIVICUS should set up a huge programming department. ‘There are excellent organizations that are doing work around youth. We don’t want to duplicate their work.’

CIVICUS’s added value is to create a safe space for organizations working at a global or regional level to come together and talk about how they can support and work with each other more effectively. In January 1999 he convened a meeting of about 15 of the key global youth organizations, and a very loose network called Partners for Youth Participation was established. Often CIVICUS’s convening role leads to new partnerships, ‘and in some cases we don’t have any role any more’.

There’s also an intellectual input into all of these exercises – ‘people come to us partly because they want to be able to go to our membership and consult them’. A good example is a meeting in the Netherlands last year. The World Bank was thinking about what to do with its handbook on NGO law, to which some people are extremely opposed. ‘Our membership is divided on this, so the constructive thing for CIVICUS to do was to play the role of a neutral broker.’

Focusing on the generic issues

A while back, the CIVICUS website listed ‘Supporting International Women’s Day’ as a CIVICUS programme. Mightn’t people have asked why this was a CIVICUS programme – ‘why women, why not poverty, why not AIDS, why not education?’ For Naidoo, youth and women are generic issues. ‘The enabling environment is not simply about the legal framework. If there are barriers to participation for women young and people, CIVICUS would be failing by not focusing on these barriers. So our intervention is a very niched, specific intervention. It’s not like an area with specific content like women’s health, or education, or even poverty.’ The programme title is now ‘Women in Civil Society’, certainly less confusing.

Does e-CIVICUS confuse the message?

In e-CIVICUS, CIVICUS’s weekly electronic newsletter, Naidoo writes each week on a different topic. Could this, too, lead to uncertainty about what CIVICUS’s role is, and whether all these issues are programme areas that CIVICUS is working in?

‘You cannot promote civil society in a vacuum,’ he answers. ‘You have to look at what CSOs are doing. It doesn’t mean that we’re picking up, say, the environment issue and making it our thing.’ But, he says, ‘98 per cent of people in the world have probably not heard the term civil society yet, so we have to find ways of showing, and celebrating, the real things that civil society is doing.’

He goes further. ‘There are certain issues that I would argue are fundamentally generic issues in that they’re issues for everyone.’ One is violence against women. ‘I’m prepared to debate with anybody anywhere in the world who says to me that violence against women is an issue for women’s organizations. I think it’s absolutely sensible for somebody like me who has an audience through e-CIVICUS to say to every reader of e-CIVICUS, both men and women, that as a person, as a citizen, as a human being, you need to think about the issue of violence against women and to celebrate what CSOs are doing around it.’

Another issue is countering parochiality. ‘If you’re working in the NGO sector, you need to try to understand what people in government and business are doing and what challenges they’re facing, so that when you need to engage with them, you’re more informed. Even within civil society, if you’re working in early childhood development, you will hardly have a sense of what people are doing in other areas. Finding the right balance between focus and parochialism is a real issue.’ One result of people having a too narrow focus is that they lose opportunities for partnership and greater impact.

An overblown job title?

Asked what he feels about his rather overblown title of ‘Secretary-General’, which perhaps suggests a very large mandate for the organization, Naidoo describes himself as having been ‘the dogsbody of CIVICUS’. ‘I’ve done everything, from being the receptionist to copy-writing for newsletters, to doing Excel presentations.’ Even the title CEO is problematic in that some CIVICUS members see it as far too corporate-sounding. But, he points out, ‘a lot of international organizations that are much weaker and much smaller than CIVICUS in terms of reach also use the title. It has become a convention for global organizations.’

Global or regional?

A recent change is the abandonment of regional CIVICUS organizations. ‘We’ve realized that the world can’t be artificially divided up into six regions,’ Naidoo explains. In some regions there are already very strong regional networks – ‘and CIVICUS should never be duplicating where capacity exists’. CIVICUS has been through a regional development review and made the decision that it should be a global alliance of CSOs. People who join CIVICUS want to learn about what is happening globally. ‘Basically we’ve moved from a federal form of organization that was on the basis of six regions to an associational form.’

This will not prevent members associating in whatever way they choose – ‘we won’t stop it, in fact we will encourage it since we want to have our members participate actively through a range of affinity groups, including where people want to associate on a regional basis.’ All CIVICUS members who are concerned about taxation law could form an affinity group around taxation, or members might want to set up a Pacific Island CIVICUS affinity group. But there won’t be financial support from CIVICUS, and there will be a set of broad guidelines setting out the basis on which people can associate and use the CIVICUS name.

Are World Assemblies enough?

Some CIVICUS supporters feel that holding the World Assembly every two years and producing e-CIVICUS and CIVICUS World is enough. Naidoo agrees that with a staff of about 12, that’s not an unreasonable output. ‘But there’s so much more potential in CIVICUS. This is a really young organization. It hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of its potential.’

Naidoo sees the Assembly as an important part of CIVICUS achieving its role. It’s a recharging event: ‘A lot of people working at the grass roots and at a national level are so day to day focused on their work that they don’t even get a breathing space, and the Assembly gives them one. They can share their experiences, hear what their colleagues are doing elsewhere, explore new ideas.’ He also sees it as a chance for the CIVICUS leadership to hear from its members how they think CIVICUS has performed in the last two years and what they think CIVICUS should be doing.

Talking to the global institutions

CIVICUS seems to have won a place at the table with bodies like the World Bank and the UN, but some people question what this has achieved. As the sceptics put it, ‘CIVICUS sits and talks to the World Bank and the UN – so what?’

The first point Naidoo makes is that it’s important not to exaggerate any claim to representativeness. CIVICUS cannot even claim to represent the views of all of its members. ‘But what it can do is try to reflect a broad sense of what CIVICUS stands for. We know that people who join CIVICUS strongly support the notion of participatory democracy.’

A look at the role that CIVICUS played at the last high-level global meeting with the President of the World Bank, just before the so-called spring meetings, gives an idea of what can be achieved. Some 20 organizations were invited, but the invitation came very late, nor was it clear who else was invited. Previous meetings had clearly been frustrating: ‘There wasn’t really an opportunity to engage on any substantive issues or to communicate any of the things that we could have communicated had we had a chance to dialogue among ourselves first.’ The meetings last at most three hours, and ‘by the time you’ve gone around and everyone’s made one comment, the time is up, and then the World Bank responds’.

At the recent Bank meeting, CIVICUS helped to change all this. ‘Two hours before the meeting was due to start, about 12 people met at the CIVICUS offices. We got together and went round and asked everybody what their issues were. We came up with three core issues. When we went into the meeting, I met up with the vice-president responsible for external affairs, Matts Karllson, and said that we wanted to change the format of the meeting.’

But, Naidoo emphasizes, not all these opportunities for high-level representation with global institutions should be taken up by CIVICUS itself. ‘If it’s a generic civil society issue, it probably makes sense. On other issues, it makes sense for us to find appropriate CIVICUS members working in that area.’

Nor does he think we should judge the value of this sort of dialogue too quickly. ‘Some of these dialogues are a new phenomenon, and I don’t think we should judge the issue before it has run its course a little bit.’

Membership vs advocacy

Is there a tension between being a membership organization and a global advocacy organization? Naidoo’s answer is that all membership organizations – local, national or global – experience a ‘creative tension’ between the needs of the members and what members want. ‘The question is how you manage it.’ Given the things that CIVICUS is advocating on, this may not be a problem. In the meeting with the World Bank in April, CIVICUS wasn’t talking about substantive issues like debt or poverty reduction. Rather, Naidoo was arguing that the international financial institutions should be more transparent, more accountable, and should engage civil society with dignity and respect. ‘I think that message is one that every member of CIVICUS would accept by the fact of joining. If I or my staff were to take up a specific issue with the World Bank, about debt for example, they’d really have to do it in a private capacity, rather than as CIVICUS.’

Is CIVICUS needed?

Whatever the challenges it faces, Naidoo has no doubt that there is a need for a global civil society network focused on the generic goal of strengthening space for citizen participation. ‘Governments and businesses have found a whole range of regional and international forums, and civil society activists need a global meeting ground too. Global processes, global institutions, global realities have an impact on the choices and opportunities facing civil society leaders, at a national or local level. The luxury of national parochialism just is not there any more, because many of the issues that people are trying to tackle at a national level increasingly have ramifications that extend beyond national boundaries.’

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