TOPICS : Civil society taking on global leadership

Thalif Deen

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s characterisation of civil society as ‘’the world’s new superpower’’ reverberated through the corridors of McGill University in Montreal as 350-plus representatives of INGOs met to hatch strategies to prod world governments on crucial political, social, and economic issues that plague the world’s poorer nations. James Riker of the University of Maryland, USA said that NGOs have increased in numbers and have begun to fill essential gaps in global leadership on key issues. He cited successes including the international campaign to ban landmines and the Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming. Riker said that civil society also played a watchdog role by mobilising to oppose secret negotiations over proposed rules governing foreign direct investment. The NGOs also undertook advocacy campaigns that compelled global institutions to act on debt relief and acknowledge serious problems in their backing for dams. Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of the US-based Corporate Accountability International, said the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which came into force last February, also was a major NGO achievement.

The World Social Forum (WSF)—held annually since 2001 in Porte Allegre, Brazil and Mumbai, India—drew over 75,000 people and hundreds of NGOs last January. Created in response to the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland the WSF has continued to spearhead the campaign against what participants call corporate-led globalisation, which they say has had a devastating impact on the economies of developing nations. The NGOs meeting in Montreal this week agreed to promote regional integration to enhance the role of civil society on issues relating to debt, hunger, development assistance, the environment and changes they say are needed at multilateral institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The first test will come June 23-24 when the UN hosts two days of civil society hearings to discuss poverty eradication and UN structural reforms. The NGO hearings will precede a UN summit meeting of world leaders scheduled to take place in mid-September. Benton Musslewhite of One World Now, a group promoting international studies among high school students in the Seattle, USA region, said that he planned to establish an NGO steering committee to campaign to revise the UN charter and make it what activists groups would consider a more responsive instrument of global governance.

The people who have run the UN for the last 60 years have done wonderful things, he said, adding, ‘’look at the UN children’s agency UNICEF and the vaccination of millions of children.’’ But the fact remains that the present UN ‘’simply does not have the power to take globally effective steps to deal with global warming, keep the peace, end poverty, prevent terrorism, and address many other serious global problems we face,’’ he said. —IPS