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Across the Barricades

Article by Mike Edwards

September 15, 2006

The recent G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Canada, showed how little energy Western governments have expended in involving civil society in global governance. With over $100 million of taxpayers money spent on enforcing a six kilometer exclusion zone, one wonders what signals were sent to the wider world about citizen participation in politics. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien called this “getting back to business-as-usual”, despite the fact that representative and direct democracy have coexisted in healthy tension since the days of Ancient Greece.

But though it has yet to be translated into practice, the publication of NGO Rights and Responsibilities by the Foreign Policy Centre eighteen months ago marked the beginning of a consensus on civil society involvement in global governance. Citizens groups can improve the quality of decision-making in international institutions by injecting more transparency into the international system, and can make decisions more effective by involving more of those whose support is required to make them work. These contributions, however, are not realized in every context, since the outcome of civil society involvement depends on whose voices are represented, how competing interests are reconciled, and whether civic groups are effective in playing their evolving roles. Unless participation is effectively structured, the result may be gridlock, or chaotic policy-creation processes open to manipulation by the loudest groups. The question for NGOs and governments, therefore, is how to structure citizen participation in global governance, not why.

Behind the scenes in Canada, some significant discussions took place between G8 government sherpas from Canada, France, Japan and the UK, and representatives from NGOs under the auspices of the Forum Internacional de Montreal, supported by the Ford Foundation. This group debated the rationale for civil society involvement and brainstormed potential solutions. As hosts of next years G8 Summit, French follow-up will be essential, and thus far the signs are good: the French Government is already making plans to meet with representatives from French and global civil society well before the Summit to discuss tactics, including the radical network ATTAC. In Canada, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has called for task force on G8 reform to look at options for expanding democratic public accessand enlarging participation by parliamentarians and non-state actors in the G8 Summits structure, mandate and processes. The UK Government should support such a task force and implement its recommendations when they host the Summit in two years time.

Further progress in this direction will have to resolve the tensions that exist between structuring participation (to guard against those who shout loudest, or have the richest backers, dominating the debate), and protecting diversity (the hallmark of a healthy civil society). In striking this balance, some argue that we should push for democratically elected non-state bodies to stand alongside inter-governmental structures, such as a “Global Peoples’ Council” to complement the Security Council and the UN General Assembly, but there is little political support for these ideas from governments in any part of the world. Others recommend minimal changes that can easily be accommodated into the structure of international institutions, like the NGO advisory committees to the World Bank and UNDP. These ideas enjoy more political support, but lack the resources and mandate to make any real difference. The most important innovations lie between these two extremes, in experiments that balance greater access to debates with more attention to NGO legitimacy. Examples include multi-stakeholder bodies that foster honest engagement between governments, business and civil society groups (much in use at the upcoming Johannesburg Conference on Sustainable Development), and discussions between civil society groups and inter-governmental bodies outside of their formal sessions, as in the OECD Committee process. Alternative reports from civil society groups can also be tabled alongside official reports from governments, as in the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child.

These innovations work best when backed by codes of conduct that instill the same self-discipline in global NGO networks that marked out the US Civil Rights Movement and other successful causes – the New Economics Foundations Code of Protest, for example, or Friends of the Earth-Europes Principles for Peaceful Protest. In 2001, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in the US developed an exchange of accredited places between Northern and Southern NGOs at the WTO Ministerial meeting in Qatar.

The role of civil society will continue to increase over the coming years. The issue is not whether but how best to realize the potential of citizen involvement in global governance, offset any associated costs, and balance the demand for rules with the benefits of organic development. Heavy handed regulation by governments and inter-governmental bodies is unlikely to yield the best results, since the temptation will always be for some states to use the rules to exclude dissenting voices. Instead, we should look for measures that provide incentives to responsible practice, and reward those who rise to the challenge with more access to the negotiating table. In the 21st Century, civil society will have a voice in world affairs, if not a vote, and both governments and NGOs must structure those voices in ways that promote genuine democracy.

Mike Edwards is Director of Governance and Civil Society at the Ford Foundation, and author of Future Positive and Global Citizen Action

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