Global Policy Forum

Civil Society Has Something to Say


By Gustavo Capdevila

Inter Press Service
October 27, 2008

Governments cannot deal with the current financial crisis on their own, and need the support of the people they govern, which is "best translated by the opinions of the civil society movement," said Werner H. Schleiffer, executive coordinator of CONGO, the global umbrella of NGOs with consultative status with the United Nations.

The responsibility of striving for solutions lies with governments "because the market forces have demonstrated that they cannot solve the issues," said Schleiffer. "But governments do not have sufficient strength on their own, and must take into account "the thinking of their own people as translated by civil society movements," he argued. CONGO, which is made up of national, regional and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is "a bridge, a two-way stream vis-a-vis civil society and vis-a-vis the U.N.," he explained. On Monday and Tuesday, CONGO is debating the global financial meltdown and its effects on the real economy in Geneva at the Civil Society Development Forum (CSDF) 2008. The meeting is also discussing other critical questions facing the international community, like the global food crisis and the questions of food sovereignty and sustainability, as well as the links between human rights and development.

At a previous CSDF, held Jun. 27-29 in New York, CONGO already discussed the incipient financial crisis. The final statement adopted in New York referred to the "global financial turmoil and uncertainty," but only after highlighting the threats posed by the food crisis and environmental risks. However, in its analysis of the food crisis, the New York CSDF document states that "We note the pervasive role of international financial institutions in influencing national development strategies. We urge these institutions to redesign their strategies with a view to assisting countries in defining their priorities at home by using home-grown expertise and products of these countries." The document also says the World Trade Organisation's "role in negotiations on agricultural matters should be re-examined." But "since June, the food crisis, the energy crisis and the financial crisis have taken on such great proportions, that couldn't be anticipated in June," Schleiffer told IPS. The first policy level discussion at the U.N. General Assembly in September also "indicated very clearly that these topics are very high on the agenda of the General Assembly," he added. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself "even spoke about an emergency development," indicating that these topics deserve very careful discussion in the future, said Schleiffer. "These crises will not go away overnight. But they cannot be attacked without having civil society on board. The U.N. and the member governments cannot handle it on their own," said the head of CONGO in Geneva. "They need strong and determined input by civil society." To that end, "our members of the board, in consultation with our organisations, agreed that we should continue these discussions on these topics and come up with further concrete recommendations" at the two-day meeting in Geneva, said Schleiffer.

The questions of the food crisis, food sustainability and sovereignty are being discussed in-depth, he said, adding that the latter issue "is very important to our member organisations." "The other issue, the nexus between human rights and development, will also come up further, especially when we look at the issue of speculative movements that distort market mechanisms and are very much against the people, particularly people living in the (developing) South," said Schleiffer. "We are much inclined to see the consequences of these crises on our daily lives in the North, but the ones that really suffer, and suffer enormously, are (the people) of the South. Much more than we do," he added. Delegates from key civil society movements from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia were thus invited to participate in the two-day meeting in Geneva, which was made possible by financial support from the Swiss government, he said.

CONGO officials were encouraged by the results of their participation in the High Level Segment, an annual ECOSOC session held alternatively in New York and Geneva that is like a kind of "parliamentary" session of the U.N. system for dealing with economic and social issues, said Schleiffer. At that session, "we had the opportunity to speak more than ever before. It was unprecedented, between our CONGO statements on behalf of civil society and statements by organisations.under our umbrella, all together we had something like half an hour of speaking time, which is unique when you think that depending on the sessions, you only have one or two minutes to speak. That was quite an accomplishment." Another encouraging factor was the level of approval from the U.N. Secretariat and government representatives received by CONGO's outcome document, which was circulated to the member governments as an official ECOSOC document, he said. The declaration that came out of the ECOSOC High Level Segment, which will go into its report to the General Assembly, showed a "really amazing.congruence in wording" with the CONGO outcome document, said Schleiffer. The two-day CSDF meeting was opened Monday by the president of CONGO, Liberato Bautista, of the United States, and will be closed Tuesday by the body's first vice president, Italian trade unionist Anna Biondi, who represents the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

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