Published on Saturday, June 4, 2005 by the Inter Press Service
NGOs: The 'World's New Superpower' Seeks 'Better World'
by Thalif Deen
MONTREAL - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's characterization of civil society as ''the world's new superpower'' reverberated through the corridors of McGill University here this week as 350-plus representatives of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met to hatch strategies to prod world governments on crucial political, social, and economic issues that plague the world's poorer nations.
''After decades of undemocratic and ineffective global governance on key global issues -- ranging from development and environment to human rights, trade, and security -- now is the time to privilege and highlight the visions and views of civil society leaders around the world,'' said James Riker of the University of Maryland, USA.
Playing an important role in this new vision for a better global society should be the estimated 40,000 international NGOs who comprise today's civil society, he said.
NGOs have increased in numbers and have begun to fill essential gaps in global leadership on key issues, he added, citing 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 mobilizing to oppose secret negotiations over proposed rules governing foreign direct investment through the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.
They 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 U.S.-based Corporate Accountability International, said the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which came into force last February, also was a major NGO achievement.
More than 200 NGOs were directly or indirectly involved in the entire three-year process, she said.
''The FCTC is the first global health and corporate accountability treaty that challenged the abusive practices by transnational corporations,'' Mulvey told IPS.
The treaty, backed by civil society organizations as well as countries from Asia, the Caribbean, Middle East, and Pacific, was a collaborative effort that ultimately will save millions of lives and change the way tobacco giants like Altria, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International operate globally, she added.
Rajesh Tandon, chair of the Montreal International Forum, said that while NGOs should continue to critique governments and their policies, ''we should also look for opportunities to collaborate because you cannot move forward without collaboration.''
Asked if he was confident that civil society could successfully link up with governments on public policy issues, Tandon said yes, ''because there is more maturity in the NGO movement now than five years ago.''
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 -- which represents the world's big business interests -- the WSF has continued to spearhead the campaign against what participants call corporate-led globalization, which they say has had a devastating impact on the economies of developing nations.
Cashing in on their collective track record, 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 United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The first test will come June 23-24 when the United Nations hosts two days of civil society hearings to discuss poverty eradication and U.N. structural reforms.
''We should treat the U.N.'s civil society hearings as a prototype of an annual global civil society forum we seek to institute at the United Nations,'' said Rob Wheeler of the Association of World Citizens, a U.S.-based association claiming affiliates in at least 30 countries.
The NGO hearings will precede a U.N. 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, along with Wheeler, planned to establish an NGO steering committee to campaign to revise the U.N. charter and make it what activists groups would consider a more responsive instrument of global governance.
He challenged -- but did not disagree with-- the U.S. neo-conservative view that the United Nations had to be written off as ''irrelevant.''
''Frankly, it is hard to disagree with that view when it comes to really dealing with our global problems in an effective way. But this is not the fault of those who run the present United Nations,'' he added.
The people who have run the United Nations for the last 60 years have done wonderful things, he said, adding, ''look at the U.N. children's agency UNICEF and the vaccination of millions of children.''
But the fact remains that the present United Nations ''simply does not have the power to take globally effective steps to deal with global warming, save rainforests, protect oceans, keep the peace, generate disarmament, end poverty, prevent terrorism, stop genocide, control pandemics, provide aid when natural disasters occur, and address the many other serious global problems we face,'' he said.
Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based think tank Institute for Policy Studies said there is ''a big challenge ahead within the anti-globalisation and peace movements around the world''.
And that challenge, she told IPS, is to educate people about why ''the United Nations is not simply an inevitable 'tool of U.S. foreign policy' like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), even if it often gets used in that way.''
She emphasized that ''we have to reclaim the United Nations, not destroy it.''
Nigel Martin, president of the Montreal International Forum, which organized this week's talks here, said that NGOs increasingly are mobilizing their resources to campaign for a better global society, as evidenced at the WSF meetings in Brazil and India.
He also singled out the rising interest of youth in political, social and economic issues. ''We had to turn down over 100 youth volunteers worldwide who wanted to participate in our seminar,'' Martin said.
''They came with extraordinary understanding of the issues we were going to discuss. The demand was overwhelming. We plan to tap this source and this energy for the future,'' he added.
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