Civil society: Glasgow goes global

Nick Cater previews this week's Civicus World Assembly, and the alliance's chair, Aruna Rao, calls for hard talk.

ACTING FOR A JUST WORLD

As the World Alliance for Citizen Participation - better known as Civicus - meets in Scotland this week, Nick Cater examines the vision and values of this vast and diverse coalition

The world comes to Scotland this week, when 1,200 participants from 100 countries gather for what has been called "the United Nations of non-governmental organisations".

A vast and diverse civil society alliance, Civicus brings together thousands of charities, NGOs, trade unions and faith groups. These range from the Girl Guides to the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which is hosting the Glasgow-based event, Acting Together for a Just World.

Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Civicus, says the theme was prompted by the need for a united response to world issues such as HIV/Aids, global warming, poverty and avian flu, and underscored by the massive commitment of ordinary citizens in the run-up to last year's G8 summit, during events such as the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live 8 concerts.

Launched in 1993, Civicus's dual role is to draw attention to those world issues and support civil society, especially where political pressure or underdevelopment mean organisations with meagre resources face massive needs.

Given that the greatest demands on civil society are in the southern hemisphere, Civicus took the obvious option five years ago to shift its secretariat from Washington DC in the US to Johannesburg, South Africa.

The aim was to offer a new credibility and authority based on direct experience.

That also triggered a growth in membership, to the point where Civicus now includes more than 1,000 organisations from 110 countries. It has experienced a leap in its own capacity too, as staff numbers have jumped from four to more than 30 from 22 countries. This, according to Naidoo, gives his organisation the languages, contacts and cultural diversity that anti-terrorism controls on foreign workers have now made impossible in the US.

The Civicus conference has previously been staged, biennially, in Mexico, Hungary, the Philippines, Canada and Botswana. Bringing its world assembly to Scotland - preferred to bids from Australia and South Africa-marks a new strategy of holding an annual gathering in the same city for three years. Glasgow will now host the conference in both 2007 and 2008.

Apart from the obvious advantages this brings in terms of continuity and costs, the assembly will have time to grow, attract new participants and give what Civicus sees as an unrivalled opportunity for the Scottish voluntary sector to boost capacity through sustained exposure to a world of experiences.

That includes big-name speakers from both north and south, including former Irish president Mary Robinson, Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigner Wangari Maathai and the director-general of the International Labour Organisation, Juan Somavia.

Civicus chose Scotland for the World Assembly because it combines an active civic life and a wealth of voluntary organisations with excellent infrastructure, a supportive government and, in Glasgow, a history of urban poverty and its related problems.

Unlike a UN characterised by resolutions, arguments and deals, however, the assembly is about participation, collaboration and ideals. It gives organisations a chance to showcase their work, look for partnerships and discuss troubles and triumphs in the search for the elusive goals of social, economic, political and civic justice.

Throughout the conference, Glasgow will see an extensive range of workshops and seminars designed to enable the exchange of ideas, the sharing of experiences and the planning of strategies to foster equity, peace and democracy. The many topics up for discussion will include access to communications, capacity building, freedom of association, global health, youth empowerment, the role of older people, art in marginalised groups, environmentally led regeneration and social exclusion.

Many Scottish organisations have jumped at the chance to present their work through the assembly's learning exchange programme. These range from the Gorbals Arts Project to Volunteer Development Scotland and from the youth-focused Fairbridge to the Amina Resource Centre, which will discuss how its work helps Muslim women improve their position in their community.

This reflects the Civicus commitment both to citizen participation, such as volunteering, and to citizen intervention - campaigning for change, especially in areas where freedom and democracy are threatened. The aim is for civil society to be part of a country's political, economic and cultural life, freely able to interact with governments and business.

Naidoo quotes Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the "power shift" from the formal state to non-state actors. He accepts that political and business leaders have become "anxious about the impact of civil society advocacy", which is hardly helped by surveys showing people have greater trust in civil society bodies than they do in government or companies.

Although the war on terror has "chilled" the political environment in many countries, Naidoo sees civil society as having practical and political roles, presenting the views of the socially excluded and offering "a powerful reservoir of valuable policy intelligence based on its innovative work in almost every sphere of human existence".

Civicus can act as a bridge-builder between civil society and both national and international decision-makers. On issues such as trade, terrorism, environment and debt, citizen groups can offer direct representation to hundreds of global bodies affecting billions of lives, from the UN General Assembly and Security Council to the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

Often working behind the scenes, Civicus has, for example, brought together international NGOs including Amnesty, Save the Children and Oxfam to draft an accountability charter due to be launched soon in London. This, says Naidoo, is a significant achievement considering that, in the past, these organisations "barely spoke to each other".

Unity is vital, he recently declared in Alliance magazine. "If civil society organisations want to have the kinds of impact that their mission statements and values call for, they are not going to get it by acting independently," he said. "Unless we can get ourselves better organised, I suspect that political leaders and others will continue to be able to ignore the good ideas and good initiatives that civil society would like to bring into the public domain."

A WELCOME VIEW

Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which is hosting the week with the backing of the Scottish Executive, Glasgow City Council and Scottish Enterprise. Here he sets the scene for Civicus.

Is the assembly about the global or the local? Most of the issues with which civil society grapples have both local and global dimensions, so the Civicus World Assembly has a crucial role to play in joining them up and helping us see the bigger picture. For example, civil society has a growing influence on global governance debates, and this is informed by practice in different countries. The strengths and weaknesses of the UK Compacts are relevant here, but you could also mention climate change, refugees, poverty alleviation and much more.

How will it affect Scottish charities? I hope we'll be much more connected to our counterparts around the world who work on the same issues. We'll be exposed to some of the best practice, newest ideas and sharpest minds, so we hope some of that will rub off. Most of all, we hope stronger cross-border alliances will develop and enable our members to contribute to the future of civil society.

And how will Scotland affect Civicus? Learning exchanges will give delegates the chance to see and engage with a wide range of third sector practice in Scotland. In terms of resources and infrastructure, we're privileged compared with many - but we hope that, by hosting this event for three years, we can build strong north-south collaboration.

Is there anyone in particular you hope to hear at the assembly? There are so many talented and committed people. My colleague and friend Jagadananda, from Orissa in India, runs a fantastic community development project in one of the poorest parts of the world. He's a great role model because his organisation is always trying to learn from others and to be systematic about improving the quality of what it does.

Do you have any message for those taking part? We need to hang together, because we can achieve so much more if we do. We all want a more just world - we must believe that we can make a difference.

Civicus on its mission "An international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world" Civicus on its World Assembly "A venue for civil society practitioners, researchers, activists, concerned business leaders and government representatives to discuss the important victories they have achieved in strengthening citizen engagement and civil society worldwide, and the critical challenges they and their societies face"

Civicus objectives Civic existence, the rights of citizens to act collectively; expression, increasing civil society's capacity and impact; engagement, raising the voice of citizens in public life through interaction between civil society and other institutions

WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT - CORE PROGRAMMES

- Civil Society Index Assesses the state of civil society in more than 50 countries, including Scotland

- Legitimacy and Transparency Helps civil society organisations enhance accountability and public trust in them by improving how they are run

- Participatory Governance Builds capacity to engage with governments, regional bodies and inter-governmental agencies on governance issues

- Civil Society Watch Protects the space for civil society with swift public responses to any threats

- Millennium Development Goals Foster joint work on poverty, health and education by trade unions, faith groups and development and human rights NGOs

- Civil Society Knowledge Development Draws on the knowledge of Civicus stakeholders to provide a resource centre.

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