Dr. Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of CIVICUS, an international alliance established to nurture citizen action and participatory democracy, came to the World Bank on February 10th to discuss Civil Society, Governance and Globalization at the World Banks Presidential Fellows Lecture. Dr. Naidoo was instrumental in building the African National Congress in its anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. CIVICUS is composed of some 600 groups and organizations in 110 countries.
World Bank President James Wolfensohn opened the event with some introductory remarks about Dr. Naidoo. He noted that this was the first time the lecture series had been devoted to a representative of civil society. Wolfensohn said the concerns voiced by those in civil society movements have not always been comfortable for the World Bank, but the institution has benefited from such criticism by moderating its activities to recognize the differing perspectives of these groups.
Dr. Naidoo started his speech by stating there were three major challenges facing the development community today: globalization, governance, and the role of civil society. He mused about the notion that twenty years ago he could not have imagined that an activist like himself could have ever given a speech at the World Bank, or that an anti-apartheid colleague such as Mamphela Ramphele could become one of the institutions Managing Directors. He said such a development indicated that the World Bank is willing to have a serious dialogue with citizen activists like himself. Naidoo said he had just returned from a conference in Davos, Switzerland where it was clear that business groups and civil society viewed the issue of globalization quite differently.
Importantly, globalization can mean many things, some good and some bad, Naidoo said. The perception by many in the world is that globalization is exacerbating the differences between rich and poor, and creating more losers than winners. In areas such as trade, there seems to be a double standard that benefits the richer nations at the expense of developing ones, and ordinary citizens see their role in the policy making that affect their lives as being reduced. He asked rhetorically what will be the view twenty years from now if decisions made about trade, macroeconomics, privatization, and debt relief continue behind the closed doors of large international organizations.
Civil society has an image problem as well, Naidoo said. Many in the development community view it negatively, thinking most civil society groups are made up of radicals uninterested in having a thoughtful dialogue. One problem with such an image is that many still view civil society as another way of saying NGOs, but in fact, civil society includes other groups such as trade unions, community based organizations, religious and faith based groups, and private citizens. So, such a view is outdated. In a recent global poll, Naidoo said, NGOs were surveyed as the second most publicly trusted group or organization, second only to national militaries. Unlike many government institutions, NGOs must be accountable for the funds they request and spend, otherwise they will perish. Another criticism facing civil society activists is that they often undermine democracy. Naidoo suggested such criticism is also unfounded. "Elections on their own dont equal democracy," he said. Citizen activism remains an important part of the way democracies work. Victory at the ballot box should not be seen as a blank check by governments elected to office. In many industrialized countries, voter turnout is declining as are party affiliations because many in society sense their alienation from the decision making process. For example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were goals championed by many in civil society for decades, yet those same groups felt they were excluded when the MDGs were established.
Large international organizations must begin to evolve if they are to absorb these potential benefits. Naidoo called this the democratization of global institutions. Using the United Nations as an example, Naidoo said the UN was created at a unique period of history in 1945. However, even though the world has changed dramatically since then, the way the UN views its role in global governance has not changed noticeably. Naidoo acknowledged the Bank has changed its thinking on civil society in recent years by opening up a dialogue with civil society groups, and in its staffing practices as well. However, he cautioned, many still believe the institution has much left to do such as increasing its accountability and transparency to the public and reducing its reluctance to mainstream certain issues such as gender in its lending and operational practices. Participatory approaches are not easy, Naidoo said, but in quoting Wolfensohn, he suggested accountable institutions are essential for poverty reduction. The question becomes how to get the balance right between policy making and civil society participation. Naidoo suggested that incremental tinkering by institutions such as the World Bank would be a mistake, and that major structural changes are necessary.
Two major goals the development community should focus upon, Naidoo said, should be reinventing democracy and achieving sustainable economic development. To achieve the MDGs, organizations such as the World Bank must not view the responsibilities and challenges as theirs alone, but should partner with civil society. These groups must be seen as legitimate stakeholders, Naidoo stated. He closed by quoting the Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand, who when asked what is the most important thing in the world, say "it is people, it is people, it is people."
Dr. Naidoo then took a number of questions from the audience including his perspective on the keys to civic engagement, the role of the media in strengthening the dialogue between government and civil society, and what things the Bank can do better in this area. Dr. Ramphele provided some concluding remarks.