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DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT CENTRAL CONCERN OF GLOBAL CIVIL SOCIETY

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JOHANNESBURG, Jan 1 2007 (IPS) - One fact of globalisation is that many decisions that affect virtually all human beings everywhere, for many generations, are increasingly taken by a few, writes Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation. In this article Naidoo writes that countering this ever-increasing democratic deficit at both the domestic and international level is a major concern of this World Social Forum. One of the current challenges is the trend of increasing threats to civil society\’s very existence. These are closely associated with the so-called \’war on terror\’ discourse and practice and take the form of legislation passed by an ever-growing number of countries to restrict the rights and activities of civil society. As civil society has grown more powerful, at both the national and global level, there is also increased questioning by governments and critics of the legitimacy, transparency, and accountability of civil society. Many efforts are underway to address this challenge.

One fact of globalisation is that many decisions that affect virtually all human beings everywhere, for many generations, are increasingly taken by a few. The importance of efforts to counter this ever-increasing democratic deficit at both domestic and international levels cannot be overemphasized, and the WSF represents a key part of these efforts.

The WSF will bring together representatives of civil society organisations and individual citizens from across the world to voice their concerns regarding the forces of globalisation, and to exchange ideas on how best to promote meaningful citizen participation and social justice. This year’s forum will provide space for participants to exchange ideas around such important topics as HIV/AIDS, gender, privatisation, landlessness, peace and conflict, migration and diaspora, youth issues, debt relief, free trade agreements, labour and housing, and others.

One of the current challenges is the increase in threats to civil society’s very existence. These are closely associated with the so- called ‘war on terror’ discourse and practice and take the form of legislation passed by an ever-growing number of countries to restrict the rights and activities of civil society. CIVICUS hopes that during this year’s WSF there will be calls to make greater efforts to support and help defend the civil society organisations and activists that are being increasingly threatened in many parts of the world.

As civil society has grown more powerful, at both the national and global level, there is also increased questioning by governments and critics of the legitimacy, transparency, and accountability of civil society. Many efforts are underway to address this challenge, such as that of a diverse group of NGOs that have agreed an International NGO Accountability Charter in 2006. The charter illustrates civil society’s commitment to ensure that it maintains the highest ethical standards possible and that it never takes the high level of public trust that it enjoys for granted.

Another challenge that civil society must face is to find greater common ground for dialogue and action. The space offered by the WSF is an indication that civil society continues to make progress in this regard, but much more needs to be done. There are other encouraging signs as well, such as the recent unification of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Confederation of Labour, and a few other independent trade unions. This was arguably one of the most important steps toward greater unity within civil society and has important lessons for NGOs and other parts of civil society.

The ongoing efforts of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) also give reason to hope for more united civil society action across countries, sectors, and regions. In October 2006, around the International Day for Poverty Eradication, GCAP led a mobilisation effort called Stand Up Against Poverty. According to the Editor-in-Chief of the Guinness Book of Records, the 23.5 million people who participated constituted the largest-ever single mobilisation of people in a twenty-four-hour period in the book’s history. These actions — which seek to keep pressure on governments to deliver on their fairly modest commitments and to open up pathways to participation by new constituencies of citizens — show how important it is that we focus on the considerable number of areas where there is agreement and common ground, and to agree to respectfully disagree on the smaller number of areas of difference.

Most broadly, the challenge we must accept is to reflect deeply, at the local to the global level, on how civil society can enhance and improve our effectiveness. We as civil society across the world are called upon to recognise that one of our strengths stems from our diversity. The danger is that diversity can sometimes be used as an excuse for parochialism, a lack of willingness to explore collaborative ways of working, and sometimes individualistic approaches to social change for the greater public good. CIVICUS’ hope for the vast, diverse, and complex ‘global community’ that we call civil society is that we will be able to take advantage of the space that we already have for meaningful dialogue, learning, and strategising — including the WSF — to talk more about how we can act together more effectively to create a better and more just world. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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