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DEVELOPMENT-EU/ACP: Civil Society Looks At Implementation Of Partnership Agreement

Brian Kenety

BRUSSELS, Sep 20 2000 (IPS) - Interest groups can, and must, provide guarantee of transparency and good governance, a conference of social organisations has declared.

The 22nd meeting of ACP-EU economic and social interest groups, which met here last week under the auspices of the European Economic and Social Committee (ESC), described transparency and good governance as two “essential elements” of the new Partnership Agreement.

The Partnership Agreement governs trade and aid between the European Union (EU) and the 77 countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group.

The meeting has been described by the hosts as “the first occasion for civil society organisations to discuss the provisions of the new Cotonou Agreement from a non-governmental perspective”.

The European ESC regularly brings together employers’ organisations, trade unions and representatives from various interests including farmers’ organisations, to discuss ACP-EU issues pertaining to civil society with the EU executive Commission.

Two reports served as a base for the discussions, one from Spanish trade unionist, Ramon Baeza Sanjuan (an ESC member), the other, from the ACP side, was by Zimbabwean businessman, Danny Meyer.

“What now needs to be done is to breath life into the text of the Cotonou Agreement as it enters the first stage of implementation,” said European ESC President Beatrice Rangoni Machiavelli in her opening remarks.

“Like you, I am convinced that there can be no development without economic and social democracy and the active, co-ordinated involvement of civil society organisations.

“Extending the ACP-EU partnership is, in my opinion, a prerequisite for its success and a stake in true sustainable development accompanied by economic and social progress and strengthened democracy,” she added.

Much of that sentiment was reflected in the final declaration adopted by the participants, who set out their views on the challenges of implementing the new Agreement.

Participants welcomed the new Agreement for its explicit acknowledgement in that non-state operators should play an important role in the development process.

However, they also stressed the need to “adopt criteria for selecting the actors who are to participate in the dialogue so as to ensure that it is effective” and that the organisations selected “must essentially be representative of the economic and social players and, more generally, of organised civil society”.

It is that challenge – how to shift the focus from the negotiation table to implementation into the field with the active support of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – that was the overall theme of the meetings.

When negotiating the new Partnership Agreement, the EU had pushed for good governance to be included as an “essential element” whose violation could lead to a suspension of EU aid.

After much debate, good governance was defined, in what is now called the Cotonou Agreement, as “the transparent and responsible management of public resources for the purposes of equitable and sustainable development”.

Participants to the Brussels conference agreed that civil society, by keeping government honest and accountable, could help lift the ACP countries out of poverty.

“In addition to the circumstances created by the persistence of major poverty, social upheavals and sometimes even armed conflict,” read the final declaration, “the participants… impute this situation primarily to the information monopoly preserved by the governments of the ACP countries, the fragility of the local economic and social organisations and the complex mechanisms for accessing (EU) aid”.

But many participants noted that some ACP governments were hostile to their inclusion.

A workers union representative from Nigeria noted “the dialogue of civil society is often seen as a threat – because it means opposing the point of view of the government”.

He noted that governments sometimes set up parallel civil society structures that were not truly open to independent non- governmental organisations.

The final declaration notes the participants’ desire to become an “essential pillar” of democracy so as to involve citizens in public affairs on a day-to-day basis.

This would provide a counterbalance to the power of the state which is essential in any democracy and a guarantee of transparency and good governance.

It also points to the need for encouragement and support to the efforts made by economic and social organisations in the ACP countries to improve their structures and form networks.

Crucially – and more generally – these organisations requested that they be involved from the very start of the process of implementing the Cotonou Agreement so as to reflect the shift in philosophy and the need for a bottom-up approach.

Glenys Kinnock, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Rapporteur on the future of ACP-EU relations, said such an approach was important “to ensure more equitable development” noting that the new Partnership Agreement comes in a time of globalisation and liberalisation.

“Liberalisation, on its own, is not capable of bringing development,” she told the meeting.

The EU Commission itself has noted that ACP-EU co-operation has historically “offered the decentralised actors few opportunities for participation or access to funds” – one of the chief complaints of participants meeting here.

Meyer, of Zimbabwe, noted that the informal sector should not be overlooked.

He said he hoped that the EU bureaucracy “will be cut so that we can access the funds” which could “help the informal sector graduate to the formal sector, with support from local chambers of commerce”.

The formal sector “in no way represents the absolute poor, the informal economy – we represent a privileged minority,” he said, calling for diligence to make the voices of the poor heard.

Echoing that sentiment, a trade unionist from Tanzania said that 65 per cent of economic activity went unrecorded in his country.

It was agreed that the European ESC should be given responsibility for following up the degree to which such organisations are effectively involved in the new Agreement.

In the course of the discussions, participants also made repeated reference to the usefulness of economic and social councils or similar bodies as a means of chanelling the views of the grass roots to government.

In a similar vein, participants said that economic and social interest groups must be able to establish direct contacts with EU representatives and that NGOs from the EU and the ACP group be afforded more regular and formal opportunities to meet, such as in the ACP Civil Society Forum.

As part of their work programme for 2001-2002 and to underpin debate on the 23rd meeting, the participants proposed to focus their reflection on the implementation of the Partnership Agreement relating to the actors – conditions, methods and obstacles – generally within the context of regional seminars.

They also hope to focus on balanced trade relations and economic and social development, with the elaboration of two reports (one from the ACPs and the other from the ESC).

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