Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

COMMONWEALTH: Civil Society Prepares for ‘Civil War’

Ukpong E. Ukpong

ABUJA, Dec 3 2003 (IPS) - Civil society organisations are scheduled to hold talks with Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon Wednesday, in the Nigerian capital – Abuja.

The discussions form part of events at the Commonwealth People’s Forum, a civil society summit that it taking place alongside the bi-annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

McKinnon’s meeting will include what is politely termed a listening exercise, and an exchange of ideas with civil society groups. This exchange may become vigorous: the groups are becoming increasingly impatient with what they see as their marginalisation in the Commonwealth processes.

"There is a near revolt among civil society leaders," said a well-placed source working closely with the Commonwealth Foundation. "Even the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation have better systems for representations by civil society."

The source noted that civil society groups were obliged to deal with the Commonwealth Foundation. "That has meant that in effect we are formally cut off from access to the political wings of the Commonwealth," he said.

The foundation, funded by Commonwealth, is meant to strengthen links between civil society and member states, as well as between the states themselves.

Discontent amongst non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) is snowballing by the day. "There is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality," says Ezra Mbogori, a member of the Civil Society Advisory Board of the Commonwealth.

"The secretariat talks of a desire to help, but we haven’t seen it yet. When we really start talking about issues, they are nowhere to be seen. These concerns need to be put to the offices of the Secretariat," he added.

That concern will be expressed in talks with McKinnon. "If delegates feel frustrated and disappointed, then this cannot be just an exchange of niceties," Mbogori said. "We have reached a point where we feel this inherent politeness is not getting us anywhere."

He said civil society members need access to the heads of government "and a development of mechanisms that generate greater accessibility to both the Secretariat and the Foundation. After all, both organisations are funded by taxpayers".

Mbogori works for MWENGO, a group active in eastern and southern Africa. The Harare-based initiative focuses on lobbying governments on behalf of NGOs.

Silam Hassan, a trade union activist from Malaysia, says workers, the government and business have come together to sort out issues. So similarly must the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Foundation and civil society.

"We just don’t have enough say in what goes on," she says. "We are working with the people, and governments that take action in the name of the people must listen to us."

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