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OPINION: Global Governance – We Need to Bring Civil Society to the Table

Nigel Martin is the founder of FIM - Forum for Democratic Global Governance. He is the coauthor with Rajesh Tandon of the book "Global Governance, Civil Society and Participatory Democracy - A View from Below," which is available through the Academic Foundation.

MONTREAL, Nov 4 2014 (IPS) - A poorly understood phenomenon is quietly but effectively shaping the daily lives of all citizens sharing this planet.

Governance from the global level is growing exponentially and will, inevitably, assume an even greater impact on us all. Most of us understand vaguely that decisions which are made concerning the environment, macro-economic issues such as financial flows or more circumscribed problems such as Ebola, are made at supranational levels.

Courtesy of FIM

Courtesy of FIM

What very few people appreciate is that the above examples are but a micro-sample of the extent to which our world has already become globalised, and how its form of governance is changing radically.

The current instruments of global governance, be they, for example, the U.N., the WTO, the IMF or the G20, are already powerful, but they meet no meaningful definition of democratic governance. There is minimal, if any, participation by elected officials and they function in a highly ambiguous legal context.

The same can be said of more recent groupings often created by countries which consider themselves unfairly represented at the traditional multilateral tables, such as BRICS, or the recently announced infrastructure investment bank created by 21 Asian nations led by China and India.

While the nation state is slowly dying as a significant actor in our governance, the decisions being taken globally remain largely unaccountable to any electorate. This governance vacuum has been steadily filled by the corporate community, who fosters its own interests ─ which quietly assume a broadening of inequalities and the inevitability of collateral damage.

On the other hand, civil society organisations (CSOs) are, at their best, the voice of those who are the collateral damage. Yet, civil society is not without tools of its own. Collectively it is non-partisan; it derives its incredible energy not from the wish to attain individual wealth and power, but from a desire to serve the common good.

Even when functioning at the global level, it retains close contact to its base. It often brings creative and dynamic alternatives to the table. It can mobilise millions of citizens. Modern communication technology enhances its ability to function in real-time. Its leadership can be global, ad-hoc and transitory.

Confronted with an erosion of their powers and a redefinition of what constitutes national sovereignty, governments seldom welcome direct CSO participation in multilateral fora.

The role of CSOs in channeling citizen’s voices and bringing participatory democracy to the global sphere is a defining issue of our 21st century. However, huge segments of civil society are still being left behind. Most of these voices are from the South.

How do we bring the largely “missing voices” of Southern civil society to the supranational, multi-governmental organisations’ table?

FIM – Forum for Democratic Global Governance, the southern-driven international non-governmental organisation that I had the privilege to create in 1998 and to manage for its first 15 years, was created in an attempt to bring answers to that question. In some ways inadvertently, it became a focal point for this effort.

Over the years, its experience and the tireless work of the hundreds of Southern CSOs that are part of our network have enabled us to identify key factors that make such participation possible, such as the need to help civil society actors understand the multilateral system(s); to facilitate and promote linkages between CSOs and networks involved in engagement with multilateral institutions; to document initiatives, reflexions and success to broaden knowledge basis and avoid costly repetitions.

Our vision is long term. Changes in global governance take time, a notion not often appreciated by donors who seek quickly identifiable results.

Observers of the multilateral sphere all agree that at the level of organised civil society, much is happening and that its vigorous and growing efforts to democratise global governance are starting to bear fruit.

When FIM began, in 1999, to identify successful examples of civil society influence on multilateral bodies, we thought that after five or six of them, we would have completed the circuit. Today, there are probably hundreds of striking examples to choose from.

FIM’s latest book, “Global Governance, Civil Society and Participatory Democracy – A View from Below“, captures some of the important shifts in global governance over the past 15 years. It discusses key work done with a host of multilateral bodies and the quiet emergence of organised civil society as a significant actor in efforts to create transparent and accountable governance.

It also highlights the fact that the challenges for CSOs and those they represent remain enormous. Confronted with an erosion of their powers and a redefinition of what constitutes national sovereignty, governments seldom welcome direct CSO participation in multilateral fora.

The corporate community will not readily share spaces it has occupied alone for decades. The value-added contribution of CSOs to the democratic process will remain directly proportional to how strongly they are able to maintain and strengthen their local-to-global linkages.

We must also bear in mind that participatory democracy within the arena of global governance will not be enough in itself to attain true democratic governance at the multilateral level. This will require the establishment of a functioning relationship between the direct voice of civil society and its elected representatives.

To that end, global civil society will need to continue to strengthen direct engagement by any and all citizens in their own governance, well beyond a simple vote every four years, and to ensure that all citizens are represented at the global level by elected spokespeople who are legally accountable to their electorate.

No matter how prescient, eloquent and dynamic civil society activists are, without being elected they cannot claim sole representativeness of the poor and dispossessed.

It has been said that in a democracy the people are right even when they are wrong. This imperfection is frightening to those who believe that they possess a unique truth and who seek strong centralised power in order to implement their truth. If they succeed, inevitably their own imperfections surface catastrophically.

Governance by the people allows for open and honest efforts to correct mistakes and strive for balance. Now, we need this wonderful model at the global level.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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