The myth of a global civil society
By Melanie Müller
The UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 decided to involve civil society organisations more in climate negotiations. The hope was that global civil society would contribute new ideas to policy making and drive change. Ever since, the opportunities for participation at the international level have grown, but some hopes were dashed. If the past 20 years have shown anything, it is that there simply is no such thing as global civil society with a single stand shared by all NGOs.
There are several reasons:
– Civil society actors have material constraints and are exposed to fierce competition.
– Opportunities to participate in events at the international level are unequal and sometimes unfair.
– Civil society organisations from North and South often take – and argue from – different positions at world summits.
Such differences are particularly evident on climate issues.
Developing countries’ disadvantages
When delegations from all over the world meet for climate talks from 30 November to 9 December 2011 in Durban, South Africa, this will be the 16th Conference of Parties in the UNFCCC context. Only few international summits offer civil society so many opportunities to get involved. In principle, any formally organised body is entitled to register. The UN definition of “non-governmental organisation” is quite broad and covers various agencies, ranging from classic NGOs to universities, think tanks and even business corporations. It does not matter whether they are charitable or not. By mid-summer, some 1,400 agencies had registered for the Durban summit.
Last year, 12,000 people attended the Cancún summit. They were staff of government agencies, non-governmental organisations, business associations et cetera. Twice as many had attended the Copenhagen conference in 2009. Because of the huge disappointment after the failure of that summit and because of the public criticism of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), interest in the Cancún summit was not as great. Nonetheless, the Cancún conference was the second-most attended climate summit ever – behind only the one in Copenhagen.
The organisations that participate are not only interested in lobbying and influencing politics. Those who attended the numerous receptions and side events can learn about new projects and ideas over snacks and drinks. Networking is very important. On the fringes of the global arena, business cards are exchanged, projects jump-started and cooperation begun. The side events allow registered organisations to present their projects and concerns, whether they represent indigenous communities who want to talk about the consequences of deforestation or companies promoting renewable energy technologies.
However, equal rights to participation do not guarantee that organisations have equal opportunities to participate. UNFCCC statistics show that many of the organisations involved are from Europe, the USA and other rich countries where NGOs tend to have more resources than those of poorer nations. Even the number of registered NGOs from major emerging market nations is relatively small, given that these countries have many environmental NGOs. For Durban, more than 120 German organisations and 50 French organisations have registered. The respective numbers for Brazil and Kenya are around 25 and 17. Bangladesh, one of the countries that are likely to be worst hit by climate change, managed to rally only eight organisations.
Travel and accommodation costs are part of the reason. NGOs from countries where governments spend very little in support of civil society and where it is difficult to mobilise donations often simply cannot afford to attend UNFCCC summits. Travelling, moreover, would often imply a shift in priorities.
At the end of the Copenhagen summit, most NGOs were excluded from the final talks, which hurt those who had made the greatest efforts to attend most. They were disappointed in a double sense: they had very little opportunity to lobby, and the outcome of the negotiations was a disaster. Accordingly, many activists now wonder whether taking part in an event where their voices are barely heard is actually worth the expenses, or whether there are more meaningful ways to spend that money.
No shared stand
NGOs from developing countries are basically disadvantaged in financial terms. The tragedy is that many of them stay away even though their input would matter very much. These NGOs frequently take positions that differ from those of the wealthier NGOs from the global North.
Barbara Unmüssig, board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, has been observing climate talks right from the start. She recently (2011) wrote about the main lines of conflict between civil society organisations. Even though almost all NGOs agree on the target of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius, opinions differ regarding how to achieve it. A key conflict, according to Unmüssig, is about how the North and the South should share burdens. Western NGOs, in particular, want emerging market nations to commit to binding targets for reducing carbon emissions in any post-Kyoto Protocol regime. Those from developing countries disagree. Opinions also differ on whether the two degrees target can be achieved through market mechanisms or whether a system change is required. Moreover, after the disappointment in Copenhagen, doubts concerning the ability of international politics to rise to these challenges are growing. Many NGOs are reconsidering whether it would not make more sense to campaign at the national level.
For organisations from countries that have little financial clout and do not support civil society delegation to summits, there are nevertheless several ways to make themselves heard.
– The venues of the conferences change, so each time other local organisations in the respective country can make their contributions.
– Sometimes NGOs get financial support thanks to international networks – this is how the participation of Chinese NGOs was supported at international conferences on the environment several years ago.
– Some European NGOs such as Oxfam or Germanwatch endeavour to represent the voices of NGOs from developing countries. However, this cannot and must not completely replace the presence of the actors themselves.
Talks in one’s own country
Preparations are already in full swing in South Africa: a large number of NGOs from throughout Africa are expected in Durban and the coordination process between them is underway. Networking is of utmost importance for African NGOs. Although they often have international partners, hosting the conference in their own continent offers new opportunities to strengthen connections, push forward projects and form new alliances.
In particular, environmental networks and NGOs from the host country South Africa have the advantage of participating in global talks in their own country. Hosting an international climate conference has often had an impact on national policymaking. During the conference in Kyoto in 1997, for example, Japanese NGOs were able to indirectly influence national policy. More than 200 Japanese NGOs got together in workshops, symposia and other meetings to exert pressure on their government.
A similar thing happened in Mexico. The nexus between civil society organisations and relevant Mexican ministries was strengthened even before the conference. The NGOs were invited to regular meetings and had the opportunity to explain their views and interest, especially in regard to renewable energy sources.
The South African government is similarly engaging in more dialogue with the NGOs and has held a number of meetings. More interaction will take place, and – once more – renewables are the core topic.
The weaker civil society is in a country, the more it can benefit from a climate conference “at home”. Such an event will boost cooperation opportunities domestically and internationally. Whether or not such initiatives are sustained in the long run is an issue that needs to be researched over a longer period.
There are many open questions:
– What is needed to boost national NGOs in their home countries in the long run?
– Does international networking really help them, or do they get over-whelmed by exaggerated expectations?
– Do national NGOs that get financial or personnel support stay independent enough to stick to their own agenda, or are they coopted by those who support them?
Learning more about these dynamics would be a first step towards improving the inclusion of NGOs from developing and newly industrialising countries in multilateral policy making. Their participation must be guaranteed long term, and not only at events in their home countries. Only better inclusion will facilitate the kind of pluralistic debate and diversity of opinion at international conferences that will promote learning on all sides. This kind of debate is important because it realistically reflects global differences – in contrast to illusions about a homogeneous global civil society.