I went to several interesting meetings yesterday, the fourth day of the World Social Forum, including a high-level discussion of the Global Call for Action against Poverty and a debate on UN reform. As stimulating as the conferences were, and as interesting as the people I met, I have to say that the best part of the day was the churascurria I ate dinner at. Mmmm, Brazilian beef.
The first meeting I went to was a “table of controversy” on the Global Call for Action against Poverty. It is called the “table of controversy” because these meetings bring into the forum government and intergovernmental officials to meet with the activists from the various social movements here — hence the “controversy.”
This “table of controversy” assembled officials from the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, Oxfam and a local activist from Zimbabwe. The IMF, Bank and UN folks gave somewhat bland statements about their interest in listening to civil society, noting that they are only as good as the governments that are their bosses, yadda yadda. The Zimbabwan activist was very clear and passionate, the IMF and the Bank are not friends of Zimbabwe.
On 27 January 2005, the Global Call to Action against Poverty was launched, with the participation of President Lula of Brazil, the UN, the World Bank, Oxfam and lots of other organizations endorsing it. The broad-based, grassroots campaign focuses on “trade justice, debt cancellation, increase in aid, transparent and democratic national action to eliminate poverty.” They are organizing mass mobilizations on 1 July and 10 September around the world this year. More information can be found at http://www.whiteband.org .
I was invited to participate in a “debate” on the UN reform proposals of UBUNTU in the afternoon. It was a well organized meeting, with the eight or so invited panelists sitting in a circle in the middle with the moderator, and the audience surrounding us in concentric circles. Federico Mayor, the original instigator and sponsor of UBUNTU, made the initial intervention, setting the main issues of the debate: human security, human rights, democracy, development and civil society. Carlos Lopez spoke on behalf of the United Nations, providing a hopeful vision of what is possible in the next years in terms of UN reform, noting that while the UN is in a crisis that this also creates opportunities for change.
There were also speakers from the youth movement, local authorities, the labor movement, the Brazilian government, and the ILO.
I opened my remarks trying to contrast the appearance and the reality of the inclusion of civil society. I noted that while the UN talks a good talk about the importance of civil society, meanwhile in every forum where civil society participates we see our rights of participation increasingly challenged and diminished. Even within the Commission on Human Rights, which used to provide fairly generous speaking slots for civil society, every year the time allotment goes down and down until someday it may be 30 seconds per NGO.
I noted that the main innovative ideas that have come through the UN conference process were originated by civil society, from gender justice to sustainable development, human security, global governance and knowledge societies. The fact that the UN conference process has been largely rejected by the major powers shows how effective the process was in bringing in our voices and proposals.
I remarked that there were very few governments at the UN who were willing to champion the cause of civil society participation. Some governments are violently opposed, including China and Pakistan, others are usually very negative like the US, and a few are supportive like Canada and Australia. However the large majority are neutral on the issue.
What we need is for CSOs to exert pressure on the national level on their own governments to support their participation at the international level. It would be great if Brazil led the charge, given its enormous civil society and past history of support including former President Cardoso’s leadership of the Panel on UN-Civil Society Relations.
I concluded with a challenge to civil society to get its act together to participate at the international level. I noted that our appeal for UN reform really is a 3-level appeal — an appeal to the UN itself to reform, an appeal to governments to democratize, and an appeal to civil society to act more transnationally, strategically and democratically. The last part is a difficult call, and one that is not without controversy.
Are international NGOs that operate in New York, Geneva and Vienna ready to allow new social movements to work with them? Are labor unions that have some level of status within the ILO ready to include other voices for workers rights? Are social movements that are used to taking to the streets ready to reframe their messages into ones that can be used in an intergovernmental diplomatic context? I don’t have the answers, but I believe these need answering if we are to take our voices to the next level of governance.
On a less polemic note, I finally got to a churrascuria buffet last night, tagging along with some friends from the World Federalist Movement. What an incredible feast!
A churrascuria is a typically Brazilian free-for-all of meat, with waiters running around with long knives and skewers of beef, pork, or chicken. They are always extremely eager to drop a generous portion of meat onto your plate, and if you turn your back you might find another helping appear before you.
The quality of the beef was simply incredible — tender and full of flavor. I remember fondly this one particularly flavorful cut of beef drenched in cheese, which would probably make the best Philly cheese steak sandwich in the world.
Porto Alegre is in the heart of gaucho country, so high quality meat is not surprising. The final check, a whopping $4 per person, was the big surprise.