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The role of Civil Society Organizations in IMF-World Bank meetings

01.01.70

More than 500 activists from Civil Society Organizations or CSOS will be in Singapore this week in conjunction with the IMF World Bank meetings.

They will lend their voices to causes ranging from global poverty, international trade and the environment.

The activists have been given an indoor area in Suntec City to voice their concerns.

Protests by CSO activists have been a norm in many big scale meetings like the WTO, G8 Summit, even United Nations Assemblies where they are known to park themselves outside summit venues, some engaged in dangerous stunts to catch media attention.

For more on the role of civil society organizations, Melanie Yip spoke with Michael Cebon, a spokesperson from Global Trade Watch, an Australian based group which advocates environment friendly trade practices.

MC: Well, I think in the last two decades, the phenomenon that has been happening worldwide is that more and more power and influences have been concentrated at an international level, and in multi-lateral organizations like the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the IMF. Now, unlike national governments which are usually elected by ordinary people who are accountable to their citizens, these multilateral citizens are not at all democratic. So governments will go along, make commitments and promises regardless of policies, but there is no input from the public, there is any accountability from the people, or ordinary citizens around the world. We have been informing groups to give a voice to the concern that ordinary people have about what their governments are promising or what the governments are negotiating within these multi-lateral forums.

But how effective has the voice of civil society organizations been?

MC: It is very difficult for civil society organizations to be really effective to campaign around the multi-lateral forums because there are very few ways for these groups to have real influence, other than I guess trying to pressure the government through the media and through domestic methods as well. We have to remember that they are representing people as well, and not just representing themselves. But I think civil society groups have been quite successful in the past.

Could you perhaps list some examples in which civil society groups have brought about more attention to issues like poverty and globalization?

MC: Well, I think for instance, with the World Trade Organization. There have been a few meetings which have broken down, notably in Seattle in 1999, Cancun in 2003, and even in Hong Kong in 2005. These meetings where the richer countries were pushing the smaller and more developing countries into agreements that were not necessarily in their interests. And I think the presence of ordinary people, ordinary civil society groups in the streets was a real pressure on countries from the developing world to remember the interests of their citizens not to snub them out in negotiations, and not caving into things that will be harmful to farmers, workers and environment.

But what are your views on civil society groups adopting or even subjecting their members to rather "uncivilized" ways of bringing attention to the issues like for example, last year's WTO meeting saw members of some civil society organizations jumping into the Victoria Harbor.

MC: I was at the event and I thought it was a rather interesting thing, a way of bringing attention to themselves. The people were locked out of the formal negotiations, they do not have any place in terms of actually being able to have a formal voice. What they did was not to use any violent methods, not hurt anyone. They did a highly visual, you may call it a performance in a way, they jumped into the harbor and gained international media coverage. In a way that it is still remembered almost a year later is testament to the success of the performance.

If you compare the civil society groups in the Western world versus those in Asian countries, is there a difference in terms of how they bring across their message?

MC: Not really so much. I think civil society groups in developing world - a lot of issues that are being decided in the World Trade Organization, in the World Bank or the IMF are really life and death issues. For us in the rich world, the impact is not as big simply because our countries have gone past the globalized path quite a lot already, and we are industrialized, our tariffs have been lowered. For people in the developing world, these policies have a huge impact on everyday life. It is more real for them in terms of the immediate impact of the decisions that have been made in international forums, in terms of debt relief, trade rules, conditions put on lending from the IMF and the World Bank.

Now, we do see certain celebrities endorsing the issues proposed by some of these civil society organizations. How effective has the celebrity factor been?

MC: Well, the celebrities are basically just like any one of us. They can see the obvious injustices that exist in the world. They can see that there are these multi-lateral institutions that have a huge amount of power to both inflict the injustices and also to cure the injustices. And some of them feel they have a responsibility because of their popular profile. There can be problems when the celebrities do not know the issues and then pretend that they do, pretending they have all the answers. But having a celebrity can be a really effective strategy.

And that was Michael Cebon from the Global Trade Watch in Australia. He was speaking with Melanie Yip.

Expert opinion

Halter Marek

02.12.06

Halter Marek
Le College de France
Olivier Giscard dEstaing

02.12.06

Olivier Giscard dEstaing
COPAM, France
Mika Ohbayashi

02.12.06

Mika Ohbayashi
Institute for Sustainable Energy Poliy
Bill Pace

02.12.06

Bill Pace
World Federalist Movement - Institute for Global Policy
Peter I. Hajnal

01.12.06

Peter I. Hajnal
Toronto University, G8 Research Group