FIM and the G8
The comments that follow are not official FIM policy. Nor are they personal conclusions. They reflect an ongoing process of discussion and analysis that many of us continue to exercise daily. They will, no doubt, be different tomorrow.
A growing number of civil society activists acknowledge that, within a democracy, the most essential criteria for ensuring representivity is universal suffrage within an electoral system. The situation under a non-democratic form of governance (which currently includes many aspects of global governance) is obviously quite different. The participatory activities of civil society, globally, regionally or nationally, are complementary to, but do not replace nor compete with, representational democracy.
However, one of many reasons why civil society is participating more directly in governance issues is because of a growing frustration with current practices of representative democracy (the democratic deficit). This is most crucial at the global level where democratic accountability back to an electorate is seriously weak. It also applies to many national democratic systems where the modern-day criteria for being a successful representative appear to be: personal wealth, telegenic appearance and a propensity for memorable sound bites.
Within this perceived democratic vacuum, and out of frustration with the weaknesses of representative democracy, civil society is dramatically increasing its capacity for direct democracy. It would be ironic if, in this context, civil society strove in its turn to fill the representative vacuum. The FIM experience with the G8 suggests that this is neither practical, strategic, or based on sound analysis.
When FIM began its process of initiating a dialogue with G8 planning officials in 2002, our intent was to shepherd the process for a while, until such time as a more representative body from within civil society could take over the process. Our operating assumption was that the process would not be viewed as legitimate until it could somehow claim representivity. After all, we were dealing with an organization with significant global impact, and we were the only formal mechanism instigating direct dialogue around G8 agenda issues. It seemed only natural to all concerned that any impact would be directly proportional to our representivity.
Without being totally conscious at the time that we were actually dealing with the issue of representivity, there were, in retrospect, three major constraints to this process becoming representative. One was very practical in nature, one was strategic and the third evolved slowly as a conceptual premise.
The practical constraints were a combination of financial limitations and the logistical demands of ensuring a fully participatory dialogue. For these reasons, we agreed internally, and with G8 officials, that we would limit civil society participants to 15 people. Within these 15 slots we took great care to ensure regional and gender balance, while always respecting the FIM mandate to ensure that Southern participation dominated.
Nevertheless, gender and regional balance were but two of a host of criteria that were needed to ensure broad scale global representivity. Clearly, the practicalities of being globally representative; of ensuring that every minority linguistic, life style, religious, ethnic, and/or disadvantaged group were involved, were impossible to achieve.
Within these inevitable constraints, and while never actually using the term, we sought other means of ensuring some degree of ‘legitimacy’. In addition to the two ‘group’ selection criteria we used, we also drew up a short list of ‘individual’ selection criteria. In this instance we felt that we needed individuals who brought, through their experience and reputation, wide scale credibility. We also sought people who had extensive experience in multilateral negotiations. Because of the delicate nature of the dialogue (the 2002 G8 was on the heels of the Genoa tragedy and no one could predict at that time whether Kananaskis would also be subject to large scale violence) we looked for people who functioned well within a team context and who had demonstrated diplomatic skills.
FIM’s niche is with civil society/multilateral relations and, as within all professional communities, the major players are by and large known to each other. We were reasonably confident from the outset that we could bring a team together that would have the required skills and also receive broad external moral support.
There was also a strategic constraint to achieving representivity. The FIM Board recognized from the outset the importance of this project. Nevertheless, FIM was concerned that, by the very process of dialogue, we could unwittingly bestow unwanted credibility on the G8 as a global governance mechanism. In addition, we were concerned that the G8 could claim, because of our efforts, that they ‘had consulted with civil society’. Therefore, amongst other factors, we stated from the outset, in writing, that FIM was, in no way, a gatehouse for international civil society. Furthermore, entering into this dialogue did not mean that FIM recognized the G8 as a legitimate global governance mechanism. The G8 organizers accepted these terms.
This strategic ploy may seem to be at odds with the thrust of this article, which is that representivity is not the main determinant for civil society legitimacy. After all, we were anxious to disclaim our representivity, because of a concern that the G8 would confer legitimacy upon us by claiming to be dealing with a representative body. However, even that early in the process FIM realized that the legitimacy of our project was not rooted in a public claim by any body, including such a powerful group as the G8, that we, in any way, represented international civil society.
Already, our thinking about representivity was changing. At first, it was for practical considerations; in spite of our will to find a representative mechanism, we were unable to come up with a viable solution. Gradually we had to ask ourselves “Is the problem specific to our situation or is it systemic?” Increasingly we felt that our specific difficulty was part of a larger whole. The more we disclaimed our representivity and the more we failed to aspire to be representative, the more we began to quietly question the premise that representivity is an essential component of legitimacy, especially for a civil society organization.
The process of dialoguing with the G8 is unusually complex. The G8 is a virtual organization. Each January 1, its leadership changes and the new host head of state assumes final authority for decisions on agenda, staffing, budget, etc. There is no permanent secretariat, and the agenda is agreed upon only months before the actual meeting. Each year sees a turnover of sherpas, the designates of the G8 heads of state. For FIM, beginning this project was quite high risk.
Yet the French were sufficiently satisfied with the results of our discussions prior to Kananaskis to decide to continue the process in 2003, and the British have considerably strengthened the process this year. It was increasingly clear that by some means we had established credibility and, by extension, some degree of ‘legitimacy’. (No American G8 official attended the 2002 and 2003 meetings, so with them we had no credibility and we were unable to convince them to agree to a meeting in 2004.) In our internal reviews after each meeting, the FIM Board also reiterated our commitment to continuing this difficult project; one which we knew would take time to produce measurable results.
We also expected criticism from within civil society. We did receive some, the most vocal being from colleagues who held positions of responsibility within ‘representative bodies’. The criticisms were (and are) largely conceptual in nature; they centre around our right to enter into a dialogue on ‘behalf of civil society’. Surprisingly, criticism has been relatively mute about our decision to actually undertake dialogue with the G8. This seems to reflect a mature understanding and acceptance of the diversity of civil society; leading to a typical comment such as; “We prefer to deal with the root problem and to protest the existence of the G8, but in the meantime hopefully you can mitigate the damage.” I am not aware of any of our participants having been personally criticized for having agreed to participate in this exercise.
We receive suggestions for agenda priorities and we are sometimes viewed as being naïve if we seriously expect to achieve any concrete results. At this stage, however, our objectives remain minimalist; to demonstrate to G8 organizers the value of open and frank dialogue with international civil society. With each decision by the host country to continue the exercise, we are achieving this primary objective.
Transparency and Accountability
For the first two years FIM limited its public reporting to a short resume of proceedings on its web site. This year FIM collaborated with Chatham House in London, and the process was more visible than in previous years and also included a greater degree of outside consultation than had been the case before. In part, this growing transparency reflects a greater security in the overall credibility of the exercise and a corresponding easing of tensions between civil society and G8 organizers.
In many ways this exercise reflects a form of accountability that is common to both the profit making and the not for profit private sectors. We are, in a very real way, dealing with market forces. We provide a service and we have stakeholders. If we fail to deliver a service that is acceptable to our peers (our civil society stakeholders), we will be forced to abandon this project. It wouldn’t take long for G8 organizers to realize that we are not respected by our colleagues and that they are not receiving credible advice and/or opinions.
1) At the outset FIM assumed that this project would only be legitimate in the long term if it became the responsibility of a representative civil society organization.
2) Gradually FIM found other means to develop credibility and legitimacy for the process.
3) The mutual agreement, by G8 organizers and FIM and its partners to continue the process, conveys credibility and legitimacy.