Civil Society Shows Its Muscle (SALIL SHETTY, Director of the UN Millennium Campaign)
  Poster : administra     date : 09-03-27 13:20     hit : 1580 (144)
Q&A: Civil Society Shows Its Muscle
Sanjay Suri interviews SALIL SHETTY, Director of the UN Millennium Campaign

Salil Shetty

Credit:UN Millennium Campaign

LONDON, Mar 25 (IPS) - Governments made their pledges over the Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000, but it is civil society that could, more than anyone else, hold them to that promise. Salil Shetty, a civil society man coming as the head of ActionAid to head the UN millennium campaign, believes civil society has moved in from the margins; it is now at the heart of the world campaign for delivering these, and other rights.

Excerpts from the interview, conducted on email:

IPS: It is usual, and of course cynical, at least within the media, to think of civil society as do-gooders on the margins of decision-making. Is civil society able to do rather than say, and is that making a difference?

Salil Shetty: Civil society is often mistakenly understood as coterminous with NGOs. I see civil society as the rich array of modes through which citizens organise themselves to negotiate with the state and the market. Civil society organisations (CSOs) therefore include neighbourhood groups, trade unions, consumer rights groups, faith-based organisations, youth and women's groups and social movements of all hues.

My experience and focus has been on those CSOs who have prioritised the needs and rights of poor and excluded sections of society. These excluded people and the organisations that represent them or work with or for them are, of course, on the margins of decision-making. Which is precisely what we are fighting to change.

As far as 'do-gooding' goes, that doesn't sound like a bad thing, does it?

IPS: Again, the image of civil society is that it carries out some development projects here and there. Is there a more whole kind of activity that it carries out? What, or what all, is that?

SS: Projects here and there add up to a lot – the best known example in South Asia has been the micro-finance programmes in Bangladesh. Where a lot of drops of water have added up to become a veritable river of dynamism, change and poverty reduction at a national scale, with poor people in the forefront. Let us not forget that whether we like it or not, there are several countries in the world where civil society, particularly faith-based organisations like churches and mosques, actually cover a larger section of the population through their programmes than the government does.

But it is true that, exceptions apart, CSOs are not very inclined to working together in formations that can make a collective difference. And that for different reasons ranging from a fierce sense of autonomy, simple lack of understanding of how governments work, or in few cases lack of accountability to the mainstream system, operate in splendid isolation. There are many places where CSOs playing service delivery roles has led to governments abdicating their responsibility of meeting the needs of their citizens.

At the same time, there are enough examples to the contrary. The most recent and celebrated story has been of the group of market women in Liberia who through their collective action at a very local level were able to build a women's movement to ease out President Charles Taylor, something that the all-powerful international community had failed to do. A bunch of illiterate women catalysing regime change – that's way more than a small development project!

IPS: Are there other instances to show that civil society is being taken more seriously now by governments and by international institutions?

SS: Beyond doubt, civil society is now part of the mainstream discourse. I remember when I was about to join an NGO in 1983, my friends thought that I had gone bananas - after completing a MBA at IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Ahmedabad and then cleared the Indian Civil Service exams, why do you want to become an NGO, 'Non-Gazetted Officer (and therefore not a bureaucrat), they asked. I have been amazed at the high profile political role played by civil society in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Nepal in the last couple of years during a period of great transition and change.

IPS: If research and activism are the strong points of civil society, how far do these have an impact on anything?

SS: The combination of the power of good argument, based on good research, the power of standing up for the right thing and the power of large numbers of people behind them is a truly winning weapon and one that civil society has used to great effect. Look at some of the most successful campaigns over the last two decades for debt cancellation – the Jubilee campaign at the global level which resulted in billions of dollars of debt cancellation for over 30 of the poorest countries in the world, or more national ones like the Treatment Action Campaign on HIV/AIDS in South Africa that resulted in the Government providing ARVs (anti-retroviral treatment) for hundreds of thousands of people living with AIDS, or indeed the Stand Up for the Millennium Development Goals campaign that mobilised over 116 million people across the world to raise their voice against poverty last October.

IPS: Is civil society in any sense redefining democracy, to bring in a continuing sense of people participation rather than casting a vote for a politician every five years or so?

SS: I have been repeatedly saying for the last few years that the biggest challenge that we are facing now is that democracies are not delivering for the poor. Every survey in almost any part of the world asking people what they think of their government or indeed the private sector, shows low and declining trust levels in government and corporates. I dare not think how low it has gone after the financial crisis.

The naïve western notion that equates democracies with elections has been consistently exploded from Bihar (in eastern India) to Baghdad. The role of civil society has grown exponentially in increasing accountability of governments to its citizens. That is the central focus of the UN Millennium Campaign that I work on – getting governments and elected leaders to keep their pledges on achieving the Millennium Development Goals and poverty eradication that they make to their citizens both through lofty commitments at international fora but also routinely when they want votes.

IPS: Is there a particularly Indian input that you bring to your work?

SS: I am an Indian, not just by passport, but that is where I have lived, learned and experienced most of my life. I don't do it consciously, but it obviously permeates my thought and action. In today's context of the massive financial and climate crisis caused by the rich world but fast affecting the poor world, it is almost clichéd to talk about how inter-connected the world is. So, having a global perspective on things is essential in order to find even national solutions. In relation to social justice and poverty eradication questions, nobody can talk with greater legitimacy than an Indian. We both have the largest number of poor people in the world and some of the most effective interventions to combat it. Take the Right to Information or Right to Food campaigns for example, they are at the leading edge of civil society action to combat poverty and discrimination.

IPS: Why did you step away from the beaten management track, and how much of your campaign work takes management skills?

SS: I went into the MBA programme kicking and screaming and pretty much stayed that way for the two years when I was there. Asking why we need to study how to make rich people richer. But in retrospect there is no doubt that it was time well spent and at its core, the problem-solving frame that management as a discipline offers, is very useful in any context. In my last job as CEO of ActionAid, there was a significant management component. But it takes a lot more than management training to play a leadership role. Particularly when the project we are interested in is policy and political change.

IPS: How far is your work with civil society feeding into your work at the UN?

SS: Well, if you are referring to the work with civil society in the way that I defined it, that is really at the heart of what the UN Millennium Campaign, where I work. Words are cheap and governments find it easy to come to UN conferences and make flowery promises. But holding their feet to fire is what citizens have to do. And that is what we support. Take for example the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan in India which tracks the Government of India's promises in the Common Minimum Programme and the Five Year Plans. Or the Peoples Forum for MDGs in Bangladesh or the Global Call to Action Against Poverty at the global level – all of which we have helped incubate. And it goes beyond CSOs to the media, to parliamentarians, to local governments and to ordinary citizens raising their voice and asking their leaders to keep their promise.

IPS: Any evidence that the whole MDG movement is more than a photo-op.

SS: Travelling to Australia, I was listening to the video of a speech made by the parliamentary secretary for aid there. He was very clear that if it was not for our partner campaign run by Australian CSOs, including faith groups and youth organisations, the new Labour government could not have included support for their MDGs in their election pledges and now that they are in power, in the Government's policies and programmes. These examples abound and together they make a great picture – I don't have a problem with such great photo-ops. Of course, there are still many challenges but the movement has grown phenomenally and in my view, is here to stay.


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