140 participants from fifty countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America attended the conference “Are we on the right track? Paradigm review by civil society organisations (CSOs) as development actors” which took place between 14th and 16th May 2008 in Prague.
On the wrong track
The strong interest shown by CSO representatives from around the world to participate in the conference, underlined the need for deepened dialogue between West, East and South on the basic concepts of development. The conference challenged paradigms not only from a European perspective, but started from the needs and expectations expressed by recipient countries of development cooperation in the global South. Most participants answered the question “Are we on the right track?” negatively. In many ways it was felt that paradigm change or reorientation was inevitable. As Justin Kilcullen, president of CONCORD, stated at the beginning of the conference, not even the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) as minimal requirements are being met because of the insufficient engagement of rich countries. They are better at promising than performing.
Attitudes towards capitalism
Key speakers came from the South and the Eastern EU Neighbourhood: Chico Whitaker (Brazil), T. Rajamoorthy (Malaysia), Rebecca Tanui (Kenya) and Olga Ponizova (Russia). In spite of the big differences in terms of context and background, the common message was that the present form of globalisation driven by unregulated neoliberal capitalism, caused or deepened poverty and ecological disasters and intensified the violation of human rights. This clear consensus was rather surprising for many participants from “post-socialist” countries, where mostly neoliberal ways of transformation are favoured. The related discussions created special dynamics during the conference and beyond with a strong interest of both the new EU member states and the South to come to deeper exchange and better understanding of each other’s experiences and expectations. Nevertheless, a certain shyness to express ideologically controversial positions was observed on occasion. There were different attitudes towards capitalism and the role of the state. Not everyone agreed with the need to ”overcome capitalism”, on the other hand not everyone considered it possible to create a type of capitalism that would support poor people.
Dialogue between West, East and South
Participants from the old EU member states seemed to know better the situation in the South than the ways of thinking and acting in the new EU member states and in the Eastern neighbourhood. The conference was not able to bridge gaps of knowledge on all sides but it was successful in awaking a good deal of curiosity. Most of the participants greatly appreciated the so far unique opportunity to discuss basic development issues on such a broad base.
Listen to the South: Be political!
The topics centred around human rights and development policies, as requested by southern partners, were considered among the most exciting. Representatives from the South placed emphasis on social human rights to guarantee life in dignity and happiness for everybody; a prerequisite for all other development efforts. The development co-operation that CSOs in the South expect from their partners in the North no longer focuses primarily on the construction of hospitals, schools and/or other conventional development projects but on supporting the empowerment of southern civil society. At the same time, southern CSOs call for strong advocacy and lobbying in the North to change unjust rules and structural discrimination inherent in the present day world economy and international politics. This is probably the main challenge resulting from the conference.
Space for critical civil society?
Given this challenge, it was found disturbing and worrying that many CSOs in Europe merely act as implementers for outsourced state Official Development Assistance (ODA) programmes or are on their way to becoming quasi-commercial consultancy agencies, losing their specific critical role, which is so badly needed. The European Commission is even strengthening this tendency by involving more and more private firms (“Non State Actors” according to their definition) instead of genuine CSOs and by increasing budget support to southern governments, some of which lack democratic legitimacy. At the same time the interest in strengthening critical and vigilant civil societies in southern countries is far less strongly pronounced.
Follow up conference 2009
As planned from the outset, TRIALOG will organise a second conference of this kind in 2009 (possibly in Nicaragua) to deal with the very question of CSOs as critical actors in development and to challenge governments and other donors about their responsibilities.
More about the key findings, texts of all speeches, video statements of speakers and organisers, minutes of working groups and a photo gallery of the Prague conference are available on the TRIALOG website at: www.trialog.or.at/start.asp?ID=155
If you are interested in receiving information about the follow up conference in 2009, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org