Global Policy Forum

NGO Umbrellas Leap Regional Borders


By Daniela Estrada

Inter Press Service
March 23, 2007

In an unprecedented meeting in the Chilean capital, some 20 umbrella groups of non-governmental organisations from Latin America and Europe began to outline a common agenda, with an initial focus on development financing.

"We met to strengthen our ties, our communication and our institutional structures," Miguel Santibáñez, president of the Chilean Association of NGOs (Acción), which groups 70 different organisations, told IPS. "And also to build an agenda of common issues and concerns related to citizens' rights, participation and the deepening of democracy." Acción, together with Coordination Sud, a coalition of more than 120 French NGOs, organised the international seminar "social cohesion and development financing; the role of civil society" held Thursday in Santiago.

Participating in the gathering, along with members of NGOs from Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Peru, Portugal and Spain, were government authorities, academics and representatives of international bodies like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The seminar focused on three central issues: coordination of NGOs at the national, regional and international levels, financing of NGOs and development programmes and initiatives, and social cohesion.

Participants discussed, for example, advances and problems with respect to innovative development financing mechanisms currently being studied by the Initiative Against Hunger and Poverty Technical Group (TG-7), made up of the governments of Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Germany, France, South Africa and Spain. The TG-7 was created in 2004 by presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Jacques Chirac of France, and Ricardo Lagos of Chile. The rest of the countries later joined them.

Its first achievement was the establishment of a "solidarity tax" on airline tickets in France and Chile to raise funds for the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in the world's poorest countries. But the NGOs also emphasised the need to make concrete progress towards the creation of a global tax on foreign exchange transactions, along the lines of the proposed Tobin Tax. The representative of the TG-7 in Chile, Luis Eduardo Escobar, said there are no longer doubts with respect to the technical feasibility of these new mechanisms, and that all that is needed is the political will to effectively implement them. "We are also concerned about the fairness of tax systems in Latin America, because we believe there are highly regressive tax policies in the region," said Santibánez.

Another focus of discussion was fund-raising difficulties. "There are two different problems when it comes to funding for NGOs," Henri Rouillé d'Orfeuil, president of Coordination SUD, told IPS. "The first is finding sources of financing, whether public or private. The second is to avoid being dependent on that aid, and to refrain from modifying the group's political line when receiving, for example, money from the state."

Ten years ago, the "Mesa de Articulación de Asociaciones Nacionales y Redes de ONGs de América Latina" was created, a large platform bringing together 15 different umbrella groups in Latin America. The platform's charter of political principles was signed at Thursday's meeting. "The 'mesa de articulación' is facing many challenges," Tatiana de Vasconcelos Gouveia, national director of the Brazilian Association of NGOs, ABONG, remarked to IPS. "One of them is to comprehend the Latin American context as a whole, respecting the differences between countries, while also understanding that each government in Latin America influences, for better or worse, the overall situation in which the countries find themselves," she said.

For his part, Rouillé d'Orfeuil stressed the importance not only of the cooperation being promoted among European and Latin American NGO associations, but also of "how we can work together on different international issues and policies." Last year, the French activist published the book "Non-governmental Diplomacy; Can NGOs Change the World?" "The book talks about how NGOs, national platforms and regional coalitions can take part in the international debate on the defence of human rights, but while working on concrete negotiations, such as trade talks," he explained to IPS. It also discusses "struggles won so far by citizen diplomacy in the spheres of human rights, generic medicines, the environment, etc."

Participative democracy was another issue debated in the seminar. Santibáñez criticised Chile's centre-left government, headed by socialist President Michelle Bachelet. "We believe progress has been made, for instance, in the inclusion of civil society in the commissions (of experts that advise the president on different questions), but we had higher expectations with regard to what a citizens' government should actually look like" said the activist.

"The idea of participative democracy, which cannot be understood as other than a representative democracy, but must be seen as complementary, means in the first place the modification of Chile's electoral system, which allows political power to be concentrated in a very few parties," something that has not yet been done, despite Bachelet's promises, argued Santibáñez. It also means the ability to hold referendums to recall elected authorities who fail to live up to their mandates, local and national plebiscites, public accounts, citizen oversight of public bodies, etc -- mechanisms that do not exist in Chile, he said.

A Sept. 9-11 seminar, to be organised in Brussels by the "mesa de articulación de América Latina" and the Concord confederation of European NGOs, will continue the work begun in the Chilean capital.

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