Civil Society Forum defends existence

More than 1,000 delegates gathered at the first World Civil Society Forum Schweiz Tourismus

The organisers of a global forum in Geneva have been trumpeting its success, but questions remain about whether it has a role to play.

This content was published on July 22, 2002 - 17:39

Despite being dogged by organisational hitches, the organisers of the World Civil Society Forum (WCSF) were putting a positive spin on the outcome of the event, which was held in Geneva from July 8 to 20.

Responding to suggestions that the aims of the forum were far from clear, they say it achieved its goal of bringing together representatives of non-governmental organisations from all over the world, bringing them into contact with UN officials, and giving them a better insight into how the UN system works.


Despite the fact that many African delegates were refused visas by the Swiss authorities, more than 1,000 delegates made the trip to Geneva for the forum's workshops and sessions, which tackled subjects as diverse as sustainable development, the information society, health promotion and the rights of indigenous people.

"A lot of practical and concrete links have been developed. There has also been a strong engagement from the UN system to work more closely with civil society," the head of the organising committee, Sébastien Ziegler, told swissinfo. "A real spirit of working together has emerged."

Among a long list of recommendations drawn up by delegates, the main decision was for the process to continue, by no means certain when the forum got under way.

A coordinating council comprising 70 NGOs has been created to organise the next forum, though when that will happen is not clear. A consultation period will help decide whether the forum should be an annual event or a larger gathering held every three years. The coordinating council will also work on a regional level to try to broaden the movement.

Platform for cooperation

There remain questions marks over where the forum - and its regional branches - intends to position itself in relation to the biggest anti-globalisation event, the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.

Commentators have raised a number of questions about the purpose of the forum. Is it, they ask, an attempt to find some middle ground between the "establishment" and the more radical elements of the anti-globalisation movement? Is it intended as the "acceptable face" of that movement, or even an attempt to undermine it?

Sébastien Ziegler believes these questions are wide of the mark: "We don't claim to speak on behalf of civil society. It's more of a platform for cooperation," he says.

The WCSF invited four senior organisers of the Porto Alegre forum to come and speak in Geneva, but they either declined or failed to reply. It's not clear if the Geneva forum's refusal to take a stand in favour of or against globalisation influenced these decisions.

"We are neither in opposition to Porto Alegre, nor are we a duplication," Ziegler says. "Our aim is different. It's less to do with issues and more to do with technical and practical mechanisms - how to improve cooperation with the UN system."

Another key issue raised by the forum was what precisely is civil society, and what is an NGO? Who do they represent? From whom do they get their funding?

Ziegler says the organisers ran exhaustive checks to ascertain whether those wanting to attend the forum were indeed representatives of genuine organisations.

That did not prevent at least 100 delegates - the majority of them from Africa - being refused visas by Swiss embassies, fearful that the delegates might stay on in Switzerland illegally after the end of the forum.

by Roy Probert

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