Vol.1 No.6, 20 August 2001

Book Review: Identity Crisis, Challenges, and a Window of Opportunity for Civil Society Organisations in South Africa

"Shaping Globalisation -- Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding"

by Nicanor Perlas

Recently Nicanor Perlas visited South Africa for the launch of his book "Shaping Globalisation -- Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding". In his book he argues for the need for Civil Society to act as a stabilising third force to those of Politics and Economics. His book has been published in Cape Town, South Africa by the Novalis Institute (tel 021 7971857; www.ideas-net.de/novalis). Chris Mullins, director of Emthunzini, an NGO which evaluates and promotes other South African NGOs, here puts the book into a South African perspective.

Identity Crisis, Challenges, and a Window of Opportunity for Civil Society Organisations in South Africa.

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), including Non Government Organisations (NGOs), have been through tumultuous changes and crises of identity in the last 7 years as they have been challenged to become partners with government in the reconstruction of our emerging democracy. Many have not survived. None of those that have, have emerged without profound changes; in leadership, in their strategic partnerships and in their own sense of who they are - their identity.

This is the beginning of a new challenge - the new identity crisis for CSO's - to retain their ability and will to speak out for the diversity of South Africans; to allow them to value their rich cultural, language and spiritual origins; to speak out against injustice, corruption, incompetence, the lack of delivery of government; and also to engage constructively with and to support government whenever possible - without co-option. This is a very difficult line for CSOs to tread - but the health of a democracy is not only dependent on democratic and transparent governance -- it is also dependent on the health, independence and vibrance of its civil society voices. It is a lesson that India learnt after its own independence when the CSO sector virtually disappeared to re-emerge with a vengeance 10 years later.

In South Africa it has taken us five years to realise that government cannot speak for or co-opt the power of civil society. Government, on the one hand has created an enabling environment for grassroots democracy, but on the other it has virtually disabled the sector through its bureaucratic incompetence. The government's Poverty Relief programme has also come in for major criticism by many NGOs who claim they have been sidelined by government which is attempting to take on the role of the development agency in many provinces.

The realisation is slowly dawning on people in South Africa that government -- even an elected government of the people and no matter how consultative its processes are -- is a hugely slow-moving bureaucracy.

We need to hear the strong, vocal and diverse representatives of CSOs - from organisations that are able to partner and support government and private sector initiatives but who don't "forget who they are" and the power that they represent -- "cultural power", as opposed to the political power of government or the economic power of the private sector. This threefold model is the central theme of a powerful new book published recently by Filipino, Nicanor Perlas: "Shaping globalisation -- Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding" - not just because it's a good idea to include the voice of the people, but because it is probably the only way to transform the destructive power of "elite globalism".

In his starkly realistic and chilling analysis of elite globalism, Perlas, (a former farmer, political activist, a leader of the People's Revolution in the Philippines and the Phillipine Agenda 21initiative, global CSO activist, etc) describes the current trend of globalism as not something inevitable - but as a deliberate and self-serving strategy by Western financial institutions (WTO, the World Bank, the IMF etc). The Philippines was one of the first guinea pigs of their mandatory "structural adjustment programmes" and the neo-liberal values behind these programmes, which he and many others conclude actually deepened the cycle of poverty.

Perlas' book is highly readable and is a wake-up call to South African CSO's! Perlas concludes one of his chapters with the statement that "Globalism is the most important challenge and opportunity facing humanity as it enters the new millennium". He succinctly formulates this second challenge: "Civil Society initiatives that do not consciously factor the workings of globalisation into their goals, programmes and activities will increasingly become irrelevant to the world process. Globalisation is increasingly spreading or forcing its influence into every nook and cranny of local villages and towns. The achievements of an unconscious Civil Society, including those at the local level, will be marginalised."

Perlas documents the draconian agreements of the WTO which have forced even Japan and the EU into compliance (eg. the WTO standard for acceptable levels of the "dirty dozen" heavy toxins - including DDT - in food exports is 100-5000% above the USA's own internationally accepted standards!). He concludes that global elitism and the unchecked free trade policies of the WTO will do more to perpetuate and deepen global poverty and the North-South divide - putting small producers out of business as imported products are grown and made by first world countries cheaper than can be produced locally. These products will flood over our borders and sovereign nation states will not be able to stand up to the WTO and the like to protect themselves!

It's all very depressing! But there is a window of opportunity: South Africa hosts the Global Conference of Sustainable Development on 3-14 September 2002 in Johannesburg. This is a unique opportunity for South Africa and presents an opportunity for us as Civil Society Organisations in South Africa to rethink and deepen our own identity as voices of the people and to begin to engage on the world stage with other CSOs. Perlas describes the historical significance of the "Battle of Seattle" where recently global CSOs actually blocked the World Trade Organisation in pushing through a number of highly dubious resolutions. These are well-documented in Perlas's book and on Internet sites such www.foei.org. CSOs and cultural power have emerged as a global "third force" to contest the monopoly of the economic and political power bloc over the fate of the earth.

The Global Conference on Sustainable Development (to be staged in South Afrca and to be attended by over 100 heads of state and over three thousand CSOs - at two different venues, in Sandton and Gallagher estate) is going to be another opportunity to harness the power of global civil society in addressing global issues of poverty and environmental degradation - an area in which there has been no real progress by the global elite. The most powerful action to date is arguably "Agenda 21" -- a local and global strategy for sustainable development -- a resolution driven by global CSOs and passed at the previous Global Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (Perlas and the Philippines are world leaders in the implementation of Agenda 21).

Are you ready for the challenges and will your organisation in its own unique way be part of the building of this new global world order? Perlas' book is compulsory reading material for Civil Society Organisations which want to take up this challenge.

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