Global public policy: How civil society can intervene effectively

NEW YORK, United States of America

The "Civil Society Intervention in the Reform of Global Public Policy" seminar was held in Paris in April 2007. The aim was to bring together activists and academics involved in three public policy campaigns – international finance institutions, international tax and internet governance – to reflect on their practices and learn from one another. Willie Currie of the APC reports on the tricks and patience needed to achieve policy reforms.
The "Civil Society Intervention in the Reform of Global Public Policy" seminar was convened by the Ford Foundation and the Institute for a new reflection on governance in Paris from 16 – 19 April 2007.

The aim was to bring together activists and academics involved in three public policy campaigns – international finance institutions, international tax and internet governance – to reflect on their practices and learn from one another.

It was quickly apparent that the three campaigns were in different phases of their advocacy life cycles.

Reforming international finance institutions

The campaign on reforming international finance institutions had been in action for more than twenty years, was a mature campaign and had achieved significant milestones in terms of engaging effectively with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund such as:

- achieving a debt write-off for developing countries
– getting a service fee for education dropped as a measure of conditionality
– getting IFIs to adopt the Aarhus Convention principles as well as ‘do-no-harm’ policies adopted on social and environmental issues
– securing the creation of inspection panels which could review Bank project implementation
– stopping some dubious projects and getting the World Commission on Dams established as well as the policies for large dam projects that respect local communities

Reforming the international tax system

The campaign to promote an international tax system had been in motion since the early 1990s and was regarded as a teenage campaign in that it had managed to focus a great deal of attention on international taxation as a democratic deficit in global governance as well as on particular taxes like the Tobin tax proposal on taxing international transactions in the financial markets. It had developed a model of progressive tax on airports and persuaded then French President Jacques Chirac to champion it internationally.

So the campaign had achieved an initial victory which demonstrated that it is not impossible to create a workable international tax that does not disadvantage the players involved, e.g. airlines as all face the same tax. In doing so the campaign has shattered a key argument by the powerful that an international tax system could not be put into practice on a fair basis.

It was interesting to compare the campaign preparation around persuading Chirac to take on the airport tax issue with the failed attempt to create a digital tax at WSIS. First, the campaign undertook extensive research and produced a model airport tax, which they tested for counter-arguments. Then they had a window of opportunity in France because Chirac held an annual meeting with NGOs and they used this arena to raise the issue. Chirac resisted for a number of years but suddenly there was a convergence with his own political agenda and he decided to go for it and to bring in the governments of Brazil and Chile to launch it. The digital solidarity tax on the other hand had little or no research behind it when President Wade of Senegal tossed it into the WSIS arena in Geneva in 2003. Counter-arguments had not been tested. Nor was civil society able to get much traction on it in the Task Force on Financial Mechanisms. So a breakthrough could not be achieved.

Reforming internet governance

The campaign on internet governance and the regulation of ICTs was regarded as a toddler, that had achieved great access to the powerful through WSIS, had helped create a new global institution – the Internet Governance Forum and was adept at organising in virtual space. But it had yet to deliver concrete policy or regulatory changes on internet governance or ICTs.

The internet/ICT activists present raised the issue of how one assesses the value of the arenas that we had captured in the course of the campaign such as the IGF, the GAID or the WSIS implementation action lines. Would they just turn into talk shops with little value? The IFI and tax campaign people found this hilarious and advised us to take it easy. The message from the older campaigns was to realise that this was an early stage in the policy life cycle and to ride with it, in other words, hang in with the processes unleashed, maintain realistic expectations and prepare for making a concrete breakthrough.

Building cohesion, with patience and leadership

A useful suggestion was that APC should consider convening a meeting of the social activist cadre in the campaign every three years or so in order to do deep reflection on the campaign processes and goals, build cohesion and common understandings and develop strategies that reflected and learnt from the activities undertaken in practice.

The other campaigns learnt from the internet/ICT campaign that it is possible to make ground rapidly with an agile campaign, using an insider strategy and the recognised the key success of the campaign in opening a closed process in the WSIS and increasing civil society participation.

Another point made with respect to the IFI campaign was its multiplicity of actors at local, regional and global levels who managed to work together around common goals and strategies while creating space at the different levels for direct action, that were not orchestrated from the centre. This coalesced around a key strategic meeting held about twelve years ago in which the activists built the strategies coherently and enabled real change to take place.

Whistleblowers’ use of the media

At the anecdotal level, Louis Clark of the Government Accountability Project in Washington DC, which specialises in whistleblowing, explained their role in the revelation of World Bank Director, Paul Wolfowitiz’s exposure on corrupt practices regarding his girl-friend. After receiving the information from the whistleblower and verifying it, they decided to release the story to gossip columnists rather than the flagship New York Times. In doing this they calculated that Wolfowitz would respond to the gossip columnists with a lie. Which he duly did and dug himself deeper into the hole. This was an object lesson in strategy from a mature campaign on the level of the planning and care taken, which also included taking legal steps to protect the whistleblower from reprisals.

We still have a lot to learn. That’s a relief to know!

Willie Currie
Communications and Information Policy Programme Manager
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)

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