Tackling Governance, From Top to Bottom

New Delhi 14, March: As consumer organizations around the world commemorate World Consumer Rights Day on March15, one such consumer body in India is demonstrating the impact the civil society can have on raising awareness on the key issues surrounding development and poverty reduction.

This year’s theme for the Day is “Biotechnology and Consumers” and it shows just how far the consumer movement has come. Discussions are certainly not about which are the best brands of white goods, or misleading advertising, but instead take a three-dimensional approach to questions of international importance. This means considering the impact of biotechnology on the livelihoods of poor farmers, the monopolistic power of global agribusinesses and the effects of consumption patterns on the environment.

While events are taking place all over the world, in New Delhi, the Consumer Unity & Trust Society’s (CUTS) Partnership Conclave from 12-14 March shows what even a single dynamic organization can do. The Conclave celebrates two decades of the organisation’s work.

The conference captured all the prominent themes concerning poverty and pulled in many big names. CUTS, which started out as a tiny operation working out of a garage in 1984, has become one of the “major international NGOs from developing countries,” according to Mr. Pascal Lamy, the European Union’s Trade Commissioner who was speaking at the event and “a driving force in creating EU-India civil society dialogue.”

A clear message of the Conclave, entitled, “Governance and its Relationship to Poverty Reduction” was that governance has an important impact from the local right up to the international level. IK Gujral, Former Prime Minister of India, spoke of the inter-relationships between the two. “In India, though we have not failed entirely in achieving the aims of poverty elimination and good governance, we still have a long way to travel,” he admitted.

Minister for Commerce and Industry in the Indian Government, Arun Jaitley, drew attention to cases where well intentioned policy-makers had formulated policies that were inappropriate or could not be implemented because of political pressures.

Civil society has the power to initiate and shape debates, a strength which they can use to promote long-term poverty reduction. Erna Witoelar, Commissioner of the Earth Charter and former head of Consumers International, the world federation of consumer organizations, called on civil society organizations from North and South to work with their counterparts to advocate changes.

From trade liberalization and the WTO, through to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and sustainable development, eminent speakers at the CUTS Conclave shared their expertise with an audience of over 300 civil society representatives from more than 30 countries.

Speaking on consumer rights and responsibilities, Wajahat Habibullah, Secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs, Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs speaking on behalf of the Minister, emphasized the vital role that consumer organizations have to play in promoting good governance and making sure that the processes of globalization and privatization do not harm the poor.

Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator of the Financial Times, pointed out how the World Trade Organisation Agreements are unlike any other trade system: they intrude on domestic policies on agriculture, investment and subsidies.

For Northern governments and multinational institutions, the challenge is to bring concerns about development and poverty into the mainstream of policy-making, including trade policy. These concerns have been relegated for too long to Development Ministries. Eveline Herfkens, Executive Coordinator for the UN Secretary General’s Campaign on MDGs, drew attention to the need for ‘coherence,’ which she was instrumental in pioneering in the Netherlands. This was a concern echoed by Charlotte Seymour-Smith, Head of the Department for International Development, UK office in India.

On trade and sustainable development, reforms of international governance systems were a recurring theme. S N Menon, Additional Secretary, Department of Commerce, India, calling for progress in the current round of trade negotiations, recognizing that rich and poor countries should make asymmetric concessions. Others called on India to use its influence at the WTO, as one of the ‘elephants’ of international trade negotiations, to bring forth the concerns of the smaller developing countries.

Problems at the international level do not absolve national governments of their responsibilities. The duties of national governments to provide regulation and safety nets ran through the debates on economic liberalization, foreign direct investment and labour standards that were conducted over the three days. In relation to the MDGs, Herfkens said that the next step should be for countries to secure ownership over the goals and tailor them to their national development objectives.

The importance of politics in governance cannot be ignored. Jaitley emphasized that the ultimate decision-making power lies with politicians and cautioned against the mental process of “populism and immediate returns” dominating many policy-makers in developing countries.

The political dimension was also emphasized by Abul Ahsam, former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh. Good governance in South Asia has been distorted by chauvinism, corruption and the politicization of the bureaucracy, he said, which has hindered efforts at poverty reduction.

Initiatives at the local level are crucial complements to national and international policies. Case studies were presented over the course of the Conclave which highlighted the huge number of successful local initiatives which have addressed issues like farmers’ rights and innovative education strategies, and analysed the failure of other steps, like the privatization of energy in the state of Orissa, India.

The cases are being used by participants to inspire work in other countries and regions, and to avoid the repetition of mistakes.

Tying the grass-roots to the international is one of the key strengths of CUTS. Muchkund Dubey, former Foreign Secretary of India and Chairman of the Conclave Steering Committee, commended CUTS’ philosophy of constructive analysis of the issues. CUTS has been empowering people at all levels, from village communities in the state of Rajasthan, to providing inputs to WTO discussions on competition policy and law.

The story of CUTS, celebrated in its 20th Anniversary this week, is an inspiration to civil society representatives everywhere.

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