RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 13 (IPS) - Diplomacy is no longer
an exclusive arena of governments, as proven in the
past decade by the growing role of civil society
organisations in the international debate -- and by
the repeated successes of the World Social Forum, now
in its fourth year.
This process has been particularly evident since 1992,
when the United Nations Conference on Environment and
Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, also known as
the Earth Summit, followed by other global summits on
social issues, which included the active participation
of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The definition of this "non-governmental diplomacy",
the context of its development, its objectives and
limitations will be the theme of a seminar during the
Fourth World Social Forum (WSF), to take place Jan.
16-21 in Mumbai, India's largest city and economic
The three previous WSF were held in the southern
Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, emerging as a sort of
counterweight to the World Economic Forum, which held
its annual meeting of government leaders, business
executives and financiers at the same time in the
Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.
Times of purely inter-governmental relations have
ended, says a document by Henri Rouillé d'Orfeuil,
president of the France-based Coordination SUD, and
Jorge Eduardo Durao, head of the Brazilian Association
of NGOs (ABONG), that will serve as the basis for a
WSF seminar, promoted by these groups as well as the
Volunteer Action Network India (VANI).
It is no coincidence that the three are all national
federations of NGOs. Creating collective civil society
organisations at the national, regional or
international level, and defining common positions,
proposals and demands are necessary if
non-governmental diplomacy is to be effective, say
D'Orfeuil and Durao.
This compensates for the "weaknesses" of the NGOs,
which come under criticisms in terms of their
legitimacy and representativity in speaking on behalf
of civil society, they argue. Furthermore, the groups
have to overcome the great differences in their
focuses as well as contradictions between their
The "construction of a world in solidarity", with
international rules that are more just and
sustainable, is the aim of their actions.
And that attitude does not necessarily contradict the
policies and actions of governments.
ABONG president Durao said in an IPS interview that
the fact that the WSF is being held this year in
Mumbai reveals "a certain parallelism" between the
non-governmental diplomacy and the official diplomacy
of Brazil, India and South Africa, which in June
created the Group of Three, an alliance of the
developing world's leaders to strengthen their stance
in international negotiations.
In the weeks leading up to the latest ministerial
conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), held
in September in the Mexican resort of Cancún, the
Group of 20 (G20) developing countries emerged,
consolidating their stance against farm protectionism
and subsidies in the industrialised world. Brazil,
India and South Africa serve as the leaders of that
The non-governmental diplomatic battles are unfolding
on four fronts. In talks on social problems, for
example, NGOs are pushing industrialised countries to
contribute 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product
to development aid -- a promise not kept -- and to
take effective steps towards achieving what are known
as the Millennium Development Goals.
The millennium goals, agreed by the world's heads of
state and of government in 2000, aim to cut in half by
2015 infant mortality rates, the number of children
not enrolled in school, the 800 million people facing
hunger and the populations without access to clean
water, among other variables that are the product of
poverty and social exclusion.
The other fronts, say D'Orfeuil and Durao, are the
environment, economy, trade, and also geopolitical
questions, particularly as they relate to the
The global order will be a constant item of discussion
in the major conferences and panels of the WSF in
Mumbai, where an estimated 75,000 people are to gather
"Global governance", "Militarism, war and peace" and
"International trade" are some of the central themes
to be taken up by the thousands of participants.
"Combating unilateralism and reforming the United
Nations" is the topic of a debate organised by the
Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE)
and NGOs from other countries.
There is consensus against unilateralism, but the U.N.
is an uncomfortable issue that divides opinions, says
Cándido Grzybowski, IBASE director-general.
The WSF is a meeting of civil society, while the U.N.
is an organisation of governments, which even excludes
parliaments, he adds.
Expanding the membership of the U.N. Security Council,
where Brazil, India and South Africa each want a
permanent seat, or dismantling it because it is an
anti-democratic body in which only the United States,
Britain, China, France and Russia hold veto power, is
a polemic afflicting the U.N.
According to Francisco Whitaker, a Brazilian member of
the WSF International Council, alongside Grzybowski
and Durao, civil society no longer just exerts
pressure and makes demands, but rather is beginning to
take direct action.
One example of this is the peace initiative for Israel
and Palestine, presented several weeks ago in Geneva
by groups without ties to government. Spokespersons
from these Israeli and Palestinian NGOs are to speak
at the closing session of the WSF on Jan. 21.
The great contribution of the WSF is a new way of
"doing politics". It is a new method of "articulating
organisations and social movements horizontally,
without a command structure or a hierarchical
pyramid," Whitaker, representative of the Brazilian
Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission, told
This approach is key both for international and
domestic relations. The WSF is "an historic
experience" of unity for India, providing a space for
overcoming political and caste divisions, he said.
The "untouchables" of the lowest caste, numbering 170
million people (slightly fewer than the population of
Brazil), are organising and will participate in the
World Social Forum alongside their fellow Indian
citizens "and treated as equals," says Whitaker.