Networking Civil Society in Barcelona

Barcelona, Spain – This politically progressive, culturally distinct Mediterranean city served as host for Ubuntu, the latest international gathering of civil society. In contrast with the 60,000 people who converged on Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February for the second World Social Forum (WSF), less than 100 specially invited delegates participated in Ubuntu’s second annual constitutive meeting, held here March 1 and 2.

Billed as the World Forum of Networks of Civil Society, the Ubuntu meeting brought together representatives from some fifty organizations, most of which are, like Foreign Policy In Focus, networks, coalitions, or umbrella organizations. The diverse mix of participating organizations included Doctors Without Borders, Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives, CIVICUS, Association of International Universities, Global March Against Child Labor, Grameen Bank, Greenpeace, Oxfam International, Jubilee, Federation of African Women’s Peace Network, The Hague Appeal for Peace, and the World Council of Churches.

Individual guests included several international personalities, such as Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta from East Timor and the neomarxist Egyptian writer and activist Samir Amin, who directs the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal. Also present were Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the former French prime minister and head of France Libertes, and writer and former minister of culture Aminata Traore from Mali. Other luminaries, including Noam Chomsky and Nobel laureates Oscar Arias, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and Rigoberta Menchu, officially endorsed the Ubuntu initiative but were unable to attend.

At the opening ceremony held in the ornate Catalan Parliament, Fatma Alloo, a women’s rights activist and journalist from Zanzibar, Tanzania, explained that Ubuntu is an Africa word for humaneness. The term encompasses the concepts of “caring, sharing, and being in harmony with all creation” and promotes the ideal of “cooperation between individuals, cultures, and nations,” explained Alloo, who is a member of the Ubuntu coordinating committee.

Ubuntu is the brainchild of Federico Mayor Zaragosa, the urbane and dynamic former director general of UNESCO and current president of the Madrid-based Foundation for a Culture of Peace. It has been guided by a 12-person coordinating committee and is run by a small staff, known as the ad hoc secretariat, based at the Polytechnical University of Catalonia.

In his initial call to civil society leaders around the world, issued in late 2000, Mayor said his “aim is to create a network of networks, a movement of movements” of all those concerned with “peace, democracy, sustainable development, human dignity, and human rights.” At the first Ubuntu assembly held in Barcelona in April 2001, some 35 delegates set plans for establishing and expanding a permanent organization.

Over the past year, Ubuntu has brought in new organizations, taken part in various international events, created a website (online at www.catunesco.upc.es), and issued three strong statements on international issues. One endorsed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and condemned the Bush administration’s “non-fulfillment” as “completely unacceptable.” A second, issued last July at the G8 meeting of the world’s wealthiest countries in Genoa, Italy, condemned the use of violence by a small faction of protestors and lambasted the trade and financial policies and the undemocratic decisionmaking process of the G8 countries. The Ubuntu declaration called for the creation of a new UN Assembly “as a true representative of the world’s people.” A third Ubuntu statement, issued last September, both condemned the terrorist attacks and appealed to world leaders, “especially those in the U.S. to design alternative strategies to those of military conflicts.”

According to the draft platform discussed and amplified by delegates to this year’s forum, Ubuntu will strive: to have “a holistic and global outlook rather than a specific, issue-related or local one;” “to identify the main challenges facing humanity;” and “to work on new common proposals concerning the world’s problems.” As such, Ubuntu’s broadly stated objectives coincide with FPIF’s aims of creating a network of analysts and activists to critique U.S. foreign policy and provide policy alternatives.

Like the WSF, Ubuntu was created in 2001, and its mission, political perspective, and venue parallel the Porto Alegre gathering. Ubuntu delegates, many of whom had attended the WSF, repeatedly evoked the spirit and inspiration of the Porto Alegre gathering, including its message that “another world is possible.” As Josep Xeracins, coordinator of the Ubuntu secretariat, stated: “We don’t need to start from zero. Not only do we know that another world is possible, but we know a number of the ingredients of that world.”

Also like the WSF, Ubuntu was created in response to corporate-led globalization, and it sees its central missions as strengthening the voice and role of civil society and demanding accountability and democracy within international institutions. Although the WSF is intentionally based in the global South and Ubuntu in the global North, both movements operate in politically progressive cities and receive significant political and financial support from their host governments. Not only did the Catalan government cover the expenses of all delegates, it also provided the venue in the Parliament and hosted elegant dinners at government palaces. In return, city officials asked and received Ubuntu’s endorsement of Barcelona 2004, an ambitious international cultural exposition that organizers hope will start a quadrennial tradition of cultural “Olympics” parallel to the international athletic events.

Refreshingly, at both gatherings, U.S.-based NGOs did not dominate, and though the September 11 attacks and Bush’s war on terrorism formed a backdrop for much of the discussion, these events did not totally drive the debates. As Fatma Alloo from Zanzibar stated at the Ubuntu meeting: “What changed after 9-11? We’re told the world has changed forever. But for the world I come from, it was unsafe before and it’s still unsafe.”

Cora Weiss, president of The Hague Appeal for Peace, urged that Ubuntu address “the issues that give rise to terrorism. We must help to dry up the swamp of violence, militarism, and unilateralism,” she added. Weiss described the Bush administration’s war on terrorism as “a boulder rolling rapidly downhill. We need to put our shoulders together and work to push this boulder back uphill,” she said, expressing the determination of many delegates.

Flavio Lotti, from the Italian Peace Round Table, took the lead in drafting and presenting a statement entitled “No To Another War!” The statement, which is being circulated to all Ubuntu participants for signatures, reads in part: “We, representatives of numerous organizations of global civil society … wish to express our profound dissent: the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist doctrine is wrong, illegal, and dangerous.”

Although Ubuntu clearly views itself as aligned with the WSF, there are also some striking contrasts between the two social movements. The WSF put out a global call for participants, and tens of thousands showed up; Ubuntu was an invitation-only, all-expenses-paid gathering. And though the leadership of the WSF was largely faceless, Ubuntu has been defined and driven by Mayor and shaped by the cultural and political realities of Barcelona.

In addition, whereas the massive numbers and militancy of Porto Alegre and other international gatherings of the global justice movement have commanded attention from the press, Ubuntu’s cachet is the connections that Mayor and other delegates, who are mainly seasoned and mature NGO officials and academics, have with political and cultural elites around the world. Finally, Ubuntu’s formal UN-style format provides no space for street demonstrations. As Xeracins stated in summarizing Ubuntu’s mission: “We cannot just protest. We must find ways to influence and reach the real powers.” In fact, the nearest that delegates came to political protest was when, late one evening, their buses passed an immigrants rights demonstration while en route to a dinner gala with Barcelona’s mayor.

Ubuntu organizers and participants acknowledged that the organization must do better in bringing in youth and women’s organizations and in building geographical balance, including recruiting more NGOs in Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and the Asia Pacific region. Donald Charujmbira, a Zimbabwean who is secretary general of the World Assembly of Youth (WAY), called on Ubuntu’s secretariat to “go out and involve young people,” because their “special role, energy, innovation, and networks can add to this initiative.” The Malaysia-based WAY, along with the World Organization of the Scout Movement, were the only true youth organizations present at the Barcelona meeting.

A recurring theme throughout the two-day meeting was discussing what Ubuntu’s added value and unique niche is. Given the success of the World Social Forum and the existence of a number of other multi-issue networks of networks, including CIVICUS (an umbrella organization mainly for Southern NGOs), Independent Sector (made up of U.S. NGOs and foundations), and CONGO (Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the UN), some questioned whether there were a need for another, similar initiative.

The consensus of the meeting was that Ubuntu’s role is complementary to, not in competition with, other NGOs and movements. Organizers and delegates argued that Ubuntu’s mission–with a strong emphasis on cultural rights, environmental protection, and nonmilitarism–is broader and more holistic than that of the WSF and other antiglobalization gatherings, which focus primarily on international trade and investment institutions and agreements. In its watchdog role of promoting transparency and democracy within international institutions, Ubuntu is targeting the United Nations and its sister organizations as well as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and other global and regional financial and trade organizations.

Ubuntu has managed to bring under its aegis a number of major umbrella organizations not represented at the WSF or other global justice gatherings. However, an unresolved issue is the type of membership structure Ubuntu should adopt. Several of the more political centrist and bureaucratically structured organizations, including Human Rights Watch and CONGO, participated only as observers, and it remains to be seen whether they will officially join Ubuntu.

In summing up the scope of Ubuntu, Natasha Despotovich from the Global Foundation for Democracy and Assistance in the Dominican Republic outlined a four-fold role: monitoring the governance of international institutions and agreements, producing declarations in times of crisis, providing teaching tools for use by member organizations, and facilitating information sharing among participants. Federico Mayor said his vision is to create “a reactive and proactive network that is nonviolent, voluntary, and gives voice to those who are normally voiceless because they do not have a voice, are too scared to speak up, or don’t know how to use their voice.”