Geneva, 18 February 2003. This morning, the first civil society plenary took place. Despite the early time, many delegates had showed up to become informed on the tasks of the planned civil society bureau. The bureau had been suggested by the Civil Society Division of the Summit Secretariat, as a mechanism to overcome the lack of transperency and chaotic coordination between the secretariat and civil society. It is intended to function as a "channel" for the flow of information between the summit secretariat and civil society as well as a counterpart to the intergovernmental bureau. By this, it would be a clear progress from the previous process, where representatives of governments and international organizations like the UN bodies publicly applauded the idea of broad civil society participation in their speeches, but the actual practice had been quite the opposite. The civil society groups, too, are themselves forced to get organized by the planned constituting of the bureau, even if it is just for proving to the governments that they have the capacity to act.
Unfortunately, the steps taken so far on the way to establishing the bureau have as intransparent as the general summit preparations. At an informal meeting with some hand-picked NGO delegates in Geneva in January, a concept for structuring the bureau had been drafted. This paper was available in a modified version today (we will put it online as soon as we get an electronic copy), that had been worked on until last night at ten o'clock - by whom, with which legitimation, invited by whom was still not clear.
To the original ten "families" into which the civil society groups had been divided (media, academia, youth, social movements, women, NGOs etc.), eleven others had been added in the new version, making a total of 21 "families". New in this draft are "families" for the different world regions, but as well think tanks or philantropic foundations. The families that were already criticised as not appropriate for the category "civil society" - parliamentarians and local authorities - are still in it. The criteria for choosing a "family" seem to befar from clear, and the extension with new "families" looks very arbitrary.
In the next few days, these "families" are asked to select the organizations or individuals ("focal points") who will represent them in the bureau and then function as "routers" for the flow of information in both directions. At a "family meeting" of the NGO community later today, many participants voiced heavy concerns over the whole process. It looked like "good friends from Geneva" had secured their influence here, was the elaborate complaint by one NGO delegate from France.
How much influence the bureau will really have in the end is still contested. Renate Bloem of the Conference of NGOs in Consultation with the UN (CONGO) tried to soften the critique. According to her, the task of the bureau will mainly be to secure influence for civil society grous in the process dimension, namely the right to speak in the official debates or to have access to enough rooms to meet among themselves. The work on content then would have to be done here or in the issue-oriented caucuses, who would be able to use the influence channels that the bureau will fight for.
Here, however, a clear imbalance between the different "families" can be stated. Some of them are identical with issue-oriented committees of the civil society coordinating group that were founded at the first PrepCom. For example, the "families" "women" or "indigenous peoples" will hadly only discuss procedural questions, but instead will use their representatives in the bureau for influencing the content. Other issue-oriented working groups, like the ones on technical aspects, human rights of privacy, are not represented as "families" and will therefore have less impact on the summit secretariat and the intergovernmental bureau.
In fact, the proposal for the bureau is directly weakening the civil society subcommittee on "participation" that had been established at PrepCom1. It is too early to tell if the thematic subcommittees as well will now find it harder to get their content onto the summit agenda. But it will be tough to achieve anything without going through the "friends from Geneva" in the future. Because of time constraints and a very calming moderation, there was no chance to really adress the fundamental question: Is the construction of the bureau in the proposed form wanted at all by the majority of civil society?
A number of NGO delegates therefore felt taken by surprise