Here are some of my notes on my learnings at the CIVICUS World Assembly 2010 that I am attending in Montreal.

‘Civil society leaders are treated like beggars when we go to embassies to get visas to travel to Western countries when we want to go to a conference or have a little bit of space to talk to other groups when we live in a repressive country’.

Also, and I have heard this before, many attendees and speakers have trouble getting a visa to come to Canada.  Practically this undercuts Canada as a potential place to hold global conferences. 

There are some fantastic civil society leaders here.  Facing lots of adversity but generally have positive and constructive attitude and approaches.  Refreshing change from some CSO meetings I have had in Canada which reflect a Chicken Little sky is falling and nattering nabobs of negativism approach. 

On a positive note, CIDA is providing significant funding to CIVICUS which is a voice for civil society around the world.  While we have heard about certain Canadian organizations that have lost funding in the last few years I find it interesting that this seems to be largely hidden. 

Don’t just talk amongst ourselves.  Put another way “We need private sector and government at table – too much talking to ourselves”.

Many governments see civil society as a threat.  In many countries there are significant challenges for civil society.  Such challenges include:  legal restrictions on advocacy, restrictions on foreign funding of CSOs, ‘aid effectiveness’ pushing money to governments rather than CSOs because of “host country ownership” becoming ‘host government ownership’, some government using cover of ‘terrorism’ to stifle dissent, lack of open dialogue with govt officials, double standards in addressing human rights depending on the country and geopolitical considertions etc.  Some countries make association a criminal activity.

Closer to elections – less space for civil society.

How dependent are we on money from government – what is effect?

Why is there perception by some delegates that all Canadian international development organizations receive CIDA funding?

How can we in each country have specific approaches that work with a particular government?  What worked last year may not work this year.  What works in one country is counterproductive in another.

Civil society needs to work on accountability, transparency and legitimacy – civil society has to deal with changes in power relationships around world.  Are we prepared to acknowledge that often only a small part of society understand our work and that many think we are “busy bodies”?

Should we acknowledge our own capacity and ability to outreach – often power of public not coming to our corner – do we ignore?

Europe and US less important, and Brazil, China, SA, India etc. becoming more important.  I was horrified that this conference is held in Canada and it is not Canadian-centric.  It seems that if you are very focussed on Canada you are missing about 99% of the picture. Not saying we are unimportant in Canada, but ….

Shrinking space for civil society.  Which “space” are we protecting?

Building capacity of civil society – funding capacity building is important. 

CIDA is giving out round stress balls in the shape of the earth/globe.  Quite appropo!  CIDA acknowledges unofficially that squeezing stress ball may give wrong impression of what they are trying to do. They are not trying to crush the world.  On the other hand after you stop squeezing the stress ball it seems to show resilience of the world we live in!  I would also comment that stress balls show global warming.  When you take them out of an air conditioned room after a few hours they seem to heat up by a few degrees. 

I was surprised by the large number of delegates from the Canadian government and foreign governments.

One attendee noted that it is amazing how different it is to meet your own government official in Canada (ie outside your own country) and not when they are behind a big desk in government building.  Clearly both in Canada and abroad respectful discussion between CSO and government are very important and in some cases informal settings provide a good venue for such discussion.  Not sure how we do this in Canada but we need constructive dialogue.

Are we accountable to only funders, or also constituents and stakeholders?
Very interesting discussion on faith based organizations (FBO)
-sense that religion neglected and concern since 9/11 concern about religion and potential problems
-there are many advantages of FBOs including dealing with spiritual not only material needs, may be more knowledgeable and sensitive to local needs, are less motivated by profit and able to appeal to a higher sense of morality, FBOs are sometimes prepared to take risks in difficult places and exceptional commitment by faith based and willing to work for less.

-there are also concerns about some FBOs including proselytizing, that FBOs can exacerbates divisions in society, encourage fatalism (charity vs. structural changes), may be discriminatory against women and socially conservative, and some are less accountable and poorer governance and some not questioning orders from up top. Some FBO have lower level of literacy and can affect performance outcomes

-however notion of faith based organizations is complicated and does not so easily work in reality:
*Secular organizations often run by religious people and lots of people who work in faith based organizations are not religious.
*often secular have to work through FBO to get to people in very religious societies. 
*Secular ngos often receive fundraised funds from churches.
*there is spectrum of religiousity
*some FBOs have dual identities – faith and int development.
*there may be bigger difference between whether an FBO receives funds from individuals versus institutional donors rather than FBO versus non-FBO.
* higher calling motivating FBOs can have negative or positive effects – eg.  Haiti adoption

Interesting discussion on LTA – Legitimacy, Transparency and Accountability
How do you decide when to invest/not to invest in LTA?
When is LTA particularly beneficial and when not?
Potential benefits/problems LTA
How do we know if our LTA is beneficial?