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Address to opening session of 2nd ACP Civil Society Forum

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Let me on behalf of Civil Society in my own country, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, organized civil society in the Caribbean and on behalf of all my civil society colleagues throughout the ACP countries, say how much we welcome this opportunity to hold meaningful dialogue on the critical issues facing Civil Society in our regions and to take our rightful places as partners in the development process and in the implementations of the Cotonou accords. {{more}}We consider this meeting, a follow-up to the historic beginning of July 2001, to be very important for us especially as our respective ACP regions engage in crucial negotiations for regional Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union.

For many, July 2001 is seen as the starting print of such Civil Society engagement at an all-ACP level. For those of us, now legally registered under the umbrella of the ACP Civil Society Forum, the engagement predates even that auspicious occasion. For since 1997, there have been active ACP civil society organizations who were among the first to respond to the European Commission’s “Green Paper” on post-Lome, ACP-EU relations, and who met in various African capitals to create the genesis of what is now a continuing effort at all-ACP civil society co-operation.

The process has not been all smooth. Yet in 2001, after much debate, disagreement, even some acrimony, we were able to come up with a Declaration and Plan of Action. Mechanisms were put in place for a follow-up process, with the ACP Secretariat under the leadership of Secretary General Dr. Luteru, taking the leadership. These were all encouraging developments. But even then, the process was riddled with problems and frustrations, many arising from the lack of clarity of the respective roles of Governments and Civil Society Actors. Even among the ACP civil society groupings there was some confusion as to the part to be played by economic and social actors, NGOs and private sector organizations. Focus on differences and “turfism” rather than on the letter and spirit of the Cotonou provisions plagued the emerging movement and retarded its progress. But we were still able to make some headway.

The Follow-Up mechanism played a central role in helping to define the eligibility criteria and in the development of the User’s Guide for ACP, non-state actors. Overall though, there has been a failure to go to a higher level and allow for the full participation of civil society in ensuring implementation of the Cotonou Agreement.

The document on “Overview of Civil Society Participation” (ACP/29/024/06) makes mention of the “successful formulation of eligibility criteria” as “a clear example or how the ACP States have risen to the challenge to promote a more participatory role for NSAs”. It states that the criteria “place heavy emphasis upon the principle of ownership” and goes on to stress “the importance of a more inclusive NSA consultation process.” We need to take these statements seriously.

In the first place, we of Civil Society have a duty to point out that some successful development of the eligibility criteria is not only a success story for the ACP States themselves, but moreso demonstrates what can be achieved by meaningful participation of civil society in such matters. Indeed, even as we strongly agree and applaud the heavy emphasis on the principle of ownership, it is a principle which we must constantly put in practice. While we welcome the efforts made to convene the 2nd Forum, it would be remiss of us if we did not here express our disappointment at the failure to put the ownership issue into practice. Can ACP Civil Society claim “ownership” of the process which determined participation here, the Agenda, Draft Plan of Action, etc?

There are many of us who have only just managed to make it here under great duress, even though bona fide and active Civil Society organizations of long-standing. Our real challenge here is to make Civil Society; Non State Actors take full ownership of and responsibility for this Forum and follow-up activities. Our appeal is for the full support and co-operation of our governments, the ACP Secretariat and Council of Ambassadors, and the European Commission in bringing ownership issue into fruition. It is the only way that we can genuinely make Cotonou work. We must see each other as partners in a development process not as threats. Civil Society participation, at all levels, is an essential prerequisite for the “partnership” we have envisaged under Cotonou.

Finally, let me draw on examples of my own country and region as examining such State-NSA co-operation. In the Caribbean, civil society organizations, working through the CPDC, have been engaged in available research education and advocacy work on trade issues, including the EPAs. We co-operate with the CRNM, though from time to time we differ on issues. In SVG, the value of society participation and co-operation with Government is best expressed by

(i) in governance by the establishment of a comprehensive and inclusive Constitutional Review Commission, 18 of the 25 members representing Civil Society, which after nation-wide consultation has completed its work and submitted its Final Report to Parliament

(ii) the establishment, by law of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDEC), a practical example of State-NSA co-operation on economic and social policy issues

(iii) the submission to Parliament of Draft Legislation on NGOs in which civil society was heavily involved. I raise these as positive examples for which I applaud the Government of SVG. I am sure there are many other best practices in other ACP States. Let us take the high road, hold fast to what is good and positive and March forward in harmony for the good of all our people. They expect nothing less.

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