World Association of NGOs 2007 Conference in Toronto

Opening Dinner Event

On Thursday, November 8, 2007, representatives of NGOs from around the world gathered in Toronto, Canada for the annual meeting of the World Association of NGOs (WANGO) on the theme “Ethics and Global Peace: NGO Perspectives.” There were many Canadians in attendance. As we learned later, NGOs account for 7.3% of the GDP of Canada, the highest recorded for any country, making it an excellent place to hold a WANGO conference.

Our opening MC was Dr. Kathy Winings and our host Secretary General Taj Hamad.

We were welcomed by the Rt. Hon. Edward Schreyer, former Governor General of Canada, and now active in efforts to protect natural resources. As a spokesman for his country, told us that Canada “has much to be modest about,” and he emphasized the diversity of the population in Canada, and especially the city of Toronto. Then he set the tone for the meeting with his own understanding of the challenges of the present world and the role of NGOs. Particularly, he explained that neither governments nor corporations, the two groups asserting the most influence on the world’s present course, can be relied upon to protect our natural resources and the other challenges we face. Citizen groups—NGOs—are needed to bring reason and conscience to social policy decisions related to protecting our environment or shaping peace.

The former governor spoke of the enthusiasm for creating a better world that followed World War II, including the creation of the United Nations, but he argued that somewhere along the way, perhaps the 1980s, the vision was lost. He blamed the media for sound bites that contain little substance and a malaise and cynicism that seemed to set in on the public as the captains of industry and commerce took control of the ships of state and expanded the extraction and burning of fossil fuels at a mindless pace. Our generation is doing little to prepare a long-term and sustainable strategy. We are not doing well as stewards of the world, to hold it in trust for our children and future generations. This is one area where NGOs must step in actively. We will need NGOs as long as there is civilization.

Hon. Schreyer apologized for his country not providing visas to a number of long-time WANGO members from Africa, reflecting irrational security measures enacted after 9/11—another challenge for NGOs. Despite this problem, the cool rainy weather in Toronto, and a fire alarm which delayed our opening meal, the fellowship was warm, and conversations active as the delegates greeted old friends and made new ones, accomplishing WANGO’s purpose of strengthening NGOs by building a collaborative network. The first evening was topped off with a musical performance.

Opening Plenary Session
The Opening Plenary Session on Friday morning developed the wider landscape of our theme of ethics and peace and shed light on some incredible work being done in so many areas of human need. Our first speaker was Jean Augustine, the Commissioner of the Canadian Office of Fairness. Her job is to monitor justice in hiring practices and professional certification in Canada, to ensure there is no discrimination against any cultural minority group and that all have equal opportunity for employment. She reinforced the theme that governments can be slow and indifferent to issues of social justice and that NGOs are key players in bringing about social change.

The Commissioner pointed out some contradictions in NGO life which pose ethical challenges to them:

  1. How do you do advocacy work when you are established as a charitable organization?
  2. How to remain independent and objective when receiving funds from donors with specific partisan agendas?
  3. How can you think globally when you are fully engaged locally?

Her final advice: Foster alliances to promote justice and peace, take risks, be ethical, and stand in solidarity.

Our next speaker, Stephen Bubb, from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Associations in the U.K., was able to share a lot of lessons learned from experience in another NGO consortium. He started with a quote from Anita Roderick, founder of The Body Shop, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have not shared a bed with a mosquito.”

Quoting Aristotle, John S. Mill, and others he argued that the goal of human life is happiness and the wealth of a state is measured by the well-being of individuals. We are moving from “the century of political parties,” to “the century of the third sector” (which includes NGOs). He bolstered the statement with facts about the increased percentage of GDP related to NGOs in many countries. Here is a list of features of NGOs which he gave, things that are not naturally performed well by the state:

  1. Service. NGOs deliver personal service that makes a difference. States deliver impersonal services which sometimes compound problems (like prisons).
  2. Community. NGOs foster community, whereas states depend on its existence.
  3. Injustice. Injustices are sensed by people, not bureaucracies.
  4. Terrorism. State security measures erect walls and exacerbate terrorism, whereas NGOs fight terrorism by building bridges and solving problems of injustice that sometimes cause people to resort to terrorism.
  5. Environment. As Schreyer had mentioned, commerce controls state policy on extracting resources unless NGOs jump in and do something.
  6. Peace. NGOs might be more effective moving from confrontational street demonstrations to operations in the corridors of power.

Debbie Gray of “Free the Children” and Kailesh Satyarthi of “Global March Against Child Labor” drove home the importance of another WANGO theme, care for children, their rights, and their dignity.

Debbie spoke about the apathy of youth in North America and the absence of a consciousness of much of the world’s problems. She spoke about the important of character education, service to others, greater involvement needed by public schools.

Kailesh listed the three sectors of society as the state, commerce, and knowledge, but that commerce is controlling both the state and knowledge. He explained how the control of society by commerce gets manifested in the degradation of children. For example, children being abducted as child soldiers or being sold in slavery or the sex trade for $25 or $30—less than 1/10th the market price of a water buffalo. NGOs are the force that must educate and liberate knowledge and modern consciousness to save the children and give them a future.

The Chairman’s Address sent by Dr. Chung Hwan Kwak was read by Secretary General Tajeldin Hamad. See WANGO website.

Discussion Groups and Workshops

Following the opening session, the conference broke down into smaller group sessions on the various themes, most of which were touched upon by the plenary speakers. These included Human Rights, Women, Children, Family, Service, Fundraising, shared Values, Member recruiting, Character education, the Environment, the Media, and Healing. This was an opportunity to meet others working on similar interests and networking to advance the “state of the art” knowledge of different areas. There is a full conference summary on the WANGO website.

One theme that emerged was how NGOs are not immune to the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We heard a number of examples of how NGOs responding to immediate crises out of compassion engaged in short-term fixes that caused other long-term problems. Or, how the attempt to resettle people in dangerous areas they had fled was taken as an assault on their dignity. It is important for NGOs to better anticipate the consequences of their actions and to learn from the experience of others. It is important for NGOs to dialogue with victims so that their aid is not seen as patronizing, but can be used to help people solve their problems or recover from disasters most effectively.

We sometimes learned data that contradicted widely held beliefs and assumptions, including those held by people working with NGOs. The rhetoric used for fundraising or the prominence given by the news media in sound bites is often misleading and no substitute for solid empirical research. For example, Zoe Nielsen, Deputy Director of the Human Security Report Project, projected a slide which showed the number of official combatant causalities has been declining, despite the increased reports of violence in the news. She also mentioned that while mature democracies go to war less than dictatorial regimes, the transition phase to democracies frequently has broken down into what she called “anocracy”—perhaps Iraq is an example. The civilian and indirect casualties in such societies are difficult to measure. And, while terrorism kills fewer people than war, it is a severe problem in the Middle East. People blame war on a lot of factors, and indeed there are many causes, but the most consistent item correlated with war is poverty.

There were discussions of the United Nations and its role in world peace, and its relationship to NGOs. NGOs have presented a lot of evidence to the United Nations over the years, but it has basically been an organization of major powers designed to prevent wars between states. A lot of suffering has taken place within states, which the UN Charter gives near absolute sovereignty. For years NGOs have been irritants like mosquitoes, which UN leaders would often prefer to swat. However, the collapse of the bipolar world and the international order has led to intrastate conflicts spilling over borders in terms of rebel hideouts, mass refugee flights, starvation and other problems unbearable to the human conscience.

Dr. David Benjamin of the University of Bridgeport explained how state leaders have hidden behind Articles 24 and 27 of the Charter, but that it has become more common to argue that when a state loses the ability to protect its people, it loses its claim to sovereignty. Chief Oren Lyons said the Former Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali told him that permanent inroads made into the UN by NGOs was the most important development during his tenure. Benjamin suggested the NGOs should be offered more protection by the UN and the international community.

Dr. Eric Werker suggested that NGOs are all about human values. They often arise to fill a void, but they often succumb to problems that make it hard for them to make good on promises. The number of NGOs has mushroomed ten-fold in the last 30 years. Is this a response to other social failures? Is it a bandwagon effect? Is it an alternative industry when industrial jobs aren’t available? There has been a revenue shift from a high reliance on private donations, to more NGO generated revenue through sales of products and in-kind contributions which are distributed to the needy. This revenue shift means that NGOs are competing more with traditional for-profit businesses.

Some shared values of NGOs suggested repeatedly were:

  1. Accountability
  2. Effectiveness
  3. Solidarity
  4. Transparency
  5. Integrity
  6. Respect for Community
  7. Willingness to accept and learn from failures
  8. Open discussion
  9. Honesty

However, sometimes values conflict. For example, transparency may lead a donor to see that his contribution was not used for his intended purpose (accountability).

As our conference proceeded a “Toronto Declaration of Core Values” was prepared and reflects many of these values. See WANGO website.

Global warming and environmental degradation were recurrent themes. In addition to discussion of wildlife protection, stewardship over natural resources, and reduction of CO2, there was an interesting discussion related to possible positive effects of global warming and the melting of the ice cap around the North Pole—at least possibly positive for Canada. This has led to the attempt by Canada to increase the territory of its sovereignty. One effect is a greater possibility of exploiting the seabed of this formerly frozen and inaccessible area for more oil. Another is the possibility of ship navigation of the Northwest Passage to the north of Canada which would save 11 days of travel and fuel for ships from Northern Europe to East Asia. This discussion contained a number of controversial and conflicting views.

Another interesting observation was that “democratic” countries with populations preoccupied with day to day affairs often have a more difficult time controlling the unconscionable industrial exploitation of resources than authoritarian regimes. Social malaise allows collusion by government and industry that is often not publicized.

WANGO Awards
As always, the centerpiece and highlight of the conference was the WANGO Award Ceremony on Friday evening and the Panel of Excellence composed of award winners the next morning. The awards were given for exemplary service in five areas: Environment, Family & Peace, Human Rights, Peace and Security, and Education, Media and the Arts. The crowning award is the Universal Peace Award. While much of the discussion in panels related to problems NGOs must work on, the WANGO awards highlight the successes and victories of NGO champions. They are uplifting and give hope to those working tirelessly in frustrating circumstances.

The Environment Award went to Ecotrópica for ecological preservation of the Pantanal in Brazil. It was received by Adalberto Eberhard, the Founder. Eberhard showed breathtaking views of wildlife in the Pantanal and explained how their organization is buying private land to put into nature reserves. However, there are still many factors beyond their control, because the Pantanal is a drainage basin that is fed by water runoff from highlands that is becoming increasingly polluted and potentially damaging to many of the species of wildlife that are unique to that part of the world. Our ecosystems are important for the human population which also requires a specific environment to survive.

The Peace and Security Award went to Dr. Noah Salameh, Founder of the Center for Conflict Resolution & Reconciliation in Palestine. The world is increasingly learning, through reconciliation programs as implemented in South Africa after apartheid, that such programs are essential for ending the spiral of violence of hatred and revenge so common as a baser human instinct. Salameh spent 15 years in Israeli prisons, accused of terrorism which he never committed. A victim of circumstances he wishes on no other human being, he pursued a degree in peace and conflict studies at the University of Notre Dame, and later a Ph.D. from George Mason University.

Salameh said that when security concerns are put ahead of peace, peace can not be achieved. Security is based on fear and divides people. It erects fences and builds walls. It is used to discriminate. However, peace is based on being reconciled in your environment and it begins with holding peaceful values within yourselves. His center works to give peace education in schools. He has fostered a dialogue in Turkey between 40 Palestinians and 40 Israelis. He developed a program for teaching journalists reporting attitudes that can help foster peace. And, he has developed programs for interreligious dialogue.

The Education, Media & Arts Award was given to the World Association of Early Childhood Educators, founded by Juan Sánchez Muliterno. This organization focuses on a wide range of issues related to early childhood educators, but is founded on the idea that values of cooperation, respect, and peace need to be introduced in very early formative years. He expressed how important an organization like WANGO can be for informing his own NGO. His organization is self-funded from membership fees, and he credits this to the care they take of their members. They aim for high standards.

The Human Rights Award was presented to Dr. David Jenkins, founder of Surf-Aid. His work has been effective in delivering education and methods to reduce infant mortality. He said that enactment of three simple practices in some of the Pacific islands can reduce childhood mortality by up to 25% and the a 50% reduction should be attainable with effort. Breastfeeding children, sleeping under mosquito nets, and other changes based on education of health practices help far more people than expensive medical care after they fall ill.

Jenkins offered some advice to NGOs present. First he argued that NGOs need to address real needs. Many NGOs are coming under scrutiny for not providing effective services. He was critical of donor-driven, religious-driven, and celebrity-driven programs which do not provide the services people need the most and often waste time and money.

The Universal Peace Award went to Chief Oren Lyons, a long-time activist for native American and indigenous peoples. He recounted a decades’ long struggle since the founding of the United Nations to refer to indigenous peoples with equal language to other groups. He discussed the vested financial interests and discrimination going back to a papal bull in 1493 which declared indigenous people less than human and the reluctance of countries with indigenous populations to recognize them completely.

Chief Lyons conveyed beautifully the respect of the Native Americans for nature. He explained that all activities are begun with a conscious recognition of the winds, the sun, the moon, the stars, the rain, the earth, the animals, the ancestors, and the Creator. Such a worldview could certainly be a corrective the disrespect that modern industry and acquisitive humans show for the environment. He explained that water is not just a human right; it is the right of deer, of trees, and plants. In nature there is no discrimination against red, white, yellow, or black-skinned human beings. All are part of one human family. Living in true peace with the principles of nature is dynamic and takes great effort. He said that it is good for NGOs to gather once a year to gather strength.

Postscript
Much other great wisdom was present at this conference. Sir James Mancham, first President of a post-colonial Seychelles, argued that there is a difference between a “politician” and a “statesman.” Politicians negotiate interests and navigate the political terrain of the moment, while a statesman provides true leadership, and gets a nation from point A to point B, bringing all people along. The post-World War II era has created a lot of politicians but few statesmen. Statesmen are characterized by vision, by values, and by negotiating skills that seek the best solutions for all people. Politicians act primarily for themselves in the short term.

One delegate pointedly asked Dr. David Benjamin whether NGO leaders should leave their NGOs and take positions in government. Benjamin replied that hopefully NGOs can create people that can bring integrity to the state. If they can transform public offices with this integrity, it will be a good thing.

Let us hope he is correct. The WANGO Toronto Declaration of NGO Core Values is an excellent place to start. A government is only as good as its people. The people are shaped by civil society, which is increasingly shaped by NGOs. About 1800 years ago, Christians began taking offices in the Roman Empire because they could be trusted when the average Roman politician could not. Perhaps there is a parallel to make with today, where honesty, integrity, respect, and service of others, can be cultivated in individuals who can bring virtue back into the political realm, and then humanity back to social policy.


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