Eric Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was one of three Americans presenting at the recent Doha Forum, a leading global conference on international current affairs.
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The Forum, in its 16th year, was held in Doha, Qatar, and attracted several hundred political, business, and academic leaders from around the world to discuss strategic, economic, social, and humanitarian concerns in the Mideast.
The Forum, which was held May 20-23, featured more than 50 presenters, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and most of the nine candidates who are seeking to succeed him.
Ban told the attendees more must be done to end conflict and suffering around the world.
“Our world faces multiple armed conflicts, rising extremism and the widening impacts of climate change. One hundred and thirty million people need life-saving humanitarian assistance. War and persecution have forced 60 million people from their homes,” Ban said during the opening session. “The scale of these challenges demands a more concerted global response.”
Schwartz participated in a panel discussion on the role of civil society in developing countries. He urged those governments to recognize and accept an empowered role for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in addressing social, economic, and political issues.
“This is justified by [NGOs] capacity to provide key services, their ability to critique government action and to make useful policy recommendations,” said Schwartz. “A vibrant NGO sector builds community engagement, and is consistent with internationally recognized principles of freedom of association and expression.”
Schwartz’s expertise in the area comes from his 30-year career in senior public service positions in government, at the United Nations, in the philanthropic and non-governmental communities, and in academia.
The two other presenters from the United States were former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, and U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, D-New York.
Panel on The Developmental Role of Civil Society in the Developing Countries: Opening Remarks of Eric P. Schwartz, May 23, 2016
I want to thank the government of Qatar for hosting this forum. It’s my pleasure to take five minutes to offer some introductory comments.
I think it’s a good idea to start with an understanding of what precisely we’re talking about, so let me first offer a working definition of civil society, which, to my mind is defined as those institutions—civic organizations, advocacy groups, etc.—within a society that are constitutionally distinct from government, but are both concerned and involved in the public life of a society. That is, they are involved in issues that are not simply private interests, but address the well-being of communities.
And secondly, I share the view that societal well-being is enhanced through a vibrant civil society sector, a belief I’ll address in a bit more detail in a moment.
Although nearly half of my career has been at the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and other parts of the U.S. government, about half has also been in civil society. I’ve run a funding collaboration of U.S. philanthropic foundations; I’ve served at think tanks like the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations; and, at the outset of my career, I worked at Human Rights Watch, the prominent international human rights monitoring organization.
Those civil society experiences, combined with my other work at the UN and in the U.S. government, has made me quite aware of the many and varied roles of civil society organizations.
They are providers of basic assistance to underserved and often disenfranchised communities. They serve as implementing partners to government. For instance, when I served as Assistant Secretary of State for humanitarian affairs, we funded NGOs to implement overseas disaster relief efforts. They also provide and disseminate policy analysis and advice to governments.
And, critically, vibrant civil society organizations provide sources of what social scientists call social capital—they build relationships among people and within communities that can help promote socioeconomic development. And such organizations can challenge governments—they can challenge governments—to address critical but neglected social, economic, and political issues.
If these objectives are laudable, then what policy lessons emerge from them?
First, governments have a strong interest in creating an enabling environment for genuinely independent non-governmental organizations. Again, this is justified by their capacity to provide key services, their ability to critique government action and to make useful policy recommendations, and because a vibrant NGO sector builds community engagement and is consistent with internationally recognized principles of freedom of association and expression.
Second, governments should at least consider certain kinds of NGO inclusion in the process of governance. I’m reminded of the international response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, in which something like $5 billion of the some $13 billion that was raised for aid came from the private or non-governmental sector, imposing huge coordination challenges.
In the years that have followed, the non-governmental community has been given a seat at the table in the governance of UN-coordinated international responses to humanitarian crises, through the UN’s Interagency Standing Committee. While that model is not perfect, the principle of such NGO involvement is one that national governments should consider.
Third, governments should resist the temptation to impose onerous restrictions on NGOs when those are really not designed to protect against fraud or malfeasance, but rather are focused on controlling the nature of peaceful political and social activities.
And finally, while a strong and vibrant NGO sector is critical, international development funders should not neglect capacity building for governments. Even the most capable civil society organizations cannot and should not supplant governments. And just as international support for democratization must include support for civil society, it should also include support for credible and capable official institutions—that is, governments.
Both are key to political, economic and social progress.
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