Snippet on Civic Space from the 2019 Paris Peace Forum

Among the initiatives that were officially “launched” at the 2019 Paris Peace Forum was something called an “Observatory of Civic Space” at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It was illuminating to learn that the OECD had been selected by an unusual group of sponsors – or that the OECD had itself solicited this unusual group of sponsors – for such an observatory.

The sponsors for this Observatory of Civic Space are none other than the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Government of Finland.  I have followed both the Open Society and Ford Foundations for many years and know that they aren’t afraid of bold action in support of civic space and enabling people to be active in advancing their civic rights. I was also not surprised to see Finland, a country with a strong commitment to civic space, in the mix.

What is more, the moderator for this launch event was none other than the former Secretary-General of Civicus, Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah. How very interesting! I knew Danny from his outreach to civil society in Geneva where I had been working closely with the Geneva-based office of Civicus for many years. The outreach encompassed a major strategic review of Civicus, in which I had been pleased to participate, and I had found the outcome of that review to be a powerful five-year strategic plan for the period 2017 to 2022. (Check out the Civicus Strategic Plan here.) So I was delighted to see the involvement of Civicus in this OECD initiative (even though Danny himself had recently moved on to become the CEO of Oxfam-UK – a challenging new task, to be sure!). Of course, one should also note that the Open Society and Ford Foundations are among the major sponsors of Civicus itself. So there is a notable inter-connectedness between this initiative and the major NGOs like Civicus.

There is a bit of inter-connectedness among civil society organizations operating at the global level. Several come to mind: Amnesty International, Save the Children, Oxfam, Terre des Hommes, Consumers International, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Greenpeace, and, of course, Civicus. Many of them tend to be issue-specific (like Human Rights Watch or Anti-Slavery International or Via Campesina). Civicus is actually a global alliance of multiple civil society organizations whose mission is to strengthen citizen action and civil society around the world. Civicus uses a very loose definition of what is a civil society organization. It can be NGOs, civil society coalitions and networks, protest and reform movements, volunteer bodies, compaigning organizations, charities, faith-based groups, trade unions and philanthropic foundations – and also activists!

The OECD, it should also be noted, has long had a formal relationship with civil society organizations. Our work in Geneva over the years, whether through the Global Social Observatory or the Council for Multilateral Business Diplomacy, had frequently engaged with the advisory bodies for business (Business and Industry Action Committee or BIAC) and trade unions (Trade Union Advisory Committee or TUAC).  We also had some dealings with OECD Watch and the annual OECD Forum for civil society at large. While the OECD has been very open to civil society engagement, this new Observatory of Civic Space goes well beyond any kind of advisory engagement. See the OECD press release on the launch event here.

First, the Observatory commits to a regular (but not time-specified) Global Report on Civic Space that will collect data on civic participation in the design and implementation of public policies that meet the needs of civil society. It will be guided by its own advisory group, drawn from an existing Open Governmnent Working Group and strategic partners in civil society, the private sector and academia. The Observatory also proposes to conduct “Civic Space Scans” at the national or regional levels to assess the “legal, instiutional, policy and implementation frameowkrs and how they contribute or detract from civic space. And third, it is intended to serve as a platform for stronger dialogue and exchange, with conferences and roundtables at the global, regional and national levels. And finally, it will be a portal for information sharing. The goal is for the Observatory to promote and protect civil society and stakeholder participation initiatives around the world.

At the launch event, it was clear that the underlying motivation for this new Observatory is to “redraw the rules” for multi-stakeholder engagement in the digital game. Panellists described their concerns about how citizens have increasingly become manipulated by Facebook and other technology companies merely as consumers and where governments are increasingly using digital technology as a weapon against civil society. So here again, as in much of the rest of the Paris Peace Forum, the focus was on the impact of digital technology on governance – and the distortion of political outcomes through the harvesting of individual privacy data. Well, I can say that this Observatory, if it really works to help “redraw the rules” will be a significant outcome of the Paris Peace Forum.

No additional information is available on the OECD website, but the OECD has provided several contacts for further information. Journalists are invited to contact Carol Guthrie in the OECD Media Office (+33 1 45 24 97 00).  Stakeholders wishing to engage with the Observatory’s work are encouraged to contact Ciara Muller in the OECD Observatory of Civic Space team (+33 1 45 24 91 25). Another contact is @OECDGov #OECDOG 2 3 4 5 6 7.

This concludes my snippets on the 2019 Paris Peace Forum.  The collection of snippets covers the Forum’s opening ceremonies, the pervasiveness of digital technology issues, gender, climate change, borders and civic space. While I also observed Forum initiatives on several other issue areas (e.g. fighting child labour, partnering with the private sector, youth initiatives, refugee empowerment initiatives), my impressions on these will be folded into other commentaries over the coming months.

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