Third ICPD+5 Round Table, on Partnership with Civil Society, starts in Bangladesh. UNFPA Executive Director Stresses Need to Broaden Participation and Overcome Mistrust among Partners

United Nations Population Fund
Contact: in New York:
Alex Marshall
Fax: (212) 557-6416

The ICPD+5 review process

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 27 July -- Setting a provocative tone for the just-opened Round Table on Partnership with Civil Society in the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action, Bangladeshi development expert Rahman Sobhan said, "Policy making is too important a subject to be left to the care of governments."

Mr. Sobhan, a former government official and now the Chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, was one of three panellists at today’s plenary session, intended to give an overview of issues to be taken up at the four-day meeting organized by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The others were Ingar Brueggemann, Director-General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), and Ghulam Samdani, Secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Population Welfare. Mohammed Nizamuddin, Director of UNFPA’s Technical and Policy Division, was the moderator. The round table is the third in a series reviewing progress in carrying out the recommendations of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

Governments in many countries, Mr. Sobhan argued, no longer have the resources to shoulder their responsibilities, and are being reduced to "mere coordinating agencies" for aid donors. These external actors have appropriated the development policy agenda, getting governments to implement the policies they formulate by attaching conditions to their assistance.

"No area has been more affected by this process than the area of reproductive health and family planning," he said. Conflicting recommendations by various international donors that provide resources for family planning programmes sometimes result in "projects with competing aims, and a waste of resources."

The concept of "civil society" -- the focus of the round table -- has been abused over the years, he continued. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), he argued, do not by themselves constitute civil society, which includes citizens engaged in civic mobilization to improve their communities. Many of those actors have organized locally on issues like family planning, improving the environment, or opposing military dictatorships in Bangladesh’s case. Civil society predates today’s NGOs, dating back more than 100 years in the Indian subcontinent, for instance, to protests against the burning of widows.

Governments are being downsized, demoralizing civil servants, and many of their functions are being taken over by privatization on the one hand, and "NGO-ization" on the other. Ironically, he contended, the increasing reliance on NGOs to carry out programmes has weakened and disempowered civil society in many nations. As NGOs have grown from small, spontaneous civic groups into large, externally funded groups with many employees, they have become less transparent, and accountable only to their donors, not their constituents.

Small and effective civil society groups should be mobilized to counter well-funded forces that are actively opposing the ICPD’s reproductive health agenda, he suggested. He also called on round-table participants to suggest ways that States and civil society can cooperate on reproductive health and related issues.

In her statement to the overview plenary, Ms. Brueggemann said partnerships between governments and civil society must strike a balance between cooperation and a clear demarcation of the respective roles of each sector or organization.

"NGOs must not allow governments to abdicate their social responsibility," she stressed. They should continue to act as "a nagging force" advocating for change. They should retain their independence by stating clearly under what terms they will enter affiliations. In cooperating with governments and other sectors of civil society, NGOs can perform a variety of functions: they can establish and develop sexual and reproductive health as a movement; act as watchdogs; set and monitor standards; become donors; and provide technical assistance. They should restrict their activities to those they can carry out effectively, with a proper division of labour between them and governments.

Partnerships and networking -- with less exclusivity -- should become the norm throughout the world, Ms. Brueggemann said. NGOs should work to overcome resistance to dialogue with governments and other NGOs, she concluded.

Mr. Samdani said he agreed with the view that many NGOs are neither transparent nor accountable, although there is an increasing transfer of roles to them. Countering Mr. Sobhan’s view that policy making is too important to be left to government alone, he said democracies are run by the elected representatives of a country’s people. While bureaucracies are often criticized, he said it should be kept in mind that they merely carry out policies and do not make them.

Civil society should be involved in development and in implementing the Programme of Action since there are many things that government cannot do, he continued. For example, in Pakistan, an Islamic society, NGOs can discuss reproductive issues more openly than the Government can. "NGOs should accept their roles as partners of government, work together and take the ICPD agenda forward together to save the world from a population explosion that will affect the entire global community," he said. "All of us, all citizens, all governments, all NGOS and all civil society actors must be involved in carrying out the ICPD agenda. In that endeavour, a partnership of all sides is necessary."

Following the plenary, the round-table participants split up into four working groups to consider in detail different aspects of civil society involvement in implementing the ICPD Programme of Action. The meeting will continue until 30 July.

(For information purposes only. Not an official document.)

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