Dhaka Round Table Ends with Call on Civil Society to Engage ICPD Adversaries, Make Language Accessible

United Nations Population Fund
Contact: in New York:
Alex Marshall

Fax: (212) 557-6416
Abubakar Dungus
William A. Ryan

The ICPD+5 review process

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 30 July -- Defenders of reproductive health and rights need to devote more resources to advocacy, and make their messages more accessible, so they can build a broader alliance in support of their agenda. This was among the proposals of the Round Table on Partnership with Civil Society in the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action, which ended here today.

Convened by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and hosted by Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the 27-30 July round-table meeting was part of "ICPD+5", a series of international activities reviewing progress since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

The focus of this meeting was collaboration to promote the Cairo goals, involving a broad range of partners from "civil society" -- non-governmental organizations (NGOs); community institutions; religious leaders; private, business and professional associations; trade unions; and activist groups, among others.

About 70 people from over 30 countries took part. They represented NGOs, academic and research institutions, and other sectors of civil society as well as governments. After four days of discussions, the group adopted a set of proposals listing key actions to carry forward the Cairo action plan.

Participants’ statements and comments on the proposals will be incorporated into a final report on the round table. The report, along with those of other round tables and technical meetings in the ICPD+5 process, will be consolidated and presented to the international forum that UNFPA is organizing next February in The Hague, Netherlands. It will also serve as input to a document that the United Nations Secretary-General will submit to a special session of the General Assembly to review ICPD implementation, to be held from 30 June to 2 July 1999.

The key future actions were proposed by four working groups on related themes: Partnership to create an enabling environment for carrying out the Programme of Action; Social mobilization to promote and carry out the Programme; Partnership for capacity-strengthening, accountability, coalition-building and financial stability; and Partnership to promote full access to reproductive health services.

Among the proposals put forward by the working group on social mobilization was that civil society groups should try to make the language of the ICPD accessible and engaging. They should also devote more time and money to effective advocacy for social mobilization, train their staff to work with the media, enlist the support of journalists, and use celebrities and opinion leaders to promote their messages.

ICPD supporters should study their adversaries and try to engage them in dialogue. They should prepare to challenge different types of opponents, train effective spokespersons, and counter misinformation with facts. When confrontation can be avoided, they should try to seek common ground.

"Assumptions about adversaries need to be carefully examined, for a presumed opponent may in fact be a potential ally. Good examples come from the religious community," the group’s draft report says.

Public dialogue should be encouraged to address controversial issues and cultural taboos, the report continues. Advocates should be sensitive to cultural and ethnic concerns without sacrificing their commitment to justice and health.

Civil society groups, including NGOs, should face hard issues sensitively and courageously, without fear of being marginalized or losing financial support, the draft states. They should work to allay the concerns of potential allies -- the private sector’s fear of reprisals and loss of profits, and politicians’ apprehension about pressure from religious and single-issue constituencies, for instance. To do this, NGOs should conduct careful research and distribute the findings, including a human touch.

The working group on the promotion of access to high-quality reproductive health services proposed that more effort be put into building a political consensus in support of policies that will enable countries to carry out the Cairo programme. Advocacy by civil society can help bring different political parties together for that purpose, the group’s report says.

To finance good services, the group proposed, governments should ensure core grants and international agencies should earmark more funds for reproductive health care. Sustainability should be built into such services, it added, with a gradual introduction of charges; clients should be empowered to pay for services at commercial outlets. But while costs should be recovered to the extent possible, a solely commercial approach to providing services is not appropriate; care for the poor must be guaranteed. Foreign assistance should be maintained, the draft states.

The working group on capacity-strengthening, accountability and financial sustainability proposed there be an independent body in each country to set standards and regulate NGO operations in service delivery. In States where such bodies are absent, NGOs could establish them voluntarily to maintain their good reputation, with the help of donors. The group also proposed the creation of a formal mechanism linking NGO partners, governments, communities and donors to ensure exchange of information on their work and financing. Governments and NGOs should be mutually accountable; a programme monitoring system would help that process.

Regarding financial sustainability, the working group proposed that "NGO-NGO mentoring" should be encouraged, with bigger groups training and exchanging skills with others. Improvement in the quality of care is a precondition of sustainability; services will be sustained if they satisfy their clients, the group’s draft states. Professional associations should help develop standards of conduct for reproductive and sexual health workers, the group added. While partnerships with the private sector should be increased, governments should not devolve their responsibility for providing good services.

The working group on partnership to create environments enabling the implementation of the Cairo programme proposed that civil society groups: create common forums for dialogue; re-examine assumptions, priorities and agendas; listen to and respect each other; identify key issues for legislation and policies, as well as key players; and form joint plans of action locally, nationally and internationally.

Forums for dialogue, the group’s draft report states, may be initiated by governments or civil society groups; the international community can play a catalytic role.

At a closing ceremony, the Director of UNFPA’s Technical and Policy Division, Mohammed Nizamuddin, gave an overview of the round table and its outcome. Bangladesh, he said, was chosen as the venue because of its noteworthy involvement of civil society groups in reproductive health including family planning.

The UNFPA Representative in Bangladesh, Alain Mouchiroud, said things are moving in the right direction in the country, although more should be done to end discrimination against women and girls, especially in nutrition. The Government, NGOs and donors should identify and address issues that are critical to the State’s population problems, since no one can afford costly delays, he said.

"We cannot do that without relying on the knowledge of all components of civil society," he added, endorsing the participants’ recommendations. "We need to open our doors, our ears, our minds; not to rely only on the `specialists’ or so-called experts."

Muhammed Ali, Secretary of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said Bangladesh has taken steps to follow up on the Cairo programme and has addressed some of its problems, such as infant mortality and high fertility. It is promoting the education of women and girls and consolidating services in the health and population sectors.

"Efforts should continue to be made to make this world a better place for the poor, for women, for children and for all those who need support to improve their condition," he said.

The round table began with opening addresses on 27 July by the Speaker of the Parliament of Bangladesh, Mr. Humayun Rashid Chowdhury; the Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Janab Salahuddin Yusuf; and UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Nafis Sadik.

UNFPA has organized two other round tables as part of the ICPD+5 review process. The first --on adolescent reproductive and sexual health -- was held from 14 to 17 April in New York. The second -- on ensuring reproductive rights and implementing reproductive health programmes, including women’s empowerment -- was held from 22 to 25 June in Kampala, Uganda. A fourth round table, on macro-economic issues and population, will be held in Bellagio, Italy, in November. UNFPA is also sponsoring several technical meetings on ICPD-related subjects

The Cairo conference -- the subject of the review process -- was held from 5 to 13 September 1994 in Egypt under the themes of population, sustained economic growth and sustainable development. It was organized by UNFPA and the United Nations Population Division. The Programme of Action was adopted by 179 countries. More than 4,200 representatives of over 1,500 NGOs from 133 countries attended the independent NGO Forum ‘94 held parallel to the official meeting.

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

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