Monday, 30 March 2009

NGO reaction to the financial crisis

by Jeff Powell

Clearly NGOs around the world are too diverse to allow meaningful generalizations of their reactions to the evolving crisis. Some have seized the opportunity, embracing new ideas and reaching out to different actors and constituencies. Others are grafting new issues on to an old agenda: add crisis and stir. Still others are finding their agenda drowned out, at the same time as direct debits get cancelled and stock-market dependent foundations pull up the funding drawbridges.

Here in the UK, development and environment NGOs have come together with the Trades Union Congress in an unprecedented coalition (which, in the name of transparency it should be stated that the author is a part of), initiated by the Bretton Woods Project. The Put People First coalition (PPF) has come together around a short manifesto highlighting jobs, social justice and the environment. The focus for the time being is on the G20 meetings in London in April and then in St. Andrews in November. It's too early to say whether the coalition will be longer-lasting, and if it will be able to get beyond the 'lowest common denominator' politics which held back the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005.

On finance, PPF has joined the general chorus for increased transparency and accountability, without yet articulating a clear vision of what this means. More developed are its ideas on eliminating tax havens, drawing on the groundwork done by the Tax Justice Network. The investigation that TJN inspired in The Guardian has shamed the Labour government into its first tentative (and long-overdue) steps on tax havens, particularly those in the City of London or UK protectorates. Gordon Brown has announced plans to discuss multilateral exchange of information on offshore accounts at the G20 meeting. The PPF coalition is trying to use the crisis as an opportunity to broaden the reform agenda to include a re-invigoration of public services and a shift of economic priorities towards environmental sustainability. Managing the need to focus on shorter-term policy developments with these longer-term objectives will not be easy.

Similar networks and coalitions have formed across Europe. Brussels-based groups Eurodad (the European network of NGOs working on debt, development and poverty reduction) and CONCORD (the European Confederation of Relief and Development NGOs) have started to work with some European trade unions at National and Supra-national level. Like the UK's PPF, Eurodad has a developed campaign on capital flight issues. Groups in these networks with a history of advocacy on financial issues include Germany's World Ecology Economy and Development (WEED), the Dutch group SOMO and of course the ATTAC network which, with others, has been working for over a decade on issues of regulating and democratising finance.

At the international level, the key cue for NGO policy positions comes from agreed positions at the World Social Forum in Brazil, earlier this year. The WSF attempts to bridge the (sometimes elusive) divide between NGOs, trade unions and social movements. While it is short on details, and the process of getting from A to B is absent, the principles of the WSF statement ('Put finance in its place') are radical and clear. They include a call to “implement a global mechanism of state and citizen control of banks and financial institutions” and the creation of “regional reserve currencies”. Taking up the issues of financial sector reform is Re-thinking finance, a new coalition which brings together the Bretton Woods Project, Eurodad, Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, the Asian network Focus on the Global South, and Latin American network Choike.

In the coming months the ability of all of these NGOs to sharpen and deepen their analysis of financial sector issues, and their capacity to communicate these ideas to a wider audience and build broad-based movements for fundamental change is critical if the crisis is to be transformed into opportunity.

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