The trials and triumphs of Russian civil society

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This is not an easy time to be an NGO-worker in Russia. If there ever was such a time. The strains for them of being forced to register as foreign agents and undergo onerous reporting requirements were this week compounded by the responsibility to organise the first official “C20 Summit” between global civil society groups and Russia’s G20 Presidency.

Russia’s G20 Presidency will culminate at the Leaders’ summit in St Petersburg in September. It has set as its overarching theme, “jobs and growth”, it also has the task of deciding what comes next in the G20’s work programme on development as the action plan decided in Korea is set to expire. It is fair to say that the efforts to improve the inclusion of civil society into the G20’s work were unexpected, but a welcome surprise.

The assessment has to be that Russian NGOs have done a good job – a great job even – of helping us to make the most of this unexpected bonus. They corralled the infamously messy and disparate body that is “global civil society” into producing meaningful and pertinent messages to G20 leaders. And they gained a commitment from their government to review its troublesome NGO law into the bargain.

Getting together global civil society positions is by definition an impossible task, and results will never be perfect. Groups and positions are too disparate and the resources needed to canvas even a representative opinion is prohibitive. But the same is true of the Business or “B20”. The idea of a global business position, representing the priorities of global giants such as Nestle as well as the local bar owner in Accra, is equally fictitious.

That is not to say that governments should not talk to these groups. It is important for governments to have dialogue with as many groups and their representatives as possible when formulating far-reaching economic policy and governance decisions. Those decisions will impact on citizens, the environment, as much as they will affect business. Civil society, therefore, has much to add to the discussion.

There is room for improvement for the Australian C20 next year – not least ensuring decision-makers come to listen to civil society views (G20 Sherpas were notable by their absence at this Moscow C20). But this was not a bad start for civil society’s first official input into the G20 process. Three years after G20 leaders realised the benefits of engaging with business – institutionalising the B20 in their Seoul Communique – civil society are coming in from the cold.

Groups presented robust ideas on technical topics, ranging from financial regulation to anti-corruption, with clear recommendations to the G20 on the role that it should play. The G20 was reminded that it needs to find a mechanism to ensure that its actions are coherent with global development goals agreed at the United Nations and given ideas on how to ensure that the benefits of the global economy are more widely shared.

This week civil society earned its place in the “20”s.

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