Thursday, August 30, 2007

Panaceas and Buzz Words

I recently attended a United Nations Conference in Vienna thanks to an opportunity someone offered to me. It was rushed and I wish I had more time but I did my best to sit in on forums that were relevant to phenomena that I witnessed during my stay in Mali, particularly policy workers promoting decentralization and governmental reform in developing nations. The following are notes and comments I drew up while attending these meetings.

The dialogue and rhetoric in many people’s speeches had the tendency to rely on certain buzz words or phrases such as ‘marginalized’ and ‘most vulnerable’ instead of using the simplistic word ‘poor.’ Regarding the efforts to improve conditions for the ‘marginalized’ and ‘most vulnerable’ the orators were using concepts such as ‘civil society,’ ‘good governance,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘capacity building,’ and ‘up-scaling knowledge.’ To make things simple to the layman, this rhetoric was used in the promotion of decentralization, handing the decision-making processes and financing for development and regional planning to local communities. It is a practice that most countries around the world are at least talking about if not implementing and part of aid package programs that come from industrialized nations and international aid agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Decentralization, however, is not a panacea, a cure-all for the ills of corruption, stagnation in development and the improvement of infrastructure, health, education and other opportunities to local peoples. Malians I had interviewed or became friends with had cynically commented that local leaders organizing and making new communities are the latest con men in their society. Yet, speakers at the conference talked of the importance of decentralization and threw in buzz words like ‘civil society’ to promote it. A few at the conference, however, such as Kumi Naidoo, a South African NGO worker, asked participants to take a deeper, critical look at these concepts and how they affect people worldwide. For example, ‘civil society’ is not always a positive in every circumstance. Examples where this is a negative for local people are the Ku Klux Klan in the United States or Interahamwe in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, both voluntary societies with goals and membership.

In addition to the eloquent points Kumi Naidoo brought up I would also like to add the most important point he emphasized during his speech. In the United Nations, there are many countries signing treaties to end conflicts and arms proliferation; fight world poverty; improve human rights particularly for women; conserve natural resources and protect the environment but few nations, both industrialized and developing, comply with these treaties. If the United Nations has a future role in providing a forum where countries and different groups meet to argue, debate and compromise on political, economic, social, and environmental issues there has to be more than panaceas and buzz words at these forums. There has to be compliance and accountability for those who break the treaties that they sign.