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Commonwealth People’s Forum 2013: keynote lecture

12 November 2013
Speaker: Dr Jemilah Mahmood, medical professional and founder of MERCY Malaysia / Location: Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
The role of civil society in post-2015 development architecture Equitable growth and inclusive development

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Ayubowan, Vanakum, Assalamualaikum, Peace, Good Morning

On this most auspicious day of remembrance, it is an honour and privilege to be invited as the keynote speaker at the 2013 Commonwealth People’s Forum.  As I share my thoughts from the podium, I hope you will all remember the fallen victims of disasters and conflicts, from the painful losses of Typhoon Haiyin in Philippines and the many conflicts around the world.

 I feel very humbled to be standing here speaking to all of you as I know that there must be centuries of cumulative experience among the civil society actors from many countries across the Commonwealth, in this room today.  My very special thanks to the Commonwealth Foundation for inviting me today.

We have just over a year till 2015, to measure the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  We know that many nations have made good progress and indeed my own native Malaysia recently celebrated the successful achievement of all goals.  On the other hand, many countries have not made the progress we had hoped for, particularly on poverty alleviation, gender, health and human rights.

While I have been asked to speak on the role of civil society in the Post- 2015 development architecture, let me begin by reflecting on the MDGs themselves.  I concur with Ambassador Csaba Koros, Co-Chair of the Open Working Group, speaking at the Session on the Role of Foundations and Civil Society in the Post-2015 Agenda, when he remarked that one of the main problems with the MDGs is that there is so much focus on goals with not enough emphasis on getting the foundations right – this includes the processes and frameworks that build the enabling environment for people and nations to achieve their true potential and a sustainable end to poverty. There is a strong and disproportionate emphasis and demand for goals when we have still some way to go towards building a really solid foundation.

If we are to be honest with ourselves, we need to ensure we do not fall into the same trap when finalising the Post-2015 sustainability goals.  The Post 2015 Sustainable Development Framework will have one central pillar-known as the Strategic Vision. This will be the main document that will form the foundation of what we do. It is on the basis of this Strategic Vision that we will build the goals as an annex.  Lest we repeat our mistakes, we must all work to ensure that finances, the monitoring through the high level forum and all other frameworks need to be in place, while at the same time acknowledging that the political contexts of nations greatly influence the outcome of sustainable development.

With the short time frame till 2015, unfinished business is now being addressed through the MDG Acceleration Framework and this is seen to be essential to ensure credibility of the Post 2015 development agenda as noted by the United Nations Secretary General last September.  I cannot help feeling it is a race too late for the sprint with much valuable resources poured in to achieve goals that are to be improved in the near future, nonetheless articulation of the role of civil society in this process is crucial and must be explicitly clear.

Allow me to challenge our thinking as we approach the Post-2015 development agenda.  I would like to raise several key issues for your consideration.

Vulnerability is changing. We have increasing numbers of localised disasters and crises - conflicts and geophysical events.  We are also seeing dramatic illustrations of the downsides of globalisation, specifically the triple F crises of finance, food and fuel. Both opportunity and vulnerability have now been globalised. There are growing numbers of communities and individuals ‘living on the edge’. People are living on the edge if their lives and livelihoods are exposed and sensitive to shocks and stresses, and their adaptive capacities are constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed. Living on the edge suggests that a small push could send that community or individual over the edge.  Thus, development can be badly derailed in the process. We don’t have to look far to see this happening around us.

Despite this, the potential impact of the globalisation of vulnerability on the very poorest is not well understood. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon put it: "…in the face of the global financial crisis.....it appears that the burden of coping has been borne disproportionately by poor and vulnerable people. This reality is poorly understood…” A major reason for this lack of understanding is that the shocks and stresses we are seeing in the world today have multiple, unpredictable effects and increasingly demand – but do not always trigger – diverse responses at the local level. The global system is characterised by increasing complexity, where all of our actions and intentions combined into a tangled and heaving mass of interdependence. We have created an engine for perpetual, unpredictable crisis.

Yet many international agencies have taken an ever more narrow and institutionally defined way of dealing with vulnerability. Some deal with health, others with income, others with violence, others with children, and others with the elderly. We are facing profoundly systemic problems, and we are dealing with them in these narrow and limited ways. This is one of the key arguments behind a new must-read book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, authored by Ben Ramalingam, who co-incidentally is of Sri Lankan origin. One area where this is especially worrying is the increasingly false distinction between development and humanitarian work. This causes profound problems for dealing with vulnerability of the poorest.  As a result, the humanitarian sector is moving towards a focus on resilience – a word that unfortunately is understood by different actors in many different ways. To me, the simplest way to look at resilience is that it probably for lack of a better word, defines where humanitarian and development meet, and they should.

Building true resilience requires moving beyond narrow views of the risks we face. A linear, reductionist approach would have us deal with resilience in piecemeal ways. Danger of fire? Equip fire departments. Possible electricity failure? Turn off transformers and give hospitals generators. Risk of floods? Build barriers. But what about when all the risks hit at once, like in Hurricane Sandy or in the aftermath of the Earthquake and Tsunami in Sendai, Japan and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear incident.  We need a better, more inter-disciplinary, understanding of the globalised vulnerability landscape among both policy makers and operational decision makers. In other words, we need a complex, systems approach to resilience. As well as better-shared data and analysis, we need to find better ways of breaking down disciplinary silos.

On top of the need to change how we think, we need to change how we do things. An important way of dealing with the growing complexity of the world, and entrenched internal divisions in international agencies, is to turn to local civil society as central actors in the battle against vulnerability. A new report, also led by Ben Ramalingam, was recently released in London by a consortium of five large International NGOs, and looked at their partnerships in four major emergencies.  Across the 20 study contexts, they found that local and national civil society has the most to contribute to the relevance of aid, and also to linking response to development and resilience. Because local NGOs are present within the context of the situation/challenges, they are also more able to understand and navigate complexity.  Local organisations rarely see the divide between humanitarian and development but look at their communities as a whole.  They need to be recognized and play a more prominent role, and rightfully so, as they are the first to assist and the last to leave.

I am arguing for avoiding the trap of simply rebuilding and repairing flawed structures of the past—be it an economic system overly reliant on risky speculation or a health-care system that splits a nation at its financial seams and yet fails to deliver adequate coverage, or a series of goals that were developed 15 years ago that are simply being re-booted without being rethought.  A complex, systems-inspired resilience perspective stands in stark contrast to narrow development and humanitarian paradigms and global policies that offer only minor adjustments of current behaviours, and that tend to concentrate on technical quick fixes to get rid of the problems. It encourages us to anticipate, adapt, learn, and transform human actions in light of the unprecedented challenges of our turbulent world.  

I am calling for all actors including civil society to continue with strategy and act on approaches that take into consideration these key issues, and embrace the complexity of the world we live in now. Innovate, adapt, build new partnerships and work differently if we are to have a better chance of addressing the Post-2015 development agenda with a measure of success. 

The Role and Action of Civil Society

Active participation and positioning

We need to continue engagement and advocacy with governments to achieve recognition of the centrality of civil society in development.  And greater investment is needed to support the conditions that help create an enabling environment for civil society to participate in development processes more fully, proactively and effectively. This will be in line with the Istanbul Principles that were adopted in the Busan framework for civil society development effectiveness; that include the need to

Foster development processes that are inclusive, equal and just;
Strengthen institutions supporting participatory governance;
Commit to a framework of mutual accountability at the global, regional and national level.

So how do we create more opportunities for civil society to become engaged?  The lessons from the MDG process clearly indicate dissatisfaction at the level of engagement by civil society organisations and citizens at the national level.  Civil society actors need to take ownership by being part of the process of contributing to the formulation of the agenda.  This inevitably means we need to be sitting at the table with policy makers whether in formal or informal settings and not just be bystanders or shout from the sidelines.  We need to be more savvy in our collective lobbying and advocacy, to build trust where it has been lost, and to engage in constructive ways even with the most challenging actors and policy makers we need to deal with to push for real and sustainable change.  We need to foster greater acceptance by governments of the role played by civil society.  They should not be seen as a threat, and in equal measure, civil society should not view governments as the enemy.

We need to do this from local, national, regional and global levels and see this through until the final development agenda is sealed and delivered to the UN General Assembly.  Cast the net far and wide by building networks among us and with other stakeholders, who are not usually in the room – such as academicians, the diaspora, spiritual leaders and the private sector.  Any group that can influence decision-making must be a partner with civil society.  If civil society actors can build relationships and dialogue around policies, issues and possible solutions with national governments, this will eventually influence decision-making processes in the region and lead to New York in 2015.  There is a need to recognise civil society’s role as a source of alternatives, as well as creative solutions and reality checks.  Based on experience as key partners, civil society can make a contribution by providing solutions that are innovative and pragmatic.

The commitments made by the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda to ‘leave no one behind’ provide a real opportunity.  This means civil society has a role to play in ensuring that the voices of citizens particularly the poorest and most marginalised are also heard.   We therefore need to reaffirm our valuable role in being able to connect at the grassroots, and to be reliable and trusted conduits helping to amplify the voices by those very people the Post-2015 agenda wants to include and support.

We need development goals that can speak to national and sub-national priorities.  This stresses the importance of localisation, requiring broad-based and inclusive processes to ensure local priorities are served, local assets utilised and local capacities are built. Civil society can play a critical role in public awareness to build understanding and awareness, particularly at national level amongst citizens on these goals and the intended outcomes.

So what strategy can civil society employ? 

Paul Okumu in his review of the Post-2015 Political Strategy for the Africa CSO Platform On Principled Partnership summarises it eloquently and clearly, and I am supporting, amplifying and shamelessly borrowing from his paper today.  Paul suggests that if we are to achieve our agenda for transformation we will need to do four things - Split, Speak, Stay and Negotiate!

If we consider the key issues of complexity I spoke of earlier, I believe this is in line with some of the approaches we can take forward.


Civil society organisations are doing a great job in collecting ideas and positions but we are leaving out many central pillars to the process because we are too thinly spread. There are too many of us doing a great job-but in too many narrow areas. Who among us should follow up with the High Level Political Forum? Who among us should keep track and ensure there is real accountability in the Financing Framework? What if the governments decide that all financing will come from private sector, philanthropy and AID? What if they refuse to place tax revenue and revenue from natural resources high up on the financing strategy? Will we have succeeded if we have exceptional goals, but badly financed, or not independently monitored? And what about the impact of the technology and science agenda that many governments are now pushing as the solution to consumption challenges?

If we do not split roles and seek to build synergy along these parallel processes, we will fail the process in much the same way MDGs failed the world.  And we need to split more.
Who among us will take on the Private Sector in their field, and succeed?

Who will engage with the different regional Heads of States Committee? And what about its complex coordinating team?

Who will engage with the technical working groups?

All this must be clearly delineated and identified now. Who does what and where, when and how needs to be identified urgently.  Most importantly cross learning and information sharing, including what approaches work, and what might not, must be an active process.


Civil society organisations are doing an exceptional job at speaking.

But here are ways of speaking that will transform how we engage with the United Nations General Assembly and the member states.

Speak to member states. There is a need to build greater collaboration among us.  Imagine if CIVICUS, GCAP, Beyond 2015, Social Watch, Third World Network, CPED (on Aid Effectives) Pacific Islands Forum, Asian CSOs networks, Africa Group on Post-2015 and the over a dozen CSO regional coalitions strategically map out the stakeholders to meet and dialogue with - we will have spoken to almost every leader in every country.

Speak to Power, not to ‘government representatives.’ Many have witnessed this in high-level meetings in states and during the meetings in New York. The idea of government representation has been reduced to a few low-key people being sent to sit with civil society, make prepared speeches and receive ‘position papers’, and away they go with no clear plan for follow up, execute and monitor!  We must no longer be satisfied with Governments ticking boxes in the name of having engaged with Civil Society. Similarly, CSOs should also not tick their own institutional boxes if indeed we are looking for change. We need to engage with the technical teams and the people who hold the key to final policy positions. We need to engage
with the Ministers and Presidents. We need to engage with parliaments that approve military spending. These are the ‘real government.’ 

Speak to change agents and not just at and to events: It was clear at the UN General (UN- GA) Assembly or Regional Summits that events are too formal, too structured and too scripted to try and infuse any change agenda. It’s even worse if it’s a side event. For those of you in the room who have been in such meetings at the UN headquarters in New York, we will need to find strategies to speak directly to those on the other side of 1st Avenue- those who sit in the Trusteeship chambers and the General Assembly area. We cannot sit on 2nd and
3rd avenues, lining up for passes, to be allowed into scripted events where we have three minutes to make” interventions”. That may have worked in other spaces, but not the UN. We will have to cultivate and open up new spaces away from events. Because for the UN, events are for official positions, most of which will be radically different from the real positions during negotiations.

Speak voices, not positions.  We are doing a great job of communicating and articulating civil society positions. But what will move member states and make them act are the raw voices of their citizens.  We need to speak about the men, women, boys and girls, elderly, disabled, people living with HIV AIDS – about their daily struggles – with each of them a name, a face, a story. The poor and the voices we are refining sometimes need to be heard in its raw form. I was sad to hear that during the entire UN-GA period, Southern Civil Society were a handful, and even those who did make it, were not at the forefront. The best strategy with the UN is to allow difficult states to speak to their own citizens. The success of Post 2015 will depend on how willing Northern voices are to take a step back, and to allow the Southern voices to take leadership of the advocacy and the voice.

Speak universal agendas, not coalition voices.  While other advocacy platforms appreciate civil society coalition voices - the UN is much more conservative and would sometimes be put off by a document preceded by 200 logos! Southern governments, especially, are cynical of logo-driven positions.


Many governments simply want strong actors to make their positions known now, so that they begin to weigh the options. And CSOs must be ready for a long journey - many meetings, many sessions, many documents, shifting positions. And that means we must consolidate our position and push. The staying power will especially be needed after this session in Sri Lanka. We cannot engage at events only. That is not staying.

We cannot engage for just a year and get concerned that documents are coming out as diluted versions.


You will be expending good energy negotiating with your friends! And you will need much more energy to negotiate with your enemies. It’s your adversaries who hold the power to your success.  As Sun Tzu’s art of war declares “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”.

One of the greatest fears is that the Post-2015 Strategy will be an exact replica of the MDG strategy. Here is how it happened.
The General Assembly approved an ambitious change agenda and called it the Millennium Declaration. Civil society cheered.  Then they went ahead and removed the least common denominator - simplistic things that they could measure and which were not political in nature - they called these goals.  Then they threw away the Millennium Declaration - having achieved a political victory - and focused on the MDGs.

Speaking during the Commonwealth Foundation’s Forum, Ambassador Koros alluded to this same script - there will be a Strategic Vision and a set of goals!

The key for Civil Society is not to start parading its “key positions” but to begin to negotiate, further negotiate, and keep negotiating!

That has two levels - the first is to clarify what we mean.

There are already concerns that civil society would like to see - governance, peace and security, human rights, transparency, anti-corruption - but we have failed to realise that any goal within the Post-2015 agenda must meet two basic requirements - it must be measurable, and the indicators must be clear and data sources universally acceptable. So the best option for governments is to appease us by putting these things in the strategic vision, but leave them out in the goals.

We appear to have failed the test on these core areas.  Socrates dramatically says: “A life not measured is a life not worth living”.  (I would argue that my life is certainly still worth living despite refusing to continually track my body measurements as I grow older!)

The second level is to spend time refining and defining, and finding opportunities for expanding the positions of governments, instead of just defining and expanding ours. Japan, for example, is demanding human security.  Africa is demanding global governance. G77 is demanding that the Rio +20 agreements become the foundation for a post-MDG framework. We need to do more work in appreciating these positions, defining them beyond the government positions, and expanding them to include our own positions. It means toning down our thematic campaigns and focusing on helping the governments to come to our positions through their own lenses, not ours.

It also means actively identifying governments and classifying them, subsequently placing greatest effort on governments with strong influence, but very conservative positions. These are the ones (the spoilers some might dare say) who hold the rest back. We need to spend less and less time with “friendly governments”, even if we keep them updated (and not preach to the converted). We need to spend less time in ‘civil society only’ consultations and move to multi-stakeholder strategic discussions beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in the room.

I cannot help but feel a little disappointed that across the other side of the world in Africa, a similar civil society meeting will run concurrently which, coincidentally I had to turn down to be here. While it is essential to have CSO fora for dialogue, we have had more than one year already doing this. Civil society needs to be better at organising resources and exchanges strategically, and demonstrate real solidarity with issues.  Otherwise, I fear we may still appear to be stuck in organisational myopia and be sending out the wrong signals.

The US classifies governments as – ‘friend, foe and neutral - and allocates attention based on who has the greatest resistance. If we are to succeed, we will need to have some form of classification in regard to our positions on the Post-2015 agenda.

Demanding Accountability

I re-emphasise the need for governments to create an enabling environment (laws and policies) to facilitate engagement and participation by civil society and as a first step, key gaps and weaknesses in governance processes and accountability need to be addressed.  What is civil society able to do to advance this position?  CSOs have been recognized as actors in their own right to effective development and reinforced at the OECD High Level Forum in Busan.  They thus need to improve their own accountability to fully live up to their potential (this being the first indicator in the CSO-Enabling Environment Index). 

Overcoming the currently fragmented, silo approach to accountability will not only underpin CSOs request for a greater role in the post 2015 regime but also strengthen their demand for stronger accountability of other actors in the Post-2015 regime.  With civil society split into two main ‘types’, it has been a bit of a struggle.   'Humanitarian' response is typically high profile, and therefore better resourced.  The 'aid architecture' doesn't help either with the two constituencies having very different characteristics but we have finally made some progress in recognising the increasing complexity we face today and the need to stop working in silos - where development and humanitarian issues are seen as separate rather than a complex and interwoven issue.  

The focus on fragile states/resilience-vulnerability demonstrates that across the development to relief to development continuum, the terrain where the two worlds meet is getting wider and wider - with increasing insecurity and vulnerability. There is a greater need for civil society to understand the integrated nature of three core aspects:  humanitarian, development as well as peace building; and this will demand even greater collaboration and work across the different sectors and also greater accountability to the people we serve, if we are to have credibility and success in achieving sustainable solutions to reduce vulnerability.  With the growth in advocacy and policy work, we can't credibly attack the accountability of business/governments if we are not prepared to be genuinely accountable ourselves.

At the beginning of October this year, representatives of accountability initiatives from the 'advocacy and development' side of the NGO community met and shared their work with representatives of the humanitarian ‘quality and accountability’ community.  Senior representatives of the latter commented that they thought they knew all there was to know but had learned otherwise. Based on the above, and with conversations about governance and accountability already incorporated in the Post-2015 discussions, leading international NGOs have recognised among other things:

The need for rationalisation - not just among humanitarian accountability initiatives but across the sector;

Confirmation that there is a significant alignment and agreement on a majority of accountability principles, approaches, methodologies and standards that we share.  We need to recognise and allow for specialisation in particular sectors or contexts;

Recognition of the need for deeper conversations on accountability issues among ALL sustainable development stakeholders and not just the traditional donors but also government, private sector, major philanthropists, and CSOs/NGOs from local to global;

The need for solidarity in 'speaking to power' to stop the multiplication of accountability demands that do not take into account what is already being done - adding new processes that divert scarce resources from programmes,  without any measure of added value, costs and benefits. In other words, more codes could lead to less accountability but also dispersed effort and confusion for public and other stakeholders. There are over 350 codes, charters etc. so convergence is essential.

As an example, the INGO Accountability Charter is about the CSO sector taking responsibility for its own accountability. The Charter encompasses development, human rights, environment, humanitarian response and anti-corruption groups at the international and national level. Through the global standard project process it is already bringing together the peak NGO bodies in developing and developed countries.  How can we apply the approaches of this and other similar charters to a broader audience and take this to scale. What do we have to do to keep it simple enough for civil society organisations that are smaller yet crucial as building blocks of their communities?

The Data and Information Technology Revolution 

What is the role of data in future development frameworks? Should it mean something for civil society? For any new development framework to be tracked meaningfully, civil society participation in data gathering, monitoring and evaluation remains critical. The importance of going beyond the numbers to ensure quality and turning the data into powerful information to influence decision-making and accountability is critical.  Have we thought about this and what can we actually do to support this? What is the power of key innovations in technology and how do we address gaps in access and quality of data particularly in the global south?

We need to be innovative and keep up with new technologies that will support good governance, accountability, advocacy and monitoring.  If we are to split, speak, stay and negotiate effectively, we also need to continually communicate and advocate and the tools we have at hand now with social media platforms and modern communication tools that grow and develop rapidly, offer us so many exciting opportunities.

All of us will have our own stories on how social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and, short messages (SMS) sent through mobile phones, have “revolutionised” aid or the way we think about it.

Aid on the Edge of Chaos illustrates this classic story, highlighted in a 2007 article in The Economist, drawing on a press release from the World Food Program (WFP).  It recounted a dramatic call for help from a refugee struggling to survive in a refugee camp.  The message read “My name is Mohammed Sokor, writing to you from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. Dear Sir, there is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help”.  This message was delivered through a text message from Sokor’s own mobile phone to the mobiles of two UN officials in London and in Nairobi. He got the numbers by surfing at an Internet café at the camp. As Sokor’s bemused London recipient points out, two worlds were colliding.  The age-old scourge of famine in the Horn of Africa had found a 21st century response.  And the familiar flow of power and authority from rich donor to grateful recipient, had been reversed. Although the story has a long ending and the book proposes several missed opportunities.

Several years later, the UN Foundation’s research revealed aid agencies as especially insensitive to new mobile technologies such as Twitter and SMS, and unable to tap into their user-driven potential.  Herein lies a challenge and opportunity for civil society organisations. How can you really take advantage of the democratisation of data and information flows that we have today, even in the most restrictive states, to build networks that examine, collect, triangulate data and offer new ways of expression for the most marginalised and vulnerable. How do we get these bits of noise to form coherent and meaningful signals to governments – who clearly fear and struggle with this, in most instances? 

How can civil society expression be channeled through these methods without putting governments on the defensive but for CSOs to be viewed as partners?  More thinking needs to be put into this – and we need young people, certainly younger than me, to help us find these solutions.  They are the ‘digital cowboys’ who have grown from a different starting point and view the world through different types of lenses, and may have the answers to some of our collective challenges.  Not only young people, how do we get women, elderly, people living with disability, people living with HIV/AIDS, indigenous populations to express their needs and concerns to those actors remote from them?  And when technology is not an option for them, what else can we rely on? I fear we have lost the skills and interest in real face to face dialogue as a down side of the digital age and we need to ensure, as parents, managers and leaders, that we encourage these types of dialogues among our peers, children and employees as working through a problem face-to-face is really one of the best ways of creating innovative ideas.

The exponential growth of open data also further supports efforts to enhance good governance, and offer new solutions to old problems like poverty.  We need to clearly express a shared vision of good governance as a top-down and bottom-up approach that is inclusive of community aspirations and support, and technology can help us today. I was particularly struck by a delightful YouTube video featuring 500 Ugandan women lip syncing Jessie J’s hit song ‘Pricetag’.  The fact that these women, tucked away in villages in remote Uganda, now had a voice, a name, a dream and a request that they could share with the entire world, signals the radical and innovative approaches we now must take to achieve sustainable development and good governance. And of course, innovations will need to draw on the best available scientific research, knowledge and ideas, especially to be able to deal with the complex challenges I described earlier.  I know there are many of you in this room including Degan Ali from ADESO working in Somalia and Kenya, who are at the forefront of new technologies and innovative approaches dealing with livelihoods, and I hope in the space of this forum, we all have a chance to share, gather and learn from each other.

Strengthening South-South Partnerships

Earlier on, I had described the importance of fostering a strengthened partnership approach to addressing issues and problems.  I would like to emphasise the great need for civil society to create and foster south-south cooperation, engagement and sharing of skills to advance progress on sustainable development.  We need to be better networked.  I am struck by the fact that I only knew a few people in this room before this.  Yet, when I am in an international conference in Geneva or New York, I see the CSOs from the north navigate the room almost as if it was a network of friends.

We really need to do better as actors particularly from the global south especially among humanitarian and development actors.  My country Malaysia and Ghana share the same year of independence.  How can we better share our experiences with each other – not only successes but also more importantly challenges.  What platforms can we use to do this and capitalise on the extensive technology and tools available to us nowadays?  What is the role of culture and creative expression in defining the role of civil society and how can we in the global south learn from each other, grow and progress without losing our cultural values.  

Don’t leave the Private Sector out!

The private sector – seen in a broader perspective to encompass large multinational corporations, national corporations and small-medium enterprises – need to be involved in the Post-2015 agenda and CSO actors need to find ways to engage, challenge and partner with private sector.  Whether we agree or not, the reality is that in many developing countries, the private sector are the main drivers of economy.  If we fail to engage with them, we miss an opportunity to influence more responsible stewardship and protection of our environment, resources, peace, security and human rights among many other things.

Increasingly, we are seeing companies recognise equitable community development as a critical business activity to reduce risk. This is a major change. In decades past, it would have been more common for business leaders to say that it is a government’s responsibility to ensure long-term sustainable economic growth for a community, and that a company’s contribution would be through tax, employment, and royalties. Move forward to 2013, and those days are long gone. Most now recognise that business can no longer legitimately claim that socio-economic development is not a business concern.

An increasing number of companies are looking beyond the risk-reduction argument, and seeing equitable community development as an opportunity to grow ‘shared value.’ The term was coined by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, and reflects the view that business and community interests can be in sync. In particular, Porter and Kramer argue that businesses should search for those opportunities where value can be created for business by improving community well-being.

The New York Times for example, ran a feature on BHP Billiton that ran a very effective anti-malaria programme around Mozal, Mozambique, where it has an aluminium smelter. This programme reduced adult malaria infection from near 80% to a single-digit percentage. This is a huge win for the community, but also note its impact on BHP’s bottom line. The reduced absenteeism associated with this improved community health so increased the productivity of assets that the direct returns more than covered the cost of the programme. The anti-malaria programme in Mozal was ultimately profitable.

I am a believer that we need to continually advocate and demand that private sector companies practice shared value.  Civil society has a role to highlight to the private sector challenges the societies around them face and how solutions can be found.  And where private sector can be potentially damaging, it is through the use of our collective network advocacy, dialogue, and using new technologies that we can demand for greater accountability and responsibility from the private sector. 

On the other hand, we need to also learn how the private sector works – their strategies, organisational development, strengths and tap into their resources, not only financial but equally important, tools and planning processes, so that civil society becomes more efficient and outcome/results driven without losing our most important attributes of diversity, connectedness with people in need and humility.

Reconnecting with Spirituality and Humanity

Last but not least - If we look around the world today, we have to admit that many of the challenges we face are leading to the erosion of developmental gains, and stem from a clash of ideologies surrounding ‘faith and religion’.  This has resulted in extremely negative consequences from unrest, fractured social fabric to outright conflict and genocide. I challenge the notion that these perpetrators really understand faith or spirituality and denounce their use of religion as a tool for conflict.

As we gather in the comfort of Hikkaduwa today, countries like Syria have rapidly declined to a near failed state. Syria – a nation once known for its rich history and diversity, where all Abrahamic faiths have gathered and once lived in peace, is now torn apart by sectarian violence.  Look east from here, and we witness the brutality against Muslims on-going in Myanmar, a nation poised for democracy, rapid development and economic growth.  It is all around us. It has to stop.  How can we better create platforms for dialogue and rebuilding of trust and tolerance?  We need to collectively think this through together and urgently.

I believe we need to reconnect through restoration of our own spirituality and basic humanity.  We must respect the right to live without discrimination and exclusion.  Whether because of religion, colour, gender, sexual orientation – and whatever our personal beliefs are - on the very basis of humanity, every person has his/her own value and rights.

I especially welcome and congratulate His Excellency The President of Sri Lanka for his bold speech yesterday evening on strengthening human rights and press freedom. As a nation in transition and in post-conflict reconciliation, Sri Lanka must not allow splinter groups to create intolerance and new violence.  International, national and local civil society in Sri Lanka needs to assure the Government of Sri Lanka, that we are here as partners to help it fulfill these commitments, and in equal measure I urge the government of Sri Lanka to embrace civil society as its partners and reflecting mirror, again re-echoing the sentiments of the President yesterday.  Sri Lanka must aspire to be a role model to other nations facing similar challenges.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have offered you some thoughts and challenges to consider as we run the last laps of the race to 2015.  As we do so, I urge all of us to focus on what matters most.  People who are our partners, the very people we want to see liberated from the clutches of poverty, conflict, human rights abuses, poor health, gender discrimination and the lack of power to achieve their true potentials.  We must capitalise on the wisdom and experience of the elderly, the energy and passion of the youth, and recognise the important and potential contributions of differently-abled people.  I also call on all of us to re-examine how we make our assumptions and plans – and to be very mindful that we see things as ‘experts’ and develop our own blind spots as we approach the problems and people we have to work with. 

I encourage you to continue to push hard for issues that are difficult to deal with and too painful for some governments to accept, especially sexual and reproductive health rights for all women and adolescents, to have dialogues with stakeholders that bring to life the real life stories of the struggles women and young people face in being able to have the right to choose what is right for their health and well being.  And we need to be able to engage with even our greatest opponents, in a way that respects their cultures and values, builds trust and mutual respect. We must innovate, be inclusive, impartial and never lose courage and patience and find those hidden champions even within the toughest groups of stakeholders we have to deal with. 

At a personal level, I remember a young lady in Afghanistan who had presented to our clinic in a near-collapsed state, four days after delivering her child. The already grey umbilical cord was dangling down her thigh.  As we struggled to remove the retained placenta and fought to keep her alive, I recall how she looked way older than her actual barely 30 years of age, and yet she had undergone 14 pregnancies with only five live babies and now a retained placenta. 

I imagined how I would have felt if my sister or ‘daughter’ (if I had one) was in her place, deprived of education and denied her sexual reproductive health rights.  Her pale face, her empty and searching eyes as she looked at me, was one of the driving forces for my establishment of a women’s health centre in Kandahar way back in 2002, when people thought it impossible.  It required a lot of tea drinking with many tribal leaders and being a woman, contrary to what many might say about working in Afghanistan, it opened doors to homes, women, families and most importantly men, that helped us achieve our common goals.

Hers will be the face that will always live in my memory to remind me that our struggles are not over – in her case - that all girls have a right to receive education and health care.  And that pregnancy is a choice and not a death sentence.  She survived that ordeal but I have no idea if she survived her subsequent pregnancies. 

We all have to keep and replay our own life experiences, recall faces and names we have encountered, and keep them clearly in our sight so that we continue to do what is right in whatever arena we work in.  We need to come down from lofty global goals frequently and be grounded on the realities of the communities and people whom we work with - where change and results matter.

We have many opportunities presented between now and 2015, when not only the MDGs but also the Hyogo Framework for Action in Disaster Risk Reduction are up for review and renewal.  These events plus the World Humanitarian Summit planned for early 2016, provide opportunities to bring together the still separate conversations about 'sustainable development', disaster risk reduction, humanitarian crises, poverty and injustice.  Civil society actors need to engage actively with all these different consultations, providing not only inputs to the final priorities, decisions and policies - but also clearly carve out civil society’s important roles.  If we can do that effectively, we would have laid the foundations for transformative action that will help to address the complexity issues that were outlined at the start of my lecture.

Daisaku Ikeda (the founder of Soka Gakkai movement) once said:  “Where there is an absence of international political leadership, civil society should step in to fill the gap, providing the energy and vision needed to move the world in a new and better direction”.  I am sorry not to be able to stay the entire duration of this forum but am confident that all of you in this room today, your partners and networks, can provide that energy and vision, so that the Post-2015 development agenda and the outcomes from the CPF, will be ones that go beyond rhetoric and help bring about real transformation. We need to go beyond accepting a step change and aim for a quantum leap.

Thank you for your kind attention.