Photo: Nigel Martin

Nigel Martin has spent 45 years trying to turn governments’ ears toward civil society voices. In 1998, he founded FIM: the Forum for Democratic Global Governance, an international NGO based in Montreal. FIM both convenes activists from around the world with particular attention to those from the global south and from Muslim sectors, and it has worked to create openings for civil society actors in global governance fora such as the UN, G8, G20, and more recently BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation).

Slow progress is typical and setbacks are normal, yet Martin is steadfast and patient, all the while recognizing the illegitimate actions and undemocractic nature of most global governance bodies. He suggests we’re in the midst of a huge global shift that is putting civil society actors closer to centre stage. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s the distinction between democracy and participatory democracy?

Democracy is historically primarily based on representation: we delegate our governance to our representatives who are voted in maybe every four years. There are other means of participation besides voting, but for most people, that’s the limit of their engagement. In more established democracies, the percentage of people who vote is declining, and who belong to political parties is declining.

Participatory democracy is where people become directly engaged, democratically. People become active in their own governance, between elections. It’s happening at all levels more and more.

Can you share a recent example of participatory democracy, at the global level?

There is the whole environmental movement. That’s a massive movement. The Rio conference on the environment was the first UN environmental conference where civil society organizations were involved. The agreement was huge step forward. Canada was a signatory, and most countries signed. Then the environmental community realized, to their horror, that getting these countries to sign on to an agreement is nothing. It has no force.

The movement continues to monitor government’s signed commitments to certain standards. 

The vast majority of what we hear is that civil society is shut out of global governance processes related to the environment. This example is a failure of participatory democracy, no?

It’s too early to say that. When you’re dealing with global governance, you’re dealing over a long term. An example I use is women’s rights: there’s been huge progress. It’s always been citizen driven. But is it finished? It’s far from finished. The environmental movement, I think, is the same.

The Rio conference in 1992 sparked a huge involvement of civil society in UN decision making. For a period of about four or five years, there were about a dozen significant global UN conferences where heads of state were involved, where countries committed themselves to certain social objectives. And then, suddenly, no more conferences. The heads of governments I think collectively decided “This is our UN. It doesn’t belong to the people,” even though the UN charter begins with: “We the people.”

Governments were uncomfortable under the microscope of civil society. There was a backlash against direct citizen involvement. It hasn’t stopped citizens, but it’s certainly changed the way of thinking of most activists.

The Rio example taught a serious lesson that getting a country to commit to an agreement on paper, an international treaty, is not end of struggle. So now monitoring is big. A group originated out of South America called Social Watch. They have chapters globally and they monitor international agreements that have been signed by their countries. So the Canadian chapter follows what the Canadian government has committed to and makes assessments every year.

Who’s paying attention to these assessments?

Certainly civil society activists. Academics. Attentive policy-makers within government. Anyone who’s engaged in policy debate or decision-making I think would want to know what the public awareness is of their actions. It’s a source of intelligence for decision makers.

When we (FIM) started dialoguing with the G8, I remember sitting with a sous-sherpa, or senior organizer, from Britain. I asked him, “Why are you even bothering sitting down and talking with us?” He was very honest. He said, “Number one: It makes us look good. And two: We learn. We’re learning the social issues out there, we’re hearing what’s around the corner and what’s going to bite us if we don’t pay attention.”

Your new book has an optimistic message that civil societies will have more openings in global governance. Why?

One of the reasons for optimism is the democratization of information. I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult and at times impossible for governments not to be transparent. They don’t want to be transparent, but I don’t think they’re going to have any choice.

And democratization of information will allow for greater engagement by citizens in that governance.

Also, globalization is with us to stay and will grow. The resulting forms of governance under which we’re going to live will follow suit. As globalization increases, it has to be governed at a global level.

I don’t care how powerful you are, you can’t on your own deal with climate change: it has to be done in collaboration. You can’t on your own as a sovereign state deal with terrorism, or ebola. All of these things require global governance, require collaboration amongst governments, and each one of those acts in turn diminishes the role of the nation state’s autonomy in governance.

That’s very threatening, especially to the major powers who want full sovereignty on all issues.

What about the role of global corporations shutting out civil society voices?

In the democratic vacuum of global governance — and none of the global institutions are by most definitions democratic — the corporate community has moved in in a heavy-duty way.

A few years ago I was in the head office of a major multinational based in Montreal, in preparation for an upcoming G8. I met with the VP of the corporation and his whole job was to monitor multi-lateral agreements. That guy knew more about multi-lateralism than I did. He was following it closely. He knew everything.

These companies have a vested interest in a large number of things. If they’ve got the resources to monitor full-time at a senior level, they also have a lot of intelligence to bring to the table.

How can civil society compete with that level of intelligence and integration?

It might appear to be a David and Goliath. On one hand you have the huge wealth of the multinational corporations with unlimited access to intelligence, legal advice. They can get the best and the brightest. They’re exerting their influence wherever they can.

Sometimes their objectives coincide with let’s say “our vision” of society; it’s not necessarily open warfare. But there are times where we diverge for sure.

What do we have as civil society? We do have high-quality intelligence. We have a growing number of people who are monitoring these things, and we collaborate increasingly with academics. We have a lot of supporters. Most NGOs have pretty good legal advisors who are prepared to give time.

We have the capacity to mobilize millions of citizens. I’m not saying that’s a winner: the whole case of trying to stop the Iraq war was instructive. Here we had millions of people in the streets and we couldn’t stop that war. And we probably knew it at the time. As a short-term tactic or strategy, it didn’t really make a difference. But we were proven right: this war was a disaster; the politicians led us into a disaster. It’s another weapon, or tool we have: our capacity to mobilize.

We have an energy and a drive that the corporate community doesn’t have. The corporate community is doing this for institutional purposes and financial purposes. We’re doing it for the common good. That’s a highly energetic form of motivation. We’re not going to stop. We believe this is the kind of world we want to live in, and we want our grandkids to live in. That’s a huge, powerful force that no other sector brings. And it affects our ability to stay in for the long haul and to continue to promote a vision of a more just and equitable society.

We also have a greater capacity I think than other sectors to be creative and look at innovative ways of solving problems. Usually we’re at the head of the parade. So an idea will come up and it seems kind of idealistic and silly, but fifty years later, it’s common practice.

I’ve been working in civil society for over 40 years, and if I look back at what I would define as progress, across the globe, there’s no mistaking it. And in every single case, the major gains have reflected long, hard, patient work by civil society activists who are way ahead of their time.

Can you describe some of the recent convening FIM has been doing?

We recently brought together Muslim civil society activists from five or six countries. People with different interests: women’s rights, agriculture, youth employment.

We realized about ten years ago that Muslim voices were excluded from most civil society efforts to influence multilateral organizations. We’ve been trying to get Muslim civil society activists more involved in global governance. We now have close to 300 Muslim organizations that are collaborating with us. We started with nothing seven years ago.

I think I’m probably the first non-Muslim activist to be in the headquarters of the OIC (The Organization for Islamic Cooperation) discussing ways forward with women’s rights, human rights, and other issues.

What was that like?

The OIC was described to us as a black box. It took us a long time to where I was actually invited: six or seven years of quiet diplomacy. You move an inch at a time. I got in the headquarters, I talked to some key people. That’s a measurable result, but we’re still not anywhere close to where we want to be.

The objective is getting a civil voice for the Muslim world into the international dialogue. Most of these countries are autocratic, and so the voices that are heard are the voices of these autocrats, at the UN and the OIC. They sure don’t consult with their own citizens. 

One thing we’ve experienced is called the boomerang effect. In some countries, the oppression is so high that any chance of civil society critiquing its own government is impossible. They’d be put in jail, killed, whatever. But in some cases, activists have gone to international fora and spoken out. Not about their own government, but about global policies. And their governments have watched them. The NGOs would bring research that the government hadn’t had access to, and there’s a respect that grows up. One of the effects over time is the government realizes these NGOs are a vital energetic force it can benefit from.

In the span of your career have you ever felt democracy is too difficult — like you want to throw in the towel and try out some other system?

(Laughter) There are obviously setbacks. And people who become activists can become cynics. Most cynics I’ve met were, at one point, idealists who then got discouraged. They become the opposite of the ideals they once held: self-centered, in it for themselves. But that’s a minority.

I have seen the best and worst. I’ve seen the horror of starvation in a room with 300 kids dying and not a thing anyone could do about it. I’ve also seen incredible moments of joy — like when people had fresh water for the first time in their lives.

I’ve been in war and I’ve been in anarchy. Nothing has diminished my faith in humanity. Through all of these experiences, it’s been strengthened.

I’m not at the altar of great leaders, as much as I admire some people like Nelson Mandela. I’m at the altar of the common person. I’ve their seen strengths, their daily heroism. We’re all heroes. We all go through this life conscious of our mortality. Some of us working through conditions that are horrific, but the human capacity to move forward, and to survive, and to grow is unlimited.

In my observation, things have gotten better. And if you look over history, it’s more obvious. That observation keeps me totally positive about the value of what we’re doing, and the potential for real impact, collectively. And occasionally, there are dramatic breakthroughs, but most of it is solid, slow, patient work. An inch at a time.

Joanne Penhale is a freelance writer, community organizer, innkeeper, artist, gardener and fledgling beekeeper. She lives in Montreal with her husband and two cats. She has a BA in Communication from Simon Fraser University and completed a post-graduate journalism program at Langara College in Vancouver, B.C.