ANALYSIS: NGOs find a voice in Johannesburg

The Johannesburg Summit has seen an orgy of lobbying and PR campaigns by organisations from around the world. Reporting from South Africa, Kim Gurney focuses on NGO efforts

JOHANNESBURG: There is one crucial media legacy from the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which ended in South Africa this week. The voices of NGOs were heard loud and clear.

This not only represented a transformation over the past decade from protesters to active participants in debate; it also meant NGOs were instrumental in affecting the news coverage of the Summit.

In part, this was due to a first for the UN. In 1992, at the inaugural Earth Summit in Rio, NGOs were not officially included in the conference. In Johannesburg, they were admitted as part of the 'major groups' into discussions and debates and given forums to air their views.

Although most of the sessions finalising the text of the Summit were held behind closed doors, so-called 'plenary sessions' of daily debate on different topics made the process more inclusive with views from all parties.

But the success of NGO campaigns at this Summit was also due to their own lobbying and PR work. They made sure their opinions were heard - despite major logistical problems. In particular, NGOs found the venue set aside for the parallel Civil Society Forum too far away and isolated from the central hub of activity.

The Summit had five themes: water, energy, health, agriculture and bio-diversity. South Africa, the host government, was keen to make poverty a core focus. The emphasis was on taking decisive action, according to the Summit organiser.

But in the end, these themes were so broad that an enormous range of NGOs found the Summit could be a global platform for their message. As a result, journalists were bombarded with hundreds of daily press releases from more than 8,000 groups.

Every conceivable issue was pushed onto the agenda - from HIV/Aids to the protection of migratory birds; from corporate ethics to the preservation of mountain goats and from family farms to indigenous peoples' rights.

The campaign techniques they used were just as diverse. NGOs held a combination of exhibitions, workshops, discussions, press briefings and leafletting efforts to get their messages across. Some groups also formed ad hoc coalitions and produced joint statements throughout the Summit.

There were some unprecedented link-ups. For instance, Greenpeace International and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development - usually at loggerheads - joined forces to issue a public call on governments to act on climate change concerns.

A few standard PR stunts were organised, too - primarily as photo opportunities.

Oxfam dumped a truck load of sugar at a core venue in protest at EU farming subsidies. But in the media coverage, such events failed to capture widespread attention, despite being mentioned in some news publications.

Seventeen campaigning groups applied for permission to stage marches or official demonstrations. On the first Saturday (24 August), a number of NGOs teamed up to march from a nearby township to the convention centre.

But the three main organisers of the event had quite conflicting agendas and the turn-out was much smaller than anticipated. The press coverage reflected that.

NGOs also used old-fashioned informal networking while waiting in queues or attending debates. And the more vocal among them did not miss the opportunity to air their views at the plenary discussions.

Using all these campaign techniques, NGOs essentially had three main audiences to reach: the local public, the delegates and the media. And it was definitely their relations with the media that proved the most successful.

This was partly to do with the structure of the Summit. The public was effectively barred as security was very tight. As a result, they relied on the media to get the message across and journalists became an important tool.

Interaction with official and ministerial delegations was also initially restricted. To their frustration, NGO delegates found when they arrived for the first day's discussion they were turned away - despite being formally accredited.

The problem was a new second security tier, belatedly added by the organisers, whereby only 1,000 delegates were allowed to the day's discussions and these tickets were issued on a first-come, first-served basis.

Greenpeace International spokesperson Marcelo Furtado says: 'Our message is that if the governments here want civil society to be represented, we have to be allowed to know what they are talking about or else we can't access information and do our jobs.'

NGOs promptly put together a letter of complaint to the organisers about both the venue and the secondary passes. It said: 'It is a clear message that the UN is either not interested in NGO concerns or has a particular interest in the non-voicing of these concerns.'

This lobbying elicited a quick response. After a couple of days the secondary passes were dropped. And in any case, the organisers need not have worried: the three-hour plenary sessions usually had vacant seats.

More importantly, the higher level closed sessions and the wide variety of events and discussions meant it was difficult for journalists to get a sense of the bigger picture and the main sticking points in negotiations.

In this context, NGOs proved helpful in piecing that together. In general, journalists found NGOs more willing to be forthright about the failures and the problems encountered than government representatives or Summit officials, who were uniformly keen to put a positive spin on events.

NGOs were often seen by the media as credible sources of information - and the NGOs in turn found attentive listeners. As a result, NGOs often became the 'deep throats,' alerting the media to conflict points, highlighting problem areas and in some cases publicising leaked reports on sensitive topics.

For all these reasons, NGOs had a strong impact on the news agenda and this resulted in a welter of press coverage for both their spokespeople and their causes.

For example, Greenpeace International was one of the first to highlight the problems with US policy, which was carried through by others such as Friends of the Earth. This later became one of the defining news stories of the Summit.

Talk about big business 'hijacking' the Summit was also mooted by NGOs in the weeks preceding the event and, as a result, was extensively covered by international media.

The competition between NGOs for this influence was intense. But it helped forge a new kind of relationship between media and civil society that bodes well for future NGO campaigns.

SUMMIT PR FUNCTION

The PR operation of the world's largest conference was never going to be easy. Jowsco - the Johannesburg World Summit Company - was assigned the task by the South African government.

Its website www.johannesburgsummit.org proved a valuable pre-conference tool with background material and useful information.

Jowsco spokesperson Thandi Davids says the first PR task was to keep South African residents updated on how the Summit would affect them. This involved various communication campaigns - particularly on radio, which has long been the most effective medium to reach high numbers of South Africans.

This was complemented by press ads and a billboard campaign to educate people on what 'sustainable development' meant. Translating these concepts into African languages proved tricky because no equivalent words existed, Davids says.

Jowsco used diverse PR tactics to educate people on what the Summit would mean. One technique employed involved incorporating the Summit into the plot of a popular South African soap opera called Egoli (City of Gold).

Finally, Jowsco had to deal with more than 3,000 journalists, nearly 9,000 government delegates and 8,000 NGO representatives. Davids says: 'The feedback has been good. The media are happy with the facilities and the turnaround time on questions.'

The facilities themselves were impressive. The media centre - or 'bull pen' - included rows of computers, telephones and other communication facilities. Radio and TV journalists were well catered for and larger media organisations had pre-booked their own private booths.

Journalists were provided with a constant deluge of information. Large screens relayed the plenary sessions with translations available, countless groups held regular press briefings, and, ironically, acres of forests were felled for the hundreds of different press releases and summaries distributed each day.

Summit spokeswoman Susan Markham held helpful daily briefings on the progress of negotiations, key events and the schedule for the day.

These were complemented by an official website that posted breaking news, an e-mail service that provided updates and a radio station dedicated to Summit news.

But the logistics of the actual event left much to be desired. On day one, both journalists and delegates struggled to findWorld the tent where security cards were issued.

Finding the venues for debates proved just as tricky and a decent challenge for any investigative hack. The wise journalist always added an extra 30 minutes to any expected journey time.

There were plenty of Jowsco officials on hand but because the Summit was so dispersed and vast in scope, they did not always have correct information.

Security was understandably tight and even stricter in the second week when 109 heads of state arrived. But that meant most logical routes to venues were complicated with detours, barred access and rigid control.

Despite this, the Summit ran relatively smoothly for such an ambitious endeavour in a country new to such events. Delegates found the South Africans welcoming and the experience largely positive.

As Davids says: 'So far, it's been good. It has also been a lesson for our city in terms of hosting such large events.'

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