Acceptance Speech by Liberato C. Bautista, President of CoNGO

Thank you, delegates of the 26th CoNGO General Assembly, for this signal honor to be, once again, at your service as President of CoNGO. What an honor and privilege to be associated with this distinguished conferential body of dedicated nongovernmental organizations gathered for consultation, collaboration, and cooperation under the umbrella of what we call CoNGO—the Conference of Nongovernmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations.

Seventy years of existence for an organization like CoNGO is no mean feat. This veritable gathering of nongovernmental organizations is almost synonymous with the life of a compelling proposition seventy-three years ago, the United Nations. In 2002, during that decade of international consultations and conferences, we sought consultative status with the UN through its Economic and Social Council. In so doing, we formalized our affirmation of what its Charter required the UN to do: to find  “suitable arrangements for consultation” with nongovernmental organizations.

It is worth noting that our organization is as old as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The seventy years of this preeminent universal instrument are the same seventy years of our organization. This instrument, more popularly referred to as UDHR, inscribes the understanding of the foundational character of human dignity—the building blocks of human rights—which is that human dignity is born with every human being. This instrument has given the necessary protections to human dignity through fundamental human rights that are now enumerated in this most globally accessed international multilateral agreement. Our solemn obligation is to affirm human dignity and our commitment to promoting human rights.

The drafting of the UDHR drew from the expertise of nongovernmental and civil society representatives. Seventy years have tested the strength of this instrument. And for seventy years, nongovernmental organizations and members of civil society have dedicated, if not given their lives, to defend this sacred premise that we owe no one our human rights save that they arise from the dignity that is born with each one for simply being human.

Today, CoNGO is the beneficiary of this consultative arrangement with the UN. It has afforded us all the protections the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affords. And these are all civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. The UDHR and the succeeding instruments that are now part of the human rights regime that they have inspired to develop have, in considerable measure, propelled our imagination and fruition of just and democratic functioning of society and its institutions, which, if provisioned well, and sustainably, they can genuinely work in securing for us—indeed for humanity and the planet—the conditions that make for peace and security, prosperity and sustainable development, human dignity and human rights, and the rule of law that bolsters democratic participation. These pillars of the United Nations undergird our consultative relationship with this indispensable institution called the United Nations.

This consultative relationship is multiplied in its power and impact when harnessed with the most excellent intentions and commitment. That multiplier is the “power of Co,” It is the power generated and produced from consultation, collaboration, and cooperation. By reproducing consultation, collaboration, and cooperation in many forms, we also multiply their impact not just for the institution called the UN but, more importantly, the communities and associations whose aims are to better and secure the lives and livelihoods of “We, the peoples.”

The idea of the power of co comes from the mathematical power of pi. But alas, not only am I not a mathematician, but the little that I know of mathematics is very little. I am a failure in this field. But I was to appropriate part of what the mathematical power of pi means. In that case, if we assume the entire membership of the conference as the mathematical circle, we can then measure the power of co by the distance around the circle’s perimeter (conference) and the distance across the broadest part of the circle (membership). That may need to be clarified mathematically. In its crudest way to explain the power of co, it means that the strength of our conference—the power of co—comes from the intensity of consultation across CoNGO (consultation)  and the involvement, through collaboration and cooperation, of the broadest expanse of CoNGO membership. That’s the power.

The power of Co is within us. We are CoNGO. All members of CoNGO are more vital than CoNGOs together. It is in the DNA of CoNGO to confer with each other; this is why we are called a Conference. We are a conferential body where conferring with each other is the lifeblood of what we do and how we implement our organizational mission and objectives. As we confer with each other,  we also confer upon each other trust and confidence, integrity and accountability, and indeed, even relevance.

The power of Co brings to our consultative relationship with the UN and the multilateral enterprise a tremendous opportunity to prove and offer our rich and varied competencies. One venue to offer such competencies is in the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the realization of the 169 targets under the 17 sustainable development goals. And CoNGO is dedicated to the critical support and implementation of Agenda 2030, even pushing them where their limitations are pegged.

Make no mistake; the power of Co will also be challenged. Not the least because togetherness bolstered by consultation, collaboration, and cooperation is formidable, but because togetherness erects a strong front that must and will challenge the shrinking of democratic space, the suppressing of democratic discourse, and even those that foment incivility in civic life and civil society.

The rise of illiberal democracy, intolerant practices in society, and the continued prosecution of pernicious and unjust wars, coupled with unrelenting climate change and the persistence of formidable epidemics, and the rise of pandemics in our world today are conditions that will test our strength and the power of Co. But these conditions will coax and lead us to demonstrate together the ability of Co that comes from the multitude of competencies in our membership and that make for our conferential body an organization of note and importance. But we must seize the opportunity, rise to the occasion, and keep our work strong.

Indeed, we must ensure the UN is well-provisioned to meet these global challenges. We must mobilize the power of Co for the adequate funding of the UN and its related agencies. This work will be challenging because these global conditions will sap energy and resources from the UN member states and make them think the international agenda will be secondary to their national interests. Sometimes these interests are disguised as sovereign assertions over increasing cosmopolitanism.

The power of Co positions us to argue that the national and the international are simultaneous locations, much as the local and the global. It is to say that we must address together conditions that go beyond the backyard of nation-states, beyond constructed and imagined borders.

This requires glocal imagination!

The power of Co positions us to challenge the hurdles put up by functionaries to make our physical and political access to political processes and decision-making venues more difficult—be they in the local government units, national governments, or international institutions like the UN. These conditions also have the potential to derail the best-intentioned internationally agreed development goals and to imperil social justice agendas of the peoples of the world, even of the planet, not the least about the overarching agendas and crosscutting principles of gender equality and inclusion and the primordial safeguarding of the dignity and rights of children.

But we also know that when we rise to the occasion and meet these tests and challenges head on it is this test that we will prove to the nation-states, indeed to the member states of the United Nations, that the power of Co is the power of “We, the peoples.” The UN cannot deny and renege on a charter obligation.

The power of Co stands at the threshold of unprecedented challenges and opportunities. They are the same challenges that will test anyone’s leadership, and indeed, they will try the Presidency of this organization.

Given another opportunity to serve as your president, let us harness as much of the power of Co so that together we will rise to the occasion and make visible our contribution to bettering humanity and the planet.

Defining the present, shaping the future

CoNGO must be ready to offer its energy and facility in making available venues, locations, and platforms for the consultative process to be meaningful and relevant in the campaigns and struggles of peoples and nations who want their issues and concerns to get a hearing in the international community. We can bring CoNGO to a level where it can help civil society re-imagine international relations so that NGOs can be valued and taken seriously as a pillar of the global system. While hitherto nation-states dominate the international system, we are also aware of the vast potential, some of which are already being harnessed through formations like the World Social Forum, of civil society in defining the present and shaping the future.

The revitalization of civil society must happen far and beyond the governance centers of governmental and intergovernmental bodies. This is the genius of the much-needed outreach to the regions of the world that hitherto need to be represented in the conferencing we do as an international organization.

We look forward to another 70 years of CoNGO life and work today. This must mean for us the infusion of new access points in the geographical reach of our work and the enfolding in our agendas of far more varied concerns than are now imagined in the confines of the three centers of our operation.

We cannot rest on the perception that the world is global because our fingertips can travel the world. Instead, the world is global because we intentionally clasp hands and join arms together to feel and address the aches and pains, and the joys and jubilations, of peoples and nations raging against injustice and unpeace and waging campaigns and struggles for durable peace and sustainable livelihoods.

In the end, ensuring access to the UN is part of the larger project of making the UN a responsive, accountable, and relevant entity in the lives of peoples and nations so that access is not in vain for those who have to toil daily for mere existence. I can only surmise that thoughts of food occupy the imaginations of those who struggle every day and where to get food.

I must confess that much of international law I know remains wrought in the imagination of the relations and negotiation of ties that the so-called Westphalian truce in 1648 has spawned through the creation of sovereign nation-states. In the end, the United Nations is a function of sovereign nation-states gathering to craft decisions of global import need not and cannot be the end of our imagination of what this extraordinary institution can be.

The permutations of the “transformation of Westphalia,” including but especially multilateralism, must inevitably be part of a meaningful transformation project that, in many ways, truly honors “we the peoples.” We can make it the beginning of a transformation. That transformation must necessarily, even constantly, include the engagement of the broadest representation of “we the peoples” in their varied formations—NGOs, civil society organizations, or social movements. CoNGO must engender transformative discourse to locate, nay relocate, a narrative of empowerment of peoples at the center of governance at all levels. It may take a counter-narrative to engender such transformative discourse and praxis in international and grassroots practice.

The direction to which I want to bring CoNGO is a humble contribution to the construal of new venues and structures of empowerment—ones that are not centered on the presidency but on the constituency. CoNGO is a membership organization, and the members, gathered as committees and working groups, we can be a meaningful and relevant force in not only transforming the discourse of just and peaceable governance but practicing it even more so.

Whatever we do, we must no longer be content with what the Westphalian project has endowed us—the impositions of the global nature of our interaction press upon the necessity of both location and positionality. We must realize that, by commission or omission, what we do as non-governmental organizations, if they are to be relevant, are an exercise in the politics of transformation.

We can no longer be an organizational form that proceeds with politics as usual in these unusual times. We must be about politics that organizes and mobilizes around “the creation of the fundamentally new, which is also fundamentally better.”

Our normative claims about durable peace, sustainable development, human rights, and dignity must evince the transformed societies we imagine and envision the future. It is a future that matches our normative claims with that of the interpretive significance of the victims of this world—those who do not see, feel, and experience in their lives the presence and the living out of our claims. For example, our normative claims about human rights do not mean anything to someone detained for one’s political beliefs until this person is released from prison.

Human rights learning is about making human rights not just a normative claim but a possible and visible way of life. We must rise to the challenge of making human rights a way of life and living! The imagination of human rights learning as truly embodying and engendering human rights in our being, knowing and doing, might yet transform human rights in ways that, in the words of Michelle Foucault, the French philosopher and thinker, “bear the lightning of possible storms.” Here is the full quote:

“I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listens to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes—all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.”

Our organizational values

The canvas on which we will inscribe the next 70 years of CoNGO is not entirely blank, and it is open to new ideas and forms of being, knowing, and doing. We must contribute to continuing to define the present to be counted in shaping the future. But we must do so as a credible partner and worthy interlocutor between the vastness of civil society and the governmental and intergovernmental system.

As your President, much like the first time you gave me this mantle of leadership, I will lead with the organizational values of accountability, transparency, and responsibility.

Accountability for the ideas we prosper and the platforms and resources we provide for these ideas to grow.

Transparency in how we engage the broader world of civil society and global governance—with the clout we exercise, with the power of the structures with which we exercise our responsibilities, and transparency in how we use the resources we generate and the resources we are privileged to manage.

And then responsibility that owes its salience not in how we become good at self-referential exercises but in how best we permeate civil society by diffusing ourselves in solidarity with others in need of our accompaniment in their hopes, struggles, and aspirations.

As we move on to another set of organizational values, as I will lay out next, we will continue instituting mechanisms and measures for the first set to permeate our corporate ethos.

What’s in a name: restating the power of Co

As I take leadership for the second time, I want to emphasize that you can hold my administration and the board of directors by putting together a set of organizational values.

In the field of non-governmental work, we cannot rest on our laurels, self-referentially thinking of what makes us unique and essential no matter how needed this exercise must be.

To not rest on our laurels means that because we know we have the potential and resources to make a difference in defining the present and shaping the future, we must get down to work not soon but now and not alone, still, in consultation with the UN, collaboration within the CoNGO fold, in cooperation with like-minded NGOs whose values are equally about those that define us.

If we know that the issues and concerns beset us are vast and daunting to address, we too must realize that any single organization or institution cannot do and go it alone. CoNGO (in all caps) must look at once humble itself to know we are but one among many in work for social transformation in the multilateral enterprise’s vast landscape.

We are building on solid blocks of accomplishments by my predecessor president and the board of directors who worked with him. I now challenge us to relaunch ourselves beyond simply writing the acronym of our name with one small O. Every so often as we can, we must pronounce our name as Co-NGO merely to emphasize the power of Co. This is not to entirely abandon what we’ve always pronounced as CoNGO but more as a way to catch the attention of the curious watcher and the serious collaborator, again by demonstrating the power of Co.

When we say we are co-NGOs together, I believe we are saying that our strength as an umbrella organization of many members worldwide lies in our being a collaborative body of many diverse NGOs. The power of our collaboration is secondarily about how many we are and primarily because our number has a beautiful diversity. When this number and this diversity define what together is, I think we can make a difference.

We must increase our membership through a systematic membership drive even as we must seek to diversify that membership through, for example, regional outreach such as the one that culminates at this meeting when we launch the Asia Regional Committee.

To be Co-NGOs together is to be consultative, and this means taking the consultative status seriously, as I have laid out above. It also means demonstrating the consultative process that defines how we conduct business. This will entail a reappraisal of the CoNGO Substantive Committees so that their raison d’etre—a gathering of NGOs engaging substantive issues and themes that matter in their interface with the UN—is indeed what they are in mission and method of work.

We are Co-NGOs together, harnessing the power of Co when we recognize that the CoNGO substantive committees are the veins, vessels, and platforms through which the consultative process is not only organized collaboratively but a widely shared formation and function by CoNGO members and like-minded persons and organizations.

We are Co-NGOs together, harnessing the power of Co when we recognize the lifeblood that flows through the veins and vessels that are the substantive committees. This lifeblood, our members, defines our competences and competencies and marks our relevance.

The CoNGO board members compose the limbs that make our conferential body move to work. The members serve as the nexus that connects the vessels that will pump the necessary energy and blood for the proper functioning of our organization.

So much more to be said. I barely scratched what being CoNGO means. More must be spoken of this and what becoming CoNGO and belonging to CoNGO means. And the power of Co will even be more powerful when you join our new board and me in saying what needs to be done to make our organization more robust, relevant, effective, and responsive. To be, to belong, and to become CoNGO are matters I would like to invite conversation on in the years of my term.

The work in this chapter of our life together has just begun. And I am grateful for your support, now and in the future.

CoNGO General Assembly

Geneva, Switzerland

3 March 2018