THE BLOG
10/08/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Civil Society Engagment Crucial at IMF-World Bank Meeting

In our media moment, even the smallest demonstration, charitable effort or advocacy campaign can go global in an instant. Yet, the sum of modern civil society is more than a collection of breaking news headlines, viral videos or hashtags trending on Twitter.

Civil society is the space where we act for the common good. It's the collective efforts of thousands of nonprofit organizations (NGOs) working across America every day. While September's climate march in Manhattan might have attracted more headlines, the work of civil society groups here in Washington at next week's International Monetary Fund-World Bank Group meeting will be just as significant.

An equitable world is founded on a vibrant and diverse civil society. Civil society organizations are the most common conduits for the voice of citizens. These groups come in many shapes and sizes -- from large established NGOs to loosely organized online social movements. They embody many voices -- religious leaders, labor organizers and regional grassroots groups alike. Occupy Peace and Love in Hong Kong is driven by teenage activists.

When it works, NGOs and other community-based organizations encourage greater transparency, reduce corruption and provide an accountability mechanism. But for NGOs to be effective change agents when engaging leaders at IMF, World Bank and other multilateral policy institutions they must themselves be open and flexible to operating with a range of actors. This includes working with partners across political, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic lines.

One of the most difficult challenges for civil society is to include those with whom they disagree. A local faith or tribal group might have very conservative views on women's rights, but gender roles are critical to inclusive growth and development. A promoter of rights-based development must still work with established power structures and very diverse cultural orientations.

Here at InterAction -- an alliance of almost 200 U.S. NGOs -- we believe that when American civil society groups can work hand-in-hand with counterparts abroad it strengthens the entire international community. These partnerships help open up new political space to develop innovative, sustainable policy tools to combat global poverty and other pressing international challenges.

NGO partnerships also provide a channel for institutions like the IMF and World Bank to engage marginalized groups into inclusive and sustainable plans of action. The public schedule for next week is replete with panel discussions of inclusive and equitable growth across sectors and regions, no doubt reflecting World Bank President Jim Kim's stated goals. More challenging is how the World Bank, the IMF and others will both become more inclusive and embrace their leadership as advocates for sustained and serious civil society engagement.

It is one thing to have symbolic seats at the table for dozens of marginalized groups, but it is another thing to promote participatory approaches where big institutions and complex plans are in fact changed in response to their needs and views. It is here where inclusion matters the most, and where NGOs can play a critical role by helping channel this diversity of thought constructively into discussion and action.

In April 2000, thousands of activists descended on Washington for a week of demonstrations. The ensuing global media coverage cast a pall on the IMF-World Bank's annual spring meeting. While the masses of protestors and media might be absent next week, international leaders gathered in Washington should not forget the public's underlying frustration with the lack of transparency and inclusiveness in IMF and Bank activities that fueled these activists.

Ultimately, civil society is about the right of people to have a say in their own lives and communities, where all have voice in acting for the common good. IMF and World Bank leaders should seize the opportunity to engage with NGO leaders in a robust dialogue about how we can advance sustainable policies that empower local communities and embolden global civil society.

Today an NGO advocacy video might be able to go viral and reach millions in minutes. But in the right instances, the impact of old-fashioned, person-to-person conversation and a simple handshake can still change the world.

Lindsay Coates is executive vice president of InterAction -- the largest U.S. alliance of nongovernmental organizations working on global poverty issues. Coates also serves on boards of the Episcopal Relief and Development as well as the World Bank Global Partnership for Social Accountability.