Governance Session 3: Location of the Secretariat

1.    Moderators: Joseph Schechla, of the Housing and Land Right Network of the Habitat International Coalition, Egypt and Shanthi Dairiam, ESCR-Net Board Member and IWRAW-AP, Malaysia

Joseph gave the introduction for this session, which was the last working session of the meeting. He stressed there were lots of issues to cover regarding the location of the Secretariat. The purpose of the session was to explore the proposal that was outlined in Governance Memo 3. Joseph gave an overview of the session and then noted that there would be time for discussion and input. He noted that they are looking for the General Assembly to provide criteria to the Board when determining whether or not to consider a move and allow the Board to explore possible new locations.

Then Joseph gave the background on the current location of the Secretariat, which at the time was a matter of convenience because the initial funder, the Ford Foundation, is located in there. There may be other reasons for the Secretariat to be somewhere else now. So there are 8 issues, and it is time for members now to provide the Board with the criteria to explore this issue. Joseph then gave the floor to Shanthi Dairiam, who outlined some possible considerations in making this decision. Below is the outline of the pros and cons of the Secretariat being located in New York. They are also enumerated in the Governance Memo 3.

Pros of the New York Location:

  1. Efficient to run a Network that is reliant on dependable technology and infrastructure.
  2. Proximity to United Nations, although many human rights issues are addressed in Geneva, it still has advantages, contacting key government officials, some Committee reporting, etc.  
  3. Many international organizations are based in NYC and many networking possibilities. 
  4. Predictability and stability of working environment for an NGO. 
  5. Hub for people to meet. It is a location where members and other partners can drop by and meet together.
  6. Availability of qualified staff. 

Cons of the New York Location:

  1. Political question: Whether an NGO that works on ESCR should be located in a developed country, or should it be where people are more actively engaged in the struggle.
  2. High operating costs.
  3. Difficulties in obtaining work permits in the US.
  4. Still not many grassroots ESCR groups in the US. 
  5. More funds may be available if located in the Global South.  

Shanthi explained that the objective of this session is that the General Assembly give the Board the mandate to begin exploring the possibility of moving the location of the ESCR-Net Secretariat. This mandate is only to initiate a process of investigation, while making no assumptions and ensuring that Network members are kept informed of the process and any rationale for a decision made by the Board. Joseph Schechla then further clarified that this mandate makes no assumptions, but it allows the Board to explore all possibilities, and make a wise decision. We are asking for your advise now on how this wise decision should be made. The themes for discussion are below. 

1) What criteria should the Board consider in making any decision on a geographical location?

  • Unidentified Speaker: I think it is important to examine if the environment is conducive for the functioning of a Network, such as governmental policies and easy access to communications.
  • Joji Carino, Tebtabba Foundation, Philippines: We need to very mindful of what the value-added of this Network to the work of the members is and therefore we must consider access to the bodies we are seeking to influence as well as access to media and communications. 

Joseph then clarified that he would like participants to comment on whether the location should be in the Global South, the Global North, a rural area, or urban area. Is there any value that the Secretariat be in the Global South?

  • Unidentified Speaker: There is a value in being located in the Global South because there are problems in getting funding in the Global North, and we really need to broaden the resource base of the Net. In terms of exact location? It needs to be near to an international airport, with easy to access to the places we want the Network to be able to influence and be involved in such as Geneva, New York, etc. 
  • Marino Alvarado Betancourt, PROVEA, Venezuela: Many Latin American organizations that have met consider that the Secretariat should be in the South and some of us consider that is should be in Africa. And if it is Africa that an Arab country be chosen taking into account all that has been said. 
  • Joji Carino, Tebtebba Foundation, Philippines: It should be both North and South. I have an experienced of having moved an international network from the North to the South and then being marginalized after having moved because the Networks and bodies we sought to influence were no longer reachable because of physical distance. I would encourage center in the Global south but maintaining a place in the North.
  • Unidentified Speaker: The Secretariat should be rooted in the context of the struggle and it will be more informed by being located in Africa. 
  • Areli Sandoval, Equipo Pueblo, México: It is fine that we adopt criteria, but what has to guide our decision is what really facilitates the work of the Secretariat. If we do not consider that what we are trying to do is to strengthen the Secretariat's capacity, other type of considerations might distract us. We need to be careful in what is that we want to strengthen.

Joseph notes that they are assuming everyone knows what the Secretariat does. This is the assumption for this session.

  • Areli Sandoval, Equipo Pueblo, México: I am only making a call not to overlook the function of the Secretariat.
  • Graciela Dede, Uruguay: Even though being in the South may have advantages, there are also real logistical problems with visas and flights. For example, flights within Africa are very expensive. We need to be assess how the resources raised by the Secretariat can be used in the most efficient way. It is not necessary to have the body in the South, but the soul.
  • Darci Frigo, Terra de Direitos, Brasil: I would like us to consider the possibility of creating a structure in which the Secretariat would have an office in the South, and would rotate by continent, but would also have a small representation in the North, especially places to facilitate the advocacy and other work related to the UN and other international bodies. This will help in the fundraising efforts as well.
  • Aldo Caliari, Center of Concern, USA: In support of Darci's point, access to political organs is important, and this can be done without having the whole Secretariat in the North. This could be accomplished with just an antenna office, with much fewer financial consequences. On a rotating Secretariat, it would be quite important here that we establish very long periods between rotations, as there are large costs implicated in moving an organization.
  • Darci Frigo responded: Just to complement the discussion, we might suggest also that the UN bodies, who are largely concentrated in the North, rethink their policies to move their location to the South.

Joseph then requested the Assembly to reflect on the economic considerations, such as access to resources, of moving the Secretariat.

  • Ann Blyberg, IHRIP, USA: Labor costs should be taken into account, as we need a bigger staff. In many places labor costs are cheaper than they are in NY, as are the overhead costs.

Joseph then asked about ESCR-Net membership in the country as a criteria for the Board.

  • Unidentified Speaker: It matters that there is another ESCR-Net member in the country so that Secretariat is not alone, and can better outreach.
  • Unidentified Speaker: If the Network is interested in having a rotating Secretariat, it could be placed in a member's office every time it changes.

Joseph Schechla then moved to issues of communication, infrastructure, internet access, technical support, etc. for Board consideration, then opened the floor.

  • Karam Saber, Land Center for Human Rights, Egypt: Does the Network submit an activity report to the membership?  If so, he has not been able to find one on the website.
  • Suad Elías's response: It's the Secretariat's role to keep the membership informed of its activities, however, there is no formal report on the website, the actions are divided among the various sections. 

Shanthi Dairiam moved onto the next issue, asking members to comment on criteria in relation to the status and working environment of NGOs to function in a certain country.

Joseph Schechla proposed that the Board considers the ability to obtain work permits, especially if the director is from a foreign country. 

Shanthi Dairiam suggests that we can accept that criteria, but also we may consider what kinds of rules a country should have regarding the operation of NGOs. For example, if there is a requirement to create an umbrella organization to get permits to receive funds, and the political environment for NGOs, monitoring of their activity, etc. No one responded to Shanthi, and so we can assume that the Board will have to consider ease of NGO operations and predictability, political freedom and the ease of NGO incorporation. The next issue relates to political stability of a country and personal security, which was also deemed an important criteria.

  • Claire Mahon, ESC Rights Project, Switzerland: Tax exemptions and rules on charitable work are also important. The Board should consider whether taxes are required or exempted if under-taking political activity in that country.
  • Ann Blyberg, IHRIP, USA: The Board should consider the ease with which the Network can receive foreign funding.

Joseph Schechla moved to now the personnel considerations and criteria for the Board to consider. In other words, is there anything that would affect the personnel in relation to the Secretariat? For example, some networks find a director and the Secretariat then follows the Director. Another issue to consider possibly is whether a possibly new location would bring willingly the personnel in the current location, which will have budget implications of shipping, moving, etc. Is there anything on this issue of future or current personell that should be considered which would affect a new possible location?

  • Graciela Dede, Uruguay: According to my personal experience and with other networks I know, it is fundamental to think of the accumulation of knowledge that the current Secretariat personnel has over a long period. The value of the institutional knowledge held in the current personnel is critical. Many times a change in location, also changes the staff, and the organization loses a lot of the content, history, organizational memory, the ways of working together which are characteristic of the Network. So, I would alert members that, if the decision is made to move to the South, we should be sure to generate conditions in which the Board and Secretariat staff are not completely new, as this would mean almost starting from scratch the history and strategies of the Network.
  •  Ann Blyberg, IHRIP, USA: This situation might be a bit unavoidable, but in this case the Board needs to very careful to create short-term contracts for existing staff to train new personnel.
  • Elin Wrzoncki, FIDH, France: I fully support Graciela's point that there needs to be a continuity within Secretariat as they have a lot of accumulated knowledge and are key to the Network developing. I'm wondering what is the view of the Secretariat staff in relation to this possibility? Are their viewpoints taken into consideration in this decision? Do they want to go along?  If not, I think it's important to hear what they have to say. 

Joseph Schechla then explained that the principle is established that the Secretariat would have to be involved in this process of investigation, because they will be the implementers of it, not the Board.

  • Suad Elías Atala, ESCR-Net Secretariat: There is the commitment of the Secretariat to ensure a smooth and careful transition that doesn't damage the functioning of the Network. Of course, in any transition there will be disturbances, but there is a commitment to ensure that problems that this decision would lead to more benefits than costs on the Network as a whole.

Shanthi Dairiam opened to the floor to see whether there are any other issues to consider. Joseph Schechla then had two suggestions. One is that the Secretariat should not be located in a country that is a gross violator of ESCR, through this might be difficult. The second criteria I would suggest might be that the Secretariat not be located in a country that is occupying another.

  • Saeed Baloch, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, Pakistan: We have the experience of rotating an office with certain sorts of mechanisms, in which the offices moved every two or three years with the election of the General Secretary, to whose country the offices moved. I don't know how this could be done fairly, but maybe it can correspond to where a Board member lives, or the economic considerations.

Suad Elías Atala made a clarification that the proposal that we are making is to start a process to explore a change of location, but not necessarily to rotate it. The Governance document establishes that there is a permanent Secretariat. Membership can initiate the process for changing it, but not necessarily establishing a rotating Secretariat every two years.  

  • Joji Carino, Tebtebba Foundation, Philippines: I am glad this issue was clarified. It is difficult to deal with substantive issues if we are always rotating the Secretariat. However, the spirit underlying this request is an attempt to bring the Secretariat closer to the membership, so I wish we could consider decentralizing the functions of the Secretariat. It could locate some function in some regions where members are strong on one issue, while keeping the coordination in place.  It would be sad to me if devolved into a North-South discussion.  I really want us to consider how we can have a center and have some functions located elsewhere.  

Joseph Schechla then suggested that if there were no other pressing issues, we would move on to the actual decision. To move forward in the exploration process, it requires approval from the General Assembly. I can take the proposal as it is found in the memo and read it as it is, as a decision:

"The General Assembly of ESCR-Net mandates the Board and the Secretariat to initiate a process for exploring alternative locations for the ESCR-Net Secretariat, and to make any necessary and timely decisions to ensure the healthy functioning of the Secretariat, including its relocation. The Board shall work with the Secretariat to advance this process and shall keep membership informed of key decisions."

An amendment was raised.

  • Unidentified Speaker: We might put a timeframe here for resolution.
  • Suad Elías Atala, ESCR-Net Secretariat: One of the main considerations in making this decision is the cost of operating in New York, so we are interested that this process happens as soon as possible. I would be hesitant to commit to a specific final date, but it could happen as early as first semester of next year. 

After discussion of different alternatives, it was agreed to include "with all deliberate speed" as an amendment to the mandate with the reasoning as to not tie the hands of the Secretariat and allow the time necessary to move forward as appropriate.    

Joseph Schechla read the new proposal:

"The General Assembly of ESCR-Net mandates the Board and the Secretariat to initiate a process for exploring alternative locations for the ESCR-Net Secretariat, and to make any necessary and timely decisions to ensure the healthy functioning of the Secretariat, including its relocation. The Board shall work with the Secretariat to advance this process with all deliberate speed and shall keep membership informed of key decisions."

There were no objections to the mandate, and the motion passed.

Brenda Campbell, IWRAW-AP, UK, on behalf of the NGO Coalition for the OP-ICESCR, then raised a motion relating to the Campaign for the Optional Protocol.  The NGO Coalition wants the membership to give the Board a mandate in relation to the OP Campaign.  Although this may not be formally necessary, it would be useful to both Secretariat and the NGO Coalition to know if there is broad support for this campaign within the Network and to keep their members up to date.  There are a number of options that can discussed in relation to ESCR-Net taking leadership of the campaign for ratification of the OP, but we are not proposing that this campaign take over the work of the Network but maybe we just create a working group with the NGO Coalition retaining its form and its steering committee and serving as an advisory body for the campaign.  We would like to know if there is room for discussion between the Board and the NGO Coalition for the Secretariat to take up the leadership on the ratification campaign? Therefore we ask the membership to give the Board the mandate to discuss this possibility. 

Joseph Schechla asked for a 2nd to this motion.  A 2nd was given and the motion passed. 

Working Group Description: