15 years of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum
Review of 15 years of Asia European Peoples' Forum reveals its crucial role as the only permanent network and forum linking Asian and European movements and organisations, but also calls for reform to strengthen its work in the future.
There has been a clear affirmation by the vast majority of the people who have contributed to the review that AEPF is both a relevant network and that it has unfulfilled potential. In the context of the continuing social and economic injustices that deprive millions of women and men across Asia of their rights and the growing social and economic exclusion of millions in Europe and the role of the ASEM member states in perpetuating this situation through their financial, economic and social policies and practice, there is a great need to both strengthen and give focus to the campaigns and lobbying of the movements and networks involved in the AEPF.
The world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude towards something that is moving” Henri Cartier-Bresson
The legitimacy, strength and uniqueness of the AEPF is its explicit commitment to the linking of social movements and organisations across Asia and Europe. The current global crises and relative shifting of economic power to China and India make it more imperative than ever that Asian and European scholars and activists share their common experiences and problems as they are converging like never before. This has the potential to be a powerful voice in and contribution to strategic campaigning and advocacy and an important way of actually strengthening social movements.
The AEPF People’s Forum events have provided a valued and strategic opportunity for social movements and organisations and networks working for justice and equality. There were no recommendations that they should cease. They should continue.
There was a strong consensus on the objectives of the AEPF. It is a venue to bring together social movements and civil society organisations and parliamentarians from Asia and Europe to exchange ideas, visions and strategies for a more just and equal world. It brings people together to work to take forward the AEPF Charter and its principles. There is a commitment to consolidate and strengthen links that come out of the People’s Forums and undertake activities between People’s Forums.
It is the view of most ‘outsiders’ that the AEPF does provide a unique and legitimate space for Asia-Europe interaction. The AEPF has been a catalyst for more contacts and links with Asia based networks and organisations and has increased collaboration and joint activities. The AEPF has enabled the sharing between social movements, networks and organisations across Asia and Europe which was not happening before the AEPF. People have been able to see that they are not alone in their struggles and the type of challenges that they are facing. This in itself has strengthened people’s work. “We have shown that there is an organised civil society that can analyse issues and present alternatives.”
The AEPF remains the only permanent network and forum linking Asian and European movements and organizations. This is a very important and historically irreplaceable role, especially in terms of the social capital that has been generated. It has never developed a single ‘secretariat’ but has kept two Focal Points, one in Asia and one in Europe.
The AEPF has consistently been able to prepare, organise and hold the People’s Forums albeit in very different contexts. It has not been preoccupied by agreeing and disseminating statements on a range of issues in between the People’s Forums. This has not led to a divisive, distracting of energies.
Activists felt that as a solidarity network, AEPF still faces some limitations primarily because of limited budget and technical support in between the People’s Forum events.
It has kept itself flexible structurally, organisationally and thematically which is both a significant strength and limitation. The bureaucratic ‘light touch’ was seen by some ‘outsiders’ as positive and making participation in People’s Forums relatively easy.
A number of respondents said that the AEPF has not been concrete with a ‘realistic’ agenda for change but has drawn up a ‘counter-culture shopping list’. To contribute to change this is not enough. Linked to this there has not really been an honest assessment to see what influence that AEPF has had. How has it made a difference?
The formation of AEPF advocacy circles (i.e. trade, transformative social protection, water, etc.) and more regular campaigning/advocacy work is an effective way of engaging especially with the regional/interregional bodies.
Straightforwardly, if its main objective is the linking of social movements and civil society organisations from Asia and Europe to exchange ideas, visions and strategies for a more just and equal world, then it has been very successful, at least through the People’s Forums. The AEPF way of linking social movements is good and effective. It has become a place, a space, to meet, build cooperation, trust and legitimacy. This is very important and should not be underestimated.
The main organisations working on Asia and EU/Asia relations in Europe are NGOs. There is limited interest on Asia in Europe amongst NGOs and even less amongst European social movements. It is perceived that Asia based organisations involved in the AEPF are predominantly social movements whereas in Europe they are mainly NGOs not social movements. Some respondents felt that the IOC lacks renewal in Europe and it has not been able to regularly and systematically connect with European social movements that ‘look towards Asia’ as well as European social movements organising around the AEPF priority areas but in Europe. As a result, the IOC has been ‘imbalanced’ with the Europe based IOC representatives largely being NGOs with an interest specifically in Asia. There is now an opportunity to address this.
In Asia, AEPF’s contribution to a progressive activism that has generated critical analysis and debates among social movements, civil society organizations, government functionaries and the general public on national issues of neo-liberalism and its related crises as well as conflict and peace was appreciated by the respondents. It is difficult and not appropriate to do a ‘cost benefit analysis’ of a social movement, but it is clear from this ‘Review at 15’ that the AEPF has consistently generated tangibles since 1996, so making a difference to thousands of women and men’s lives.
Strengthening the AEPF
The current structure of the AEPF is based on the IOC, People’s Forums, NOCs and Working Groups/Circles. Many respondents expressed the need to review the balance between them and increase the role and activity of Working Groups/Circles. This should be informed by an agreed strategy that enables the AEPF to be clear on its objectives, priorities and role. It was suggested that this strategy should be revisited and reviewed every two years, as soon after a People’s Forum as possible.
- There is a very strong consensus on the need to strengthen the working groups/circles and their interaction with the IOC and the need to focus on some key themes and advocacies in the context of the AEPF’s agreed, written strategic priorities.
- There was agreement on the need to discuss and agree a plan on how to develop the AEPF/IOC itself including the engagement with other social movements as well as strengthening ways of working.
- In the context of a likely transition of Europe based IOC members, there is a pressing need ensure that movements are central to the IOC especially the Europe based members.
- The AEPF could consider rotating membership.
- It could be beneficial to examine if having a maximum term for an individual representative of an organisation of six years is desirable.
- IOC Sub groups: Establish an IOC People’s Forum sub-group to work with an NOC on the day-to-day decisions related to the preparation for each People’s Forum. Three other groups could be Peoples Vision– popularizing, translating and promoting; Funding, fundraising and Budget; Relationship with and lobbying of ASEM meetings
- The declarations are part of the legitimacy and identity of the AEPF and an important means to share the priorities and discussions of the Forum to social movements, networks and organisations who did not participate in the forum directly. It is recommended that, where appropriate, the AEPF declarations include specific institutions that are targets for specific campaigns/demands. The IOC should develop and agree a timetable and process for taking forward the AEPF Forum declaration at the end of or as soon as possible after each Forum.
- Encourage the IOC to be more proactive in contacting and disseminating information about AEPF
- It is recommended that the existing Ways of Working are the basis for discussion and are revised and agreed. The IOC discussions should work to ensure each IOC members ‘ownership’ and agreement of the revised and agreed Ways of Working. These are the IOC's Ways of Working and, with the expectation of new members joining, it is important that they are adhered to and respected.