by Marc Maurer
The seventh general assembly of the World Blind Union (WBU) met from August 15 through August 23, 2008, in Geneva, Switzerland, at the International Conference Center. Meetings of the World Blind Union are customarily uneasy gatherings of delegates from throughout the world. The organization’s history contributes to the uneasiness.
In 1949 the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (WCWB) was created, consisting of agencies for the blind established to provide blind people with services. I do not know how many countries were represented in the WCWB, but the United States, Canada, and a number of European nations had delegates who attended.
In 1964 the International Federation of the Blind was formed. It took its direction from the National Federation of the Blind of the United States. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind, was the first president of the International Federation of the Blind (IFB). Its purpose was to create organizations of blind people throughout the world that could come together in international meetings to cooperate in creating greater opportunity for the blind, to exchange information, and to serve as a collective force for change for blind people.
These two organizations merged in 1984 to create the World Blind Union. Consumer organizations of blind people and service agencies for blind people came together in a single organization. In those nations in which aggressive, independent organizations of blind people existed, conflict with service delivery agencies for the blind had often occurred. However, in many countries no independent organizations of the blind had ever been established. A number of service agencies for blind people proclaimed that they spoke on behalf of the blind. In such countries, when organizations of the blind came into being, conflict was the inevitable result.
Furthermore, the underlying governing structure of the newly created organization was supposedly democratic. However, delegates from some nations had very little experience with democracy, and delegates from other nations had tremendous suspicion of the electorate. Although the policy of the organization declared that all meetings would be open to all members, the practice of the World Blind Union throughout its history has been to hold some of its deliberations in secret and to justify this behavior with the argument that the electorate is not competent to manage all aspects of an organization. Disruption and chaos might be the result if complete openness and democracy were to be adopted as the standard, it was argued. Some people felt that some things are too delicate to be handled by anybody except the officers.
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan served as the delegate from the National Federation of the Blind to the World Blind Union from 1984 until almost the end of 1997. He was president of the North America/Caribbean region from 1987 until near the end of 1997. His work created the policy within the World Blind Union that all meetings would be open. In the renegotiation of the WBU’s constitution, which occurred in 2004, this policy of openness came under attack. Although the policy remains, sometimes the openness does not. The officers have held closed meetings from time to time as a matter of course. Especially the delegates from Europe have felt that this was the only prudent course to take for any substantial organization. All of this reflection suggests why meetings of the World Blind Union have ordinarily been characterized by strife, argument, confrontation, uneasiness, and sometimes chaos.
I first attended a World Blind Union general assembly in Madrid, Spain, in 1988. The expectations of the delegates from various parts of the world were substantially different from one another. Many of the European delegates believed that they should be in charge. Many of the delegates from developing countries believed that delegates from industrialized nations had plenty of money and should give it to those from developing nations. A number of delegates hoped to build a worldwide community of cooperating countries to create greater opportunity and to bring pressure to bear for positive change in the legal systems throughout the world. A few delegates attended because somebody else was paying the bills and they could get a vacation. Some delegates arrived figuring that it was an opportunity to sell their wares from back home and that they would use the general assembly as a sales department. Considering the enormously different expectations, it is not the least bit surprising that one of the major results of the meeting was frustration.
In Geneva in the summer of 2008, chaos was noticeably absent. William Rowland had been elected to the WBU presidency at the sixth general assembly, held in South Africa in 2004. Following his election William Rowland convened the officers of the World Blind Union and a number of leaders of the blind from throughout the world to devise a strategic plan. The WBU constitution requires an election for president every four years and prohibits the current president from being reelected. Consequently, the leadership of the World Blind Union changes every four years. The six officers elected are president, first vice president, second vice president, secretary general, treasurer, and immediate past president.
Under the European model of nonprofit service organizations, the secretary general is frequently the principal administrative officer of an organization. Under the model familiar to many in the United States, the president is the principal administrative officer of an organization. In the World Blind Union the secretary general can be reelected. For as long as I can remember, the Spanish National Organization of the Blind has run a candidate to serve in the office of secretary general, and that candidate has been elected. In 1988 the Spanish delegate said that the Spanish were running a candidate for secretary general, that a substantial sum of money would be available to the World Blind Union if that candidate won, and that no money would be available if that candidate lost. Some of the maneuvering in the election process was less blatantly connected with financial promises of support, but a great deal of what occurred appeared to be collecting votes in exchange for promises of funding. The Spanish organization did put substantial amounts of funding into the World Blind Union by paying the expenses of the secretary general and by supporting the activities conducted through his office. This method of contribution has been a characteristic of the WBU.
William Rowland caused a strategic plan to be crafted for the World Blind Union. One of its major planks was that an administrative office for the World Blind Union be created. This office has been established at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind headquarters building in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The person serving as director of this office is Penny Hartin. She has worked for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and she is familiar with many of the programs for the blind established throughout the world.
A restrictive pattern of contributions from member organizations of the World Blind Union has hampered the development of the organization. This pattern is that organizations have been willing to provide financial support only if they may specify exactly how those contributions would be spent. The example of the Spanish National Organization of the Blind is a case in point. This organization did not give money to the World Blind Union to be spent at the discretion of the officers and members. It provided financial support for the office held by the secretary general, a member of the Spanish National Organization and that organization’s candidate. Consequently, the World Blind Union has had very little financial capacity to carry out its own programs and develop its own policies.
The NFB has long argued that member organizations wishing to support the WBU should make unearmarked donations to carry forward the general work of the union. Some years ago we offered a substantial challenge grant of unearmarked funds to the World Blind Union treasury on the condition that a number of other member organizations agree to do the same. Unfortunately, at that time others were unwilling to participate in this type of funding, and the challenge went unmet. During his administration William Rowland joined with us in advocating strongly for this funding mechanism, which finally became a reality at the meeting of the World Blind Union officers held at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore in April of 2006. It is hard to overstate the significance of this paradigm shift in the thinking and action of member organizations of the World Blind Union.
The seventh general assembly met in plenary session from August 18 through August 22, 2008. Delegates from 132 countries participated. A substantial spirit of cooperation prevailed during the course of the meetings. Delegates appeared to be focused upon creating long-term solutions for urgent needs felt by the blind throughout the world.
One of the primary efforts of the World Blind Union during the past several years has been the adoption by the United Nations of an international convention to protect the rights of disabled people. This convention became effective in May of 2008. Although it protects the rights of disabled people only in countries that have adopted it, the convention also serves as a recommendation to all countries in the world to consider and recognize the importance of civil rights protections for disabled people. Substantial parts of the World Blind Union general assembly program considered the provisions of this international convention. Plans were established to promote efforts to have this international convention adopted in nations which had not previously passed it.
Maryanne Diamond, a leader of the blind from Australia, was elected to the presidency for the quadrennium beginning in 2008. Others elected were Mr. Arnt Holte of Norway serving as first vice president, Ms. Frances Candiru of Uganda serving as second vice president, Mr. Enrique Pérez of Spain serving as secretary general, Mr. A.K. Mittal of India serving as treasurer, and Mr. William Rowland of South Africa serving as immediate past president.
William Rowland is a soft-spoken, gentle human being. He has served as a primary leader of the blind of South Africa and of blind people on the African continent for decades. He was a prominent member and leader of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. He has written extensively about the need to recognize the rights of blind and otherwise disabled people. He is the proponent of the slogan, “Nothing about us without us.” His work has helped to insure the rights of blind and otherwise disabled people to full participation in the activities of South Africa.
Dr. Rowland recognizes that in many cases self-appointed individuals have declared that they represent the blind or the otherwise disabled without having been elected to do this, and he understands that democracy in the disabled community is essential. Although he is soft-spoken and gentle, he is also a true revolutionary, with all that this implies. He has been in the midst of demanding, creating, and sustaining change in the political thought in his own country, in countries throughout Africa, and in a number of places around the world. His administration of the World Blind Union will probably be remembered most for creating stability in the governance of the organization and for establishing a mechanism for long-term, sustained growth. He spent much of his time during the preceding quadrennium at the United Nations arguing for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and he insisted that blindness-specific language be incorporated in the convention. The specialized needs of blind people must be recognized as a fundamental element of civil rights, and William Rowland made this clear at the United Nations.One other characteristic of the World Blind Union during this general assembly meeting was worthy of note. In the past heavy emphasis has been placed upon service-delivery programs for the blind in many parts of the world. Although the necessity and value of these programs continued as a theme for this general assembly, a broader emphasis was the purpose of the World Blind Union to serve as a stimulating force to create in every nation organizations of the blind capable of speaking on behalf of blind people. The coordination between organizations of the blind and programs for the blind at this general assembly has become less chaotic and dramatically more harmonious. This is also part of the legacy of William Rowland and those who work with him.