I’m sitting in the plenery room of the Kongress Haus in Zurich attending the final sessions of the World Council of the YWCA. The last three days have been a combination of official business sessions (presenting, debating and voting on resolutions, constitutional amendments and electing office bearers etc) and breakout and visioning sessions giving delegates opportunities to share and discuss programs, ideas and visions for the future of the YWCA movement.
I will talk about some of the aspects of the breakout and visioning sessions at another time, but now I want to consider the process of voting at YWCA World Council. Over the last two days a few aspects of voting at the council has concerned me. Most importantly the high number of abstentions that are taken from voting.
The basic process is that member associations and world board submit resolutions and constitutional amendments a period before council which are then amended and voted on during council business. This can be a long and tedious process when the conversation is about specific wording but what strikes me is the number of points of clarification which the president has had to call on and how often those points are repeats of each other. World President Susan Brennan has done a valiant effort not to get openly frustrated with the floor but it does indicate a clear message.
the floor ain’t understanding
Of course there are a variety of reasons why this might be, from voting delegates not having done their pre-reading to misunderstandings to general failure to concentrate but the elephant in the room really is language. Both foreign languages and technical vs plain language. All proceedings were conducted in English with some responses in French and the occasional Spanish but other than that it was all English all the time. Simultaneous translation was supplied for French and Spanish and due to high demand and the availability of translators, later in Korean as well but that was it and even for those participants who speak perfectly good conversational and everyday English, the proceedings at Council can be complex and challenging and I think the high number of voting abstentions signals a greater need for either pre-council training or better translation services.
Of course it’s easy to brush this all under the carpet and say it’s just part of the process and if the member associations didn’t send delegates with good English it’s their own fault. Except that at Council, constitutional amendments need a two thirds majority to pass, and that’s a two thirds majority of the entire movement, not just those associations present at Council. Which, for Zurich 2011 mean that 73/80 something associations needed to vote in favour of an amendment… if everyone turned up or had their voting card, which wasn’t guaranteed. The result being that any abstentions effectively served as deal breakers for the entire process and with abstentions frequently out-numbering no votes and regularly breaching 20, the entire process was fraught and somewhat ludicrous. Plus, in the end this really is just a question of power. Who has the power and how do they use it? If the people with the power don’t share it, by not having acceptable translation services or by any other means, what does that mean for process and participation? What does it mean for leadership and opportunities across borders? Does it mean that power stays with the traditional owners and isn’t share equitably with those who need it most?
In the end though, what can be done? In my humble opinion this essentially boils down to a participation issue. Delegates cannot be expected to fully participate in the process if they do not have an excellent understanding of what’s going on and what they’re voting for and with an abstention essentially serving as a no vote it is in the best interests of good process for the World YWCA and host-associations to do their utmost to ensure acurate understanding, which in this instance probably boils down to comprehensive simultaneous translation.
So Thailand 2015 what do I advise? Get theeselves some awesome translators from all manner of language backgrounds. Not just English, Spanish and French but some of the broad spectrum African languages, Korean and Mandarin (assuming that a larger delegation will be present in Thailand from China). If you need to, ask delegations to volunteer members to help out, just get it done so that everyone feels like they’re participating, not just attending.