The Braille Monitor                                                                                                     February 2005

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The Sixth Quadrennial Meeting of the World
Blind Union: An Incubator for Democracy

by Barbara Pierce

What happens when representatives from organizations of and for the blind from more than a hundred countries gather to elect officers, report on organizational activities, and set policy? If it weren't for the miracle of simultaneous translation, the answer would be not very much. At the sixth quadrennium of the World Blind Union (WBU) held in Cape Town, South Africa, from December 6 to 10, 2004, delegates and observers had headsets that provided English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Arabic translation of the entire proceedings. But before we report on what those delegates said and did, a bit of history will put this meeting in context.

In 1984 two organizations, the International Federation of the Blind (for the creation of which Dr. tenBroek was largely responsible) and the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (composed exclusively of organizations working with or on behalf of blind people), joined to form the WBU. In many countries no distinction could be made between groups of and for the blind, and resources for conducting international meetings were so sparse that the world community found it difficult and an unjustifiable expense to try to sustain two international bodies in the field. So in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1984, members of the two groups came together to adopt a constitution and elect the first officers of the new World Blind Union. In the intervening years the WBU has met every four years: Madrid in 1988, Cairo in 1992, Toronto in 1996, Melbourne in 2000, and Cape Town in 2004.

Beginning in 1996, a forum for blind women has taken place immediately before the general assembly. This has resulted in increasing numbers of women being named as delegates to the WBU meeting. This year ninety-two of the total two hundred fifty-two WBU delegates were women, and it seems clear that women are taking an increasingly active role in both national and international leadership in blindness organizations.

The first day of the conference was conducted with great expedition. Speakers used only their allotted time or less, with the result that the afternoon session actually ended early. Proxy voting is permitted in the WBU. After all, the financial burden of getting delegates to quadrennial meetings is staggeringly high for organizations in developing nations, so allowing one delegate to control the votes of his or her colleagues who do not have the funds to attend ensures that the national member can exert its full weight in the political process.

President Maurer chaired the WBU Credentials Committee, which met late Monday to attempt to determine which proxy votes would be recognized. According to the WBU constitution, national members have between two and ten delegates, depending on population--no country has fewer than two, and all countries with 250 million or more citizens have ten. The names of all delegates are supposed to be in the hands of the WBU president by October 1. If a delegate cannot attend the quadrennium, he or she may give his or her proxy to another delegate from that country who will be attending. The Credentials Committee's troubles began with the three official lists of delegates it received from the WBU president and treasurer, who receives member dues. These lists did not agree. In addition, in several cases delegates had given their proxies to delegates from other countries. For example, Afghanistan, not surprisingly, had no delegates in attendance, so they had given their proxies to delegates from other countries.

By Tuesday morning the stage was set for drama, if not chaos. Dr. Maurer read the list of delegates whom the Credentials Committee had recognized as holding valid proxies. Then the fun began. People rose to protest that they had sent their lists of delegates long before the deadline. Others explained that they had not been sure that funding for travel to Cape Town would be available until late November. Having come so far or having carried proxies in good faith, no one wanted to be disenfranchised. Eventually the chair ruled that the constitution absolutely prohibited delegates from one country giving their proxies to citizens of other countries, so such proxies could not be exercised. But the question of who was a delegate and which proxies they could exercise from their countries was open to passionate debate.

Fortunately conference organizers had secured the services of Judge Ismail Hussein as returning officer. Judge Hussein has devoted his career to ensuring that elections are conducted fairly. He undertook to talk with every national delegation and make a list of the delegates whom he determined to be eligible to serve. The group as a whole agreed that, regardless of which list, if any, a delegate's name appeared on, if he or she was present and deemed by the judge to be eligible to serve, that person would be recognized. This process took almost the entire remainder of the morning.

Luckily this survey could and did continue while Sir John Wall of the United Kingdom, who chaired this session, attempted to conduct other business. This involved consideration of a number of constitutional amendments. The WBU has been trying to amend its constitution for years. In Melbourne the Constitution Committee had worked very hard to prepare amendments to the document, only to have the assembly vote to send the amendments back for further consideration. Many people were convinced that if the organization did not deal definitively with the effort to revise the constitution during this meeting, it would have demonstrated that it was incapable of acting at all.

One of the most hotly contested amendments under consideration stipulated that the president could stand for election to a second four-year term. A second amendment concerning WBU officers would have eliminated the position of immediate past president as a WBU table officer. The third amendment in this first set would have changed the time when newly passed amendments would take effect from immediately following the close of the quadrennium to immediately following passage of the amendment. The executive committee had decided that this third amendment should be acted upon first since, only if the assembly voted to advance the time for amendments to take effect could Kicki Nordstrom of Sweden, the WBU president completing her term of office, have her name placed in nomination for a second term, assuming that the amendment permitting a president to run for a second term were to pass. Of course, only if the presidential-term amendment were to pass would changing the time when amendments take effect be important.

It was something of a chicken-and-egg problem, and every time the chair explained again that it really did not matter in which order the amendments were considered since all of them would be addressed before any voting took place, someone would seek the floor to argue that it made more sense to consider the amendments in an order different from the one chosen by the officers. If the discussion had not been so time-consuming and frustrating, the passion and pomposity of the arguments claiming that democracy demanded that things be done differently would have been funny.

Amendments require a two-thirds affirmative vote to pass in the WBU. Because of the passion surrounding these votes, Mr. Wall was not willing to conduct voice votes, so voting was postponed until the returning officer had identified all delegates and provided them with a method of casting a secret ballot--the original secret-ballot method having bitten the dust when the decision was made to permit the inclusion of more delegates than any of the official lists showed. Mr. Wall allowed discussion of all three amendments while the group waited to vote. But this process clearly confused some people, who kept jumping back to previous issues in the name of democracy. Mr. Wall did an admirable job of explaining what was and was not going on, allowing people to have their say, and trying to move the process forward despite the chaos.

Eventually the chair persuaded the assembly to postpone votes on these three amendments until secret votes could be taken. He suggested that the Constitution Committee could begin presenting other amendments for discussion. After a few noncontroversial ones passed on a voice vote, Mr. Wall actually persuaded the assembly to approve in one vote all the constitutional amendments that had never caused a single objection throughout the committee's work. The assembly had just become embroiled in debate on a more controversial amendment when the joyful word arrived that the list of delegates was now complete and every delegate had been given one envelope for each vote he or she controlled on all three of the original amendments. Delegates could submit a token of the correct shape to cast their votes for and against each amendment. The results of this amazing series of votes were announced after lunch. All three amendments failed: Amendments continue to take effect at the close of the quadrennium, the president of the WBU cannot run for a second term, and the past president is still a table officer and a member of the Executive Committee.

The North America/Caribbean Region introduced several amendments for consideration. The intention was to broaden participation and increase democracy in the workings of the organization. These passed following enthusiastic debate.

Susan Spungin and Mary Ellen Jernigan chat at the reception hosted by the North American/Caribbean Region for WBU delegates and observers.
Susan Spungin and Mary Ellen Jernigan chat at the reception hosted by the North America/Caribbean Region for WBU delegates and observers.

The question of whether or not Kicki Nordstrom could run for a second term was not the only hotly debated electoral issue before the assembly. The North America/Caribbean Region put forward a candidate for treasurer, Dr. Susan Spungin, vice president for education and international programs of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Opposing her was Geoff Gibbs from New Zealand, not associated at present with any blindness organization. Dr. Gibbs had already served two terms as treasurer and was seeking a third. Dr. Spungin was supported by the AFB, which meant that she could count on financial support getting to WBU meetings around the world, professional expertise in preparing financial reports and obtaining audits, and clerical assistance in circulating reports in appropriate formats with sufficient lead time for people to study them. In addition to these advantages, the WBU would easily save $100,000 over the next four years if the treasurer was no longer receiving financial support from the WBU. These funds could be devoted to programming during the next quadrennium. Still Dr. Gibbs had a good deal of support, and going into the Cape Town meeting, the North America/Caribbean delegation wondered if it would be possible to persuade enough delegates to support Dr. Spungin to elect an American woman as an officer.

Convention Center employees pose together, wearing their Spungin for treasurer caps.
Convention Center employees pose together, wearing their Spungin for treasurer caps.

The NFB brought along 500 white baseball caps with lavender text reading "Susan Spungin for treasurer." In addition "SJS" in raised Braille dots appeared below the other text. These caps proved to be popular with delegates, observers, volunteers, and Cape Town Convention Center staff. The AFB printed fans that said "Dr. Susan J. Spungin for WBU treasurer." Even those who weren't fans to begin with were happy to have the fans when things got a bit warm during the sessions. Our region hosted a reception Tuesday evening after the session, and Fred Schroeder and the Pierces made sure that every guest who wanted a cap had one.

Newly elected WBU officers Susan Spungin and William Rowland.
Newly elected WBU officers Susan Spungin and William Rowland

Parts of both the Thursday and Friday sessions were devoted to the officer elections. As soon as the results of the votes on the electoral amendments were announced on Tuesday, William Rowland, retiring president of the South African Council for the Blind and first vice president of the WBU, was declared president-elect of the organization by acclamation.

Wednesday afternoon three candidates for first vice president, three candidates for secretary general, and two candidates for treasurer made brief presentations to the delegates. Votes were cast in a voting booth Thursday morning, and the results were announced before lunch that day. The same process was repeated Thursday afternoon and Friday morning for second vice president. Here are the results of the various electoral contests: first vice president, Maryanne Diamond (Australia); second vice president, Gloria Peniza (Venezuela); secretary general, Enrique Perez (Spain); and treasurer, Susan Spungin (United States). With Past President Kicki Nordstrom continuing to serve as a table officer, five of the six geographic regions comprising the WBU are represented. By any standard the WBU has achieved excellent geographic balance. Moreover, four women and five blind people among the six table officers demonstrate that the WBU leadership models gender equity and disability representation for the organization as a whole and for the world in general.

South African President Thabo Mbeki addresses the World Blind Union.
South African President Thabo Mbeki addresses the World Blind Union.

The most exciting part of the general assembly came at 11:00 a.m. Friday morning, December 10, when South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki entered the ballroom to applause and spontaneous praise singing by a group of South African observers. The minister responsible for disability services was with him. President Mbeki addressed the rapt audience, following brief remarks and introductions by WBU President Nordstrom, president Elect Rowland, and African Union of the Blind President Paul Tezanou. Mr. Tezanou asked President Mbeki directly for his help in persuading other African heads of state to make helping blind people to become truly self‑sufficient a priority across the continent. The president said that he would and offered to speak personally to the three African heads of state whose countries have not yet joined the fifty African countries in the African Union of the Blind.

WBU officials presented President Mbeki with the bag, jacket, and cap worn byWBU volunteers.   He immediately put on the hat and wore it as he greeted delegates on his way out.
WBU officials presented President Mbeki with the bag, jacket, and cap worn by WBU volunteers. He immediately put on the hat and wore it as he greeted delegates on his way out of the hall.

Setting aside the stumbling efforts of delegates from many cultures, levels of sophistication, and styles of political discourse, all trying to make difficult procedural decisions while speaking many languages, the WBU sixth quadrennium demonstrated growing organizational maturity. It heard reports from a number of committees, work groups, and international members about projects completed and work in progress. It considered thirty‑five resolutions and acted on many. And of course it elected a strong and committed group of officers to lead it during the challenging four years ahead.

No report of this quadrennium would be complete without a word about our South African hosts. They were tireless in their hospitality and their efforts to solve any problem that arose. They entertained the women's forum at a barbecue on the grounds of the Medical Research Facility at Stellenbosch University. On Wednesday they organized a celebration of African food and music and an address by the mayor of Cape Town. Finally they organized a festive farewell reception and dinner on the last evening of the conference. Under demanding circumstances they provided print, large print, and contracted and uncontracted Braille materials in English when required and almost at a moment's notice.

Were there problems with the program and the arrangements? Of course. This is still a young organization, and it was meeting in a country only ten years old itself. But here are two anecdotal measures of the importance of this meeting to many of the people who attended. One delegate was turned back at the Cape Town airport because his passport had too many stamps in it‑‑this man travels internationally as part of his job. He flew back to Johannesburg, where he could reach his country's embassy and obtain a new passport in order to attend the meeting. Another delegate traveled three days on a truck to reach an airport from which she could fly to Cape Town.

I am writing this report in an intercontinental jet flying me back to the United States in quiet comfort. These two delegates and many others have demonstrated how much democracy is worth. The WBU has not yet come of age, but it is clearly expanding and growing up. It is fitting that its sixth gathering was in South Africa, where an entire nation still struggles in the birth pangs of nation building.

During the opening ceremonies of the women's forum and again before President Mbeki spoke, a choir of blind women from Cape Town sang the new South African national anthem. Like so much else in South Africa today, it was created through negotiated compromise. The first half is a hymn in Choisa asking God's blessing on Africa, but its text is now sung in three indigenous languages. Then the mood and melody shift to the old national anthem, which was originally sung in Afrikaans, but now the final two lines are in English. Probably every South African citizen prefers one half of the song over the other, but using five languages and two melodies, it asks for Divine protection for one young country that dares to do a new thing. May South Africa be an inspiration to the World Blind Union during the next four years and into the decades ahead.

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