PORTUGAL – October 2009
As this was my first UIAA General Assembly it was a learning experience in every respect. The programme I was sent listed the first event on Tuesday 6 October so I made sure I was in Porto and booked into my accommodation on Monday 5 October.
As it turned out, most of the week was devoted to events on mountaineering that were optional or else were meetings involving the UIAA Executive Board, The Management Committee and Commission Presidents only. The ordinary delegates actually only needed to arrive on Friday evening 9 October, for an official welcome, and then to attend an all day meeting of the General Assembly on Saturday 10th , which ended with a Gala Dinner. However, the extra time spent proved valuable for networking reasons and I was invited to attend Management Committee Sessions as an observer by the UIAA President, Mike Mortimer.
I expected to be a very small fish in a very big pond, but it soon became clear that previous MCSA Presidents had made their presence felt and that our contributions as the sole representative at this stage from Africa are judged to be very valuable.
I gained the impression that the Portuguese Alpine Club who were our hosts had gone to exceptional lengths to make delegates feel welcome and had laid on more than is normal. However, from comments and queries I received, it seems that the UIAA General Assembly hosted in Cape Town in 1995 had done something very similar. The hosts probably had support from the Portuguese tourist authorities as they were able to negotiate special hotel deals in Porto at sometimes less than 50% of the advertised rates. This was important as Porto is the most expensive tourist venue in Portugal. They also had as their major sponsors a national brewery as well as the local port wine industry. Entertainment was lavish and both beer and wine flowed freely.
The turn out for preliminary events was disappointing for the hosts who were keen to show off their recently declared Peneda-Geres National Park (2004) and had arranged them to take place at the Peneda Sanctuary, a stunning pilgrim venue in the heart of the National Park. But the venue was a three hour coach drive from Porto, the weather was poor and by Alpine standards the mountains unimpressive at only 1400 m. Many delegates preferred to stay in Porto.
The main event on Tuesday 6 October was a presentation by the legendary Alpine and Himalayan climber, Kurt Diemberger and a seminar session on the National Park with a number of high powered Portuguese contributors. These were reasonably well attended as the UIAA President and all of the main role players were present, but when they returned to Porto at the end of the day for their Executive, Management and Commissions meetings, most ordinary delegates opted to do the same. (The tourist fleshpots of Porto seemed more attractive than guided hikes on offer in the park in pouring rain over the next two days.)
The small party that opted to stay was actually outnumbered by the guides that had been laid on but the hikes proved interesting. Accommodation was in a comfortable lodge attached to the Peneda Sanctuary designed for pilgrims with meals taken at the nearby pilgrim’s hotel. We had two very good hikes across the park and were royally treated by our hosts.
The Executive Board met alone in Porto on Wednesday 7 October and then with Commission Presidents on Thursday 8 October. Work for me started on Friday 9 October when I attended as a nominee for election and as observer, a Management Committee meeting with Commission Presidents and then a meeting of the Management Committee itself until late. Much of the business was repeated the next day at the General Assembly but with less opportunity for debate. The Management Committee had 16 members present.
The General Assembly which met on Saturday, is a large body on which 28 Federations were represented often by more than one delegate. Some of the delegations had brought interpreters with them as all UIAA business is conducted in English which creates considerable problems for many. Each of the federations has one vote on general matters, so MCSA ranks on the par with even huge Alpine Clubs like the Italian club with over 300 000 members. Voting on financial matters by contrast is loaded in favour of the bigger contributors. A total of 140 finance votes were allocated at the 2009 assembly with the MCSA having 3.
MAIN BUSINESS CONCLUDED & RESOLUTIONS PASSED:
Much of the meeting was taken up with routine reports from the President, the Executive Director, the Treasurer and the various Commissions but there were other significant matters discussed.
The UIAA Tyrol Declaration: Some seven years ago a process was set in motion to formalise a code of conduct for all aspects of mountaineering. This Mountain code has been debated a length in past Assemblies and under pressure from the President was finally officially accepted at the 2009 Assembly. (However its English will still need polishing so the New Zealand and South African delegates have been asked to help the Board with this task, presumably as lateral thinking first language speakers.)
Restructuring: The main focus in 2009 was on a restructuring process in the UIAA brought about by the withdrawal of the Sports Climbing Federations and the Alpine Skiers. In spite of a great deal of compromise over the years to accommodate these powerful groups and the acceptance of the UIAA as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they had both decided to hive off, taking with them significant IOC funding. Fortunately for the UIAA, the Ice Climbers have stayed with us and some IOC funding can still be tapped, but this is probably only because they are not yet strong enough to stand alone. To compound this problem two of the biggest alpine federations, the Austrian and the German Alpine Clubs, had also decided to withdraw from the UIAA although the German club still sent an observer to both the Management Committee meetings and to the General Assembly.
The purpose of the restructuring is to make the UIAA more efficient in view of a decline in its revenue. This need has become even more necessary with the world wide credit crunch. A disturbing number of Third World federations, especially those from S. America, have not been able to pay their dues in 2009 and some are in arrears for a number of years. This has put the UIAA in a difficult position as it keenly wishes to remain a World Body but is loosing some of its clout. The continued support of the MCSA to represent Africa and of the New Zealand Alpine Club to represent Oceania is therefore judged important.
New Members: Joining the UIAA is clearly not a straightforward process as there are numerous splinter bodies wanting to be represented who are often engaged in conflict with existing member federations from the same country. At the 2009 General Assembly a new member was admitted from the Dominican Republic subject to a visit to check that they do actually have climbers while an application from Turkey was turned down flat after vigorous protest from the major Turkish Federation. A Mongolian application was accepted with reservations as was one from Iran pending no protests being received. It was agreed to go easy for now on federations not able to meet their financial commitments.
Management Committee Election:
After a very formal process of nomination and election at the Assembly I was voted onto the Management Committee in the place of Roland to represent Africa. As the only delegate from Africa this was pretty much a foregone conclusion, but nevertheless reflects well on the MCSA.
UIAA Court: A UIAA Court of Arbitration was formally established in order to assist member federations with dispute resolution before they seek recourse in law. A three member panel of judges was elected with Bettina Geissler of the Swiss Alpine Club its first President.
Because of the weakness of the Rand against First World currencies and the tendency to hold meetings where most convenient for the majority of federations, attendance at the UIAA General Assembly by an MCSA delegate will always be an expensive exercise. My visit to Portugal will have cost around R 20 000. Although this translates to only R 5 per member, it is a significant bite out of the Cencom budget.
Is the expenditure worth it ? Personally I think so because of the networking value of attending and the opportunities to negotiate reciprocity agreements and the like. The status of our club in these international circles remains high.
The next meeting that I am expected to attend is a Management Committee meeting in Greece in May now that I have been elected to this committee, but justifying the cost will be difficult. The next General Assembly will be hosted by the Italian Alpine Club and will be in the Alps in October 2010.