R. Rose
June 2, 2006
Civil society and constitiutional reform-III

Consistant, cohesive, national approach lacking

The involvement of civil society in the tumultuous events of early 2000 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, including their peaceful resolution via the Grand Beach Accord and the elections of March 2001 did not come out of the blue. Our country has had a vibrant civil society presence growing in importance with each decade. Whether in the fields of community development, youth and women’s work, organizational work in the productive sector, the contribution of civil society groupings cannot be denied.{{more}}

What has been lacking is a consistent, cohesive national approach by these organizations, leaving them often either vulnerable to political influence in sections of their leadership or conversely causing them to shy away from participation on issues of national political importance. Occasionally however we have seen what is sometimes broadly called the “mass movement”; unite in goodwill to stamp its influence on highly controversial and significant issues.

Thus it was for instance, in the never-to-be-forgotten National Committee in Defense of Democracy (1981), the so-called “Kill-the Bills” movement when a wide cross spectrum of civil society organizations, forged national unity and resistance to defeat attempts to oppose anti-democratic legislation. Incidentally, how many of us are aware that the current May-June period marks the 25th anniversary of that glorious moment in our people’s history?

Almost two decades after the NCOD, another mass movement was to arise to play a critical role in the political history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, albeit in different circumstances. The Organization in Defence of Democracy 2000, while arising out of a specific socio-political context had the same fundamental characteristics where the participation of civil society was concerned. This time though, civil society involvement came amidst protracted and intense political rivalry between the two political parties with the ULP siding with the mass movement, a factor which was to colour the views of both ULP and NDP in respect of civil society up to today.

On the one hand there is some evidence that there are people in the ULP who have not been able to distinguish between a principled stand by civil society on matters of public interest and blind support for the ULP. To them the ODD was and civil society today should be, nothing less than unquestioned support by such organizations for the ULP and its administration. The significant, independent and autonomous role that civil society can, should and indeed does play is largely overlooked and ignored, even resented sometimes by those who take such a narrow view.

On the other hand, there are the still embittered survivors of the then NDP administration, today in the opposition trenches, but still blindfolded by a majority view of civil society participation in what they insist was an illegal “Roadblock revolution”. Like some of their counterparts on the other side of the political fence, they refused to countenance any significant and independent role for civil society.

Luckily for SVG as a whole, there are indicators that the major tendencies in both camps go beyond this, and that the leadership on both sides are indeed committed to some meaningful participation of civil society in civic and political life in our society, not just in “do-gooders” on the fringes of society. That is of course manifested in Parliamentary agreement on the wide scope of constitutional reform and on the significant role of civil society in pioneering that reform. For more than two-thirds of the membership of the Parliament-appointed Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) is drawn from civil society, should it not play a significant role in a constitutionally reformed SVG?

The critical issue seems to be what that role should be, particularly in relation to the House of Assembly and political decision-making. I had originally intended this series to be in three parts but those crucial issues necessitate a fourth and concluding one next week.

Happy fishing and good luck to our Fisher- folk. Enjoy the weekend.