R. Rose
May 16, 2008
A civil society first

Next Wednesday, May 21st, 2008, representatives of a wide array of civil society organizations in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are due to meet, discuss and formally ratify an historic document, “A Social Contract between the Government and Civil Society of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.” It will be the culmination of a long process that goes beyond the formalities of next week’s meeting or the document itself.{{more}} For it is now more than two decades since civil society organizations in SVG have sought to place their relations with Government (of whatever stripe) on a more predictable and even-handed basis.

Regrettably, the polarization of our party politics has led to many misconceptions about the place of civil society and its relations with government. If we examine our history closely, however, we will see that it is precisely that lack of engagement between civil society and government that led to massive civil unrest in 1981 (the movement against the latter backdrop that ULP leader Dr. Ralph Gonsalves fashioned his party’s proposal “Towards a Social Contract between the Unity Labour Party and Civil Society in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” promoting it with his usual gusto. From that moment onwards, a mere mention of “Social Contract” to some misguided politicians and their supporters is like waving a red flag to a raging bull.

Yet a Social Contract is not a Vincentian invention. In Barbados, the trade union movement and government have signed and implemented successive contracts under the terms of a social partnership that has withstood both the test of time and changing administrations. In Grenada, too, the Trades Union Council has a Workers Charter that defines in part the labour movement’s relationship with government.

What is novel in the case of SVG is that we are going beyond the traditional labour movement – government scope to include civic organizations at the national, community and social levels. It is a process, with its roots in the struggle of civil society to be formally recognized as a serious partner in national development. That recognition on a governmental level first came with the establishment in April 2001 of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDEC), an advisory body bringing together representatives of the state, private sector and civil society.

Almost immediately, NESDEC placed the matter of the social contract on its agenda. In furtherance of this, a Social Contract Working Group was set up by NESDEC to initiate a process of discussions and consultations with civil society organizations. The Working Group, as a part of its work, also reviewed relevant social contract documentation including from the islands mentioned above (Barbados and Grenada). It submitted its Report and recommendations to NESDEC in late 2003.

These recommendations formed the basis of the Draft of the Social Contract. It has been discussed, addressed and redressed at several civil society gatherings over the past four and half years, with each engagement providing amendments and refinements to the original draft. It is now thought that a suitably democratic process having been followed, it is appropriate for the amended Draft to be bought before the national civil society gathering for approval.

The document itself sets out the Definition of the proposed Contract as follows: “The Social Contract is an expression of the commitment of Government and Civil Society to work in partnership for the betterment of society. It is based on mutual understanding, respect and trust; a recognition of the distinctive values and roles of the Government and Civil Society; and describes agreed principles for working together effectively.”

This is the base on which the Social Contract stands. It is vitally important to build such a partnership for the good of the society. But Civil Society itself must ensure that, first, it is capable of living up to its own commitments; it must possess the self-confidence to be able to engage the Government and the lords of society, both the public and private sectors, on equal terms, and must demonstrate its competence, democratic practices, transparency and accountability.

The challenge is therefore facing us all and civil society organizations ought to ensure that they are well represented at Wednesday’s meetings.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.