March 7, 2014
A role for civil society!

I want to start by making reference to an email that was sent to me by a friend. It relates to a debate currently surfacing about the eligibility of Senator Camillo Gonsalves to hold the position of Senator or Parliamentary representative, if elected. My friend suggested that the 2009 Constitutional Bill that was rejected at the Referendum attempted to bring closure to this matter which has been raging in the Caribbean. Our Constitution 26 (1) states “No person shall be qualified to be elected or appointed as a Representative or Senator (thereinafter in this section referred to as a member) if he – (a) is by virtue of his own act, under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power or state…”{{more}}

Clause 69 of the Act as proposed restates 26 (a), but adds “Provided that a person shall not be deemed to be disqualified under this paragraph if he is also a citizen of another country or countries or is entitled to the citizenship of another country or countries, or holds a passport issued by a foreign power or state without being under any additional or extraordinary acknowledgement, allegiance or adherence to that foreign power or state.” I am not sure I understand this latter clause, but it would appear to put emphasis on ‘any additional or extraordinary acknowledgement, allegiance or adherence to that foreign power or state’. This is really no longer relevant, but obviously there was a problem with the relevant, section of our Constitution and an attempt was made to settle the matter. What is the real issue here and would the proposed change have been in the best interest of the country?

Civil Society

I Witness News of March 4 carried a piece from UN News on the need, expressed by the Human Rights Council, to protect and support civil society activism. It is of note that in areas of the world where there are hot spots, civil society has been in the vanguard of efforts to mobilise their communities. Our situation is, of course, different, for the nearest we would have gotten to that kind of situation was in the troubles of 2000, which demanded CARICOM’s intervention.

I am raising this issue because civil society organisations are important not only in such situations. The value of civil society was expressed many years ago by Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General. He stated: “By now we know that peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without partnerships involving Governments, international organisations, the business community and civil society. In today’s world we depend on each other.”

Civil Society has really been hard to define, but one definition which caught my fancy states: “A civil society is a public space between the state, the market and the ordinary household, in which people can debate and tackle action.” It went on, “By this definition, civil society includes charities; neighbourhood self-help schemes; international bodies like the UN or the Red Cross; religious based pressure-groups; human rights campaigns in repressive societies; and non-governmental organisations improving health, education and living-standards in both the developed and developing nations.”

In our society where everything comes down to Government and Opposition the need for vibrant civil society organisations is clear. The role of civil society is not necessarily a political one, but bodies need to occupy that space that is left. The late 1980s and 90s were ones when, in SVG, civil society organisations were very active. Many ngos, youth groups, church groups, voluntary organisations and before this period the Caribbean Conference of Churches, were very much involved in developmental efforts. The bid to make Chatoyer a national hero was spearheaded by the National Youth Council and strongly supported by civil society organisations.

I was, from 1986, coordinator of the Caribbean Peoples’ Development Agency, CARIPEDA, which had branches in seven different Caribbean countries. Our programme was a broad one. Among its objectives were assisting marginalised people in articulating their concerns and in development efforts; providing centralised support for local development agencies; undertaking programmes with a regional focus; and a host of others. So, popular theatre, popular education, the empowerment of women and organisational development, coping with natural disasters, became part of our mandate.

Our work was informed by an analysis of the environment in which we functioned. At our meetings we usually started with what we called a ‘Conjuncture’, where we provided a context for situating our work. At one of my last meetings, held in Grenada, I prepared a Conjuncture report for discussion. The following are excerpts: “The region’s economic conference recently held in Trinidad has not lived up to the grandiose expectations which surrounded it. There were indeed no startling prescriptions for the region’s malady. Instead we have been dished out the standard fare: …To return to the area of culture, it must be said that it is not to be relegated to the realm of the exotic and to be simply packaged and commercialized for the tourist dollar. It is what we are… We have to come to grips with rapid developments in technology, for certainly those who master and control technology would continue to control the world…”

These are just some excerpts, but we tried to develop an understanding of the challenges facing us and were not locked into party politics. We tried to create the space for our work with marginalised groups. Governments resented our attempts at independence and began to develop what were called GONGOS – Government NGOs. Those days are, however, gone. Active and independent civil society groups could forestall the crises that have brought people into the streets, but many of these groups have surrendered their independence without a fight.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.