What are the expectations of the political establishment of the role of civil society?
Stabroek News
March 10, 2002

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Dear Editor,

Within the last four months, President Jagdeo has given indications on two public occasions of his and his government's attitude to civil society, locally and globally, as well as the role of civil society in governance and development in Guyana. The first occasion was in November 2001, when the President addressed the diplomatic community at a dinner the latter hosted in his honour. Asserting that it was untrue that the government sees civil society as a threat, the President also said the following "I believe that civil society has a very important role to play in the development of the country." He said that he would continue to make harsh statements of civil society, and in this respect, made several criticisms of local and overseas based civil society organisations (Guyana Chronicle of November 5, 2001).

The second occasion was in January this year when the President addressed a symposium sponsored by the Guyana Peace Education Institute. At that symposium, the President expressed his disappointment over the poor response of civil society to participating in the symposium and observed that it was only in times of political turmoil that certain (civil society) organisations were vocal. Those organisations, he said, should be active not only in times of civil disorder, the preaching of peace by civil society should be a constant process. The President expressed the hope that civil society would be more vocal. (Stabroek News of January 27, 2002 and Guyana Chronicle of February 4, 2002). The remarks by the President provide an opportunity for an examination of the functioning of civil society in Guyana today and for an analysis of its actual and potential role.

But what is civil society? Several definitions of civil society exist. The one I like best reads as follows:

"Civil society is the space between the state and the individual where those habits of the heart flourish to socialise the individual and humanise the state." I believe that there is a widely shared view that a proactive civil society, playing a helpful and constructive role, can be of tremendous benefit to Guyanese society in promoting good governance and sustainable development among other things. It is meet, however, to ask some questions relating to the behaviour of civil society itself as well as about constraining attitudes, beliefs and practices, which limit and inhibit the capacity of civil society to function as so many profess to want it to do.

What are the expectations of the political establishment of the role of civil society and the activities undertaken pursuant to that role? Is there a perception that civil society should not "trespass" in a space which politicians regard as their own? If so, does that perception and other factors spawn tension between civil society and politicians? Is there within civil society manifestations of caution and timidity, which restrict its capability to be as effective as it might otherwise be? Are some constituents of civil society perceived as being politically selective advocates within their chosen area of interest, and as a consequence compromising their capacity to be even-handed in what is a severely fractured society? More generally, is the political culture facilitative of a vibrant civil society? If not, what can be done to foster a more enabling environment? Answers to the foregoing questions would help analysis of civil society in Guyana. I will not attempt any answers here. I will, however, make some suggestions which, if accepted, can enhance the role of civil society.

On its part, civil society can take steps to advance its own empowerment. Among these would be ensuring that the constituents of civil society apply in their operations, standards of good governance such as, for example, those of transparency and accountability which civil society quite properly champions and advocates that others, including the government, respect. Civil society can also consider organising appropriate encounters throughout the country to pronounce on the role of civil society including constraints and challenges and methods of coping with them.

On its part, the government can take action to honour the several international commitments it made with respect to civil society. At the regional level, CARICOM adopted a "Charter of Civil Society", in 1995. In adopting the Charter, the Heads of Government agreed "to ensure that (the) Charter receives the widest possible circulation within their respective states and territories." Further, the Charter makes provision for the establishment by each member state of a national committee, which shall include representatives of social partners, to monitor and ensure the implementation of the Charter.

At the hemispheric level, the role of civil society was discussed at the Summit of the Americas held in Miami in 1994. It was agreed then that "(a) strong diverse civil society ...gives depth and durability to democracy (and) a vigorous democracy requires broad participation on public issues." In operational terms, the Summit also agreed that governments will "Review the regulatory framework for non-governmental actors with a view to facilitating their operations and promoting their ability to receive funds. This review will emphasise the management and oversight of resources as well as transparency and accountability to society of said actors."

Internationally, at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), states were invited to establish national coordinating structures such as Sustainable Development Councils (which should include representatives of major groups - business, trade unions, women, youth, NGOs etc) - as part of national efforts to implement the decisions of UNCED "in an integrated manner so that both environment and development concerns can be dealt with in a coherent manner." It is recalled that Dr Cheddi Jagan had announced his intention to establish such a Council, to chair it and to invite Professor Clive Thomas to be the Co-Chairman. This, however, never materialised.

More recently, in June 2000, Guayna, along with the other ACP States, signed a Partnership Agreement with the European Union in Cotonou, Benin. That agreement contained several provisions relating to civil society embodying commitments and obligations by governments in respect of civil society (see Articles 1,4 and 7). For example, "the emergence of an active and organised civil society" was envisaged and it was recognised that "the contribution of civil society to development can be enhanced .." by the undertaking of certain steps.

There are therefore several obligations which flow from external commitments made by the government and which have not been honoured. In this respect, civil society, the trade union movement, the private sector, the media and concerned and interested citizens can play a watchdog role on follow up action and implementation.

Major organising principles of some donor countries and multilateral lending agencies embrace, as part of good governance, public participation in decision-making. A recent example of this in Guyana was the involvement of the public in the articulation of a national poverty reduction strategy. Other agencies, including NGOs, have practised stakeholder consultations in formulating policies and programmes. For instance, Conservation International, Guyana, has held a number of stakeholder consultations in connection with the establishment of a conservation concession in southern Guyana. It would be good, therefore, if these experiences and others of public participation and stakeholder consultations can be utilized to formulate guidelines or develop a manual for use by the government and other agencies, i.e. the compilation of a compendium of best practices in this field. The government should engage appropriate personnel to undertake such an assignment.

It would also be desirable for the government to articulate a clear policy on its relationship with civil society and place that policy in the public domain. For such a purpose, the government should present a State Paper in Parliament for debate, amendment if necessary, and approval. Such a step will have the advantage of enabling the parties in Parliament to explain and publicise their own policies on civil society. The process of deliberation and debate, as well as the results, will be enriched if ways are found to involve civil society actors.

The donor community can also be helpful by assisting civil society to promote its own empowerment. Some donors are already involved in capacity building and other exercises with certain community-based and civil society organisations and non-governmental actors. To the extent, however, that there is some hesitancy and reluctance on the part of the donor community to be more active in enhancing the role of civil society, a clear and unambiguous policy statement by the government would contribute enormously to an environment which could lead to a more productive and satisfying relationship all around.

Finally, CARICOM decided two years ago to launch a regional civil society encounter on the theme "Forward Together". The encounter is to be held in Barbados in April this year. Governments were expected to facilitate preparatory national civil society encounters. A national encounter was held in Guyana on February 28. Hopefully civil society used that opportunity to organise itself and prepare for the forthcoming regional encounter.

Yours faithfully,

Rashleigh E. Jackson