Civil society must raise its voice consistently to be respected
Stabroek News
May 25, 2002

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Dear Editor,

I note a comment from one of your contributors, Freddie Kissoon in response to my laments about the role of Civil Society and what he accurately describes as non-political voices. He speaks of the jeopardy invited by such voices when they speak out of being accused of political partisanship.

I must begin by assuring Mr Kissoon of my awareness of such a jeopardy. I am not, however, willing to accept that as an excuse for the poverty of the contribution by civil society voices. For a non-partisan voice to have credibility, it must have certain characteristics.

1. Such voices must be consistent. It is no use trade and social organisations coming out of the woodwork at the convenience of one or other political parties and then going into hibernation until they are recruited again for propaganda purposes. If civil society raises its voice consistently, such voices will develop credibility.

2. Civil society voices must be informed. People should study the issues involved, gather the required information and acquire where necessary the appropriate tools for analysis. One of the greatest contributions of civil society in many countries is the fact that they can often provide information and analyses which would not be available from governmental or political sources. In matters such as environment and governance, we depend on the work of such bodies. It is not enough for groups or individuals to make pious noises in support of a position when they have not taken the trouble to be armed with adequate information.

3. Civil society voices must be fair. It is unlikely for people involved in social comment to be personally neutral but they should respect the principles of the social responsibility which they hold and act according to the principles which they espouse. It is pathetic that very often, religious voices for example often sacrifice the principles of their religion to rationalise and participate in activities which are completely in conflict with their professed principles. Credibility comes from speaking your mind and accepting the truth as you see it even when it annoys or contradicts the views of the political party you support.

4. Civil society voices must be courageous. A little political persecution is hardly an excuse to sell one's principles provided of course the analysis or agitation is really based on principle. Many analysts, including some academics, often pose as objective commentators whereas they are only providing a fig leaf for partisan propaganda. We should not pretend that there is no cost to principled behaviour. Only by courageous articulation in the face of attack can civil society acquire the necessary credibility. My own suspicion is that the perfect analyst would find his or herself unpopular with all major parties.

5. Civil society should recognise the potential for good and for influence which they at present fritter away. It is not often realised that many key figures and groups, politicians , racists, criminals, the victims of crime, corrupt policemen, bribe taking public servants , often have other loyalties which could be tapped for good. The essence of political debate is polarised debate. That is inevitable and indeed healthy. The essence of real life is compromise and accommodation and that is where a healthy civil society would have been so useful at this time.

Yours faithfully,

Deryck M. Bernard