*Placing People at Heart of Governance:
Reviving democracy
Guyana Chronicle
July 7, 2002

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WITH the special focus placed on civil society as an integral partner in peaceful development and democratic rule at the just-concluded CARICOM Summit in Guyana, the value of a work by the Commonwealth Foundation that places people at the heart of governance, becomes all the more relevant for societies like ours in the Caribbean region.

Indeed, at a time of growing cries, globally, for people-friendly development in a prevailing climate of the rule of law, the London-based Commonwealth Foundation's recently released report on its project, `Civil Society in the New Millennium’, comes as a breath of fresh air.

It is quite likely to prove a welcome stimulant for all, at organisational and individual levels, keen on securing a much more definitive role for civil society in nation-building for a better world.

The body of data and clinical definitions, often absent from works that seek to engage the attention of decision-makers, private and public, in critical assessments for social, cultural, economic and developments, make even more appealing this published report in book form.

It is expected to be in popular demand when it reaches the Caribbean and other sub-regions of the 54-member Commonwealth with a network of NGOs involved in its circulation.

The book is at once a primer on democracy and what constitutes "good governance", as it can also be treated as an authentic reference of vox populi, one encompassing "voices of the people" from the diverse nationalities, ethnicities and cultures of the Commonwealth family of some 1.7 billion souls.

Imaginatively presented as `Reviving Democracy’, it is the result of comprehensive research over two years and involves the responses of some ten thousand (10,000) citizens of various strata of society in 47 countries of the Commonwealth, including the Caribbean.

The evident care exercised in formulating the project, choices in the selection of the team of researchers from various regions, as well as in the appointments of the trio of editors - one from Africa (Zimbabwe); another from Asia (India) and the third from Europe (United Kingdom) - should help to strengthen confidence in the integrity of the end product that has been presented in a lucid, reader-friendly mode in 214-page book with some very valuable references.

Graca Machel, regarded as one of Africa's most prominent women leaders of civil society and chairperson of the Commonwealth Foundation, provides an early and useful signal to readers in her Foreword:

"In the strategies for poverty eradication and social development, good governance has acquired a central place. Good governance implies a range of reforms - public services, judiciary, government agencies and participation of a vibrant civil society in public affairs...."

How then do ordinary citizens view "good governance"? The book by Barry Knight (UK), Hope Chigudu (Zimbabwe) and Rajesh Tandon (India), addresses the question with the definitions, not only from a scientific/academic perspective, but from the living daily experiences of people of different communities in a number of Commonwealth nations.

Among the respondents were NGOs, human rights advocates, women and youth in development, farmers, professionals, achievers, the poor and jobless, urban and rural people.

Democracies, the reader is told by the authors, are losing voters. Citizens are missing from governance. Politics is everywhere failing. This contention is based on illustrations of depressing data on global economic trends:

'Good Society' and 'Realities'
We are reminded that in our increasingly globalised world of expanding populations, gross inequalities and staggering poverty, there are approximately 1.3 billion people, or more than 20 per cent of the world's six billion people, who are existing on US$1 or less per day, and that another 840 million of humanity are suffering from malnutrition.

What then makes a "good society", the issue the authors chose to address after sharing the views of citizens on their own understanding of what "good governance" should be.

For a homeless Belizean man, it is "like building a house together". A model "good society" later emerges from three basic inter-linked components resulting from the analysed views of citizens interviewed during the two years of research and work in the fields.

*The first component relates to the fulfillment of the basic needs of citizens. Secondly, association with other people. And, thirdly, participation in the governing of society.

Voices on what other ordinary folks conceive as "a good society" include a villager from Zimbabwe (a nation currently in political turmoil and with millions facing starvation, according to the United Nations). Also a female youth teacher from Guyana, a rural schoolteacher in Kenya and a Jamaican fisherman.

Their views, like those of others from Sri Lanka, Namibia, and New Zealand and elsewhere, are as arresting as those that came in subsequent sections of the book, including a most absorbing chapter on `Friends and Enemies of a Good Society’.

The researchers, as chronicled by the editors, whose views do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonwealth Foundation, discovered widespread disenchantment across the Commonwealth - Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific and Caribbean - about the current state of society.

In their submissions for the final report resulted from what they found to be the realities in 43 of the 47 countries that participated in the `Civil Society in the New Millennium Project’, they made clear that the objective conditions that constitute "a good society" were not being met.

This disturbing assessment includes the Caribbean, a region where governments, while decrying poverty and unemployment, are often in the habit of rationalising these problems by pointing to other "worse case" scenarios in the more poor and underdeveloped countries.

"Enemies of a good society", are viewed by citizens as those that fail to meet basic needs, with the problem being more acute in countries in Africa and South Asia, but with surprising levels of complaints also from Caribbean and the Pacific states.

The role of the state in ensuring "good governance" - defined as "collective decision-making and action" - is placed under critical scrutiny in a chapter that contains the views and ideas of the researchers and authors. It is seen as "one stakeholder among others" with much stress on governance by consultation with civil society.

In arguing in favour of "good governance", some of the respondents have advocated that State institutions must be democratic, efficient, effective and strong, capable of "standing up to powerful global forces"; efficient in the use of public resources and effective in delivering the public good".

What makes `Reviving Democracy’ such a timely work and essential reading for many, apart from the decision-makers, is not just the relevance and the value of its descriptive and analytical offerings. It is the body of specific recommendations, prescriptions for action that could, if implemented, help make the Commonwealth a good example of sovereign states where civil society is given pride of place in governance in this new millennium, as outlined in the final chapter of the book on `What is to be done’. It makes clear that, in the final analysis, "a good society boils down to meeting the requirements for basic needs, association and participation - the three central components of the New Millennium Project.

Hardly a public relations effort either for the Commonwealth Foundation, or any of the funders of the two-year project, the book is a work in favour of people, responding to their views on basic needs and helping to forge alliances across the Commonwealth in the promotion of a better life, across boundaries of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures in this 21st century.
*(Published by 'Earthscan Publications, London, 'Reviving Democracy' is available from the Commonwealth Foundation).