Wed | Apr 26, 2017

Government can’t do it alone

Published:Tuesday | March 31, 2015 | 3:00 AMHorace Levy

On March 16, civil society held a press conference to present its unanimous position on the Riverton fire. To resolve this decades-old problem, it proposed that a committee modelled on the Economic Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC) and on the Electricity Sector Enterprise Team (ESET) be established. Each of these institutions combines civil society representation with that of the State.

So far, Government appears to be ignoring the proposal. Riverton, which grievously assaulted the rights of a million of our people to clean air and damaged the health of thousands, may not even be on the agenda of the next meeting of the Partnership for Jamaica in mid-April.

Ministries that should partner in joined-up government are taking and being taken to court. Utter madness. Meantime, the future looks no better than the past.

Is there any merit, though, to the civil society-private sector proposal? EPOC and ESET are two recent examples of a kind of entity and practice increasingly employed not only in Jamaica but globally. In Jamaica's case, it started with the Electoral Advisory Committee of 1979 (a Seaga idea that Manley accepted), which became the Electoral Commission of Jamaica in December 2006. Everyone acknowledges its enormous contribution and value.

common task

In 2002, the Peace Management Initiative (both parties, along with Church and academia represented) was formed by Peter Phillips. It has dealt successfully with community violence. In 2013, the Energy Monitoring Committee helped save the country from a huge catastrophe - Energy International.

What these entities combining Government (often through the main parties) and civil society have in common is not only their joint nature, the State letting go its traditional role of sole authority, and sharing it with citizens wanting a voice in the decision-making.

These entities also have a common task. They are charged to resolve a long-standing but urgent issue that Government alone, largely because of the insertion of political partisanship with its tendency to sacrifice national good to party power, has not been able to handle.

While not guided by a power-grabbing goal, the two sections of civil society have their weak spots, critics assert. They charge that NGOs pursue the objectives of their international donors, e.g., rights for gays, legalisation of abortion, abolition of capital punishment. And the private sector, despite wanting broad societal good, is known to also seek for themselves the bigger profits that can mean less of the revenue that a government needs to build roads, hospitals and schools.

Some politicians also like to remark - in a superior tone of voice - to civil society folk, "You never ran and won an election race, so who authorises you to speak on behalf of anybody."

The trouble with that line of argument is simple: people are just no longer satisfied with what the politicians are delivering. In fact, they are not satisfied with having to depend exclusively on political representation. They want something different.

new voices

What's more, largely as a result of people being more educated in 2015 than they were in 1944, and as a result of advances in technology, other channels have opened up and other voices are on the scene.

Politics has moved the purely representational to becoming participatory.This is a global reality, which only space prevents me from expanding on here.

The progressive views espoused by NGOs cannot be dashed aside as 'foreign'. Globalisation has moved us beyond that narrow viewpoint. The same foreign funders of NGOs are the funders of government.

I haven't discussed in the list of state-civil society combinations the one that is potentially the most important of all - the Partnership for Jamaica. The omission was on purpose. It was because this combination has been a disappointment. It has failed because both the present administration and the previous one did not want it to succeed. Success would threaten their bipartisan hold on Jamaica, and their actions since the establishment signing suggest that they find that unbearable.

The case of Riverton is revealing and tragic. Instead of the clear plan of management and action that is needed, the country has been given a display of rabid political partisanship, the worst possible. Clearly, if ever there was a need for a combined civil society and government implementation team, this is it.

- Horace Levy is a human-rights campaigner and member of the Peace Management Initiative. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and halpeace.levy78@gmail.com.