Fri | Sep 21, 2018

Civil society the new scapegoat

Published:Tuesday | September 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMHorace Levy, Contributor
Horace Levy

Civil-society representatives are being accused of hypocrisy: They defend their donors' desire for privacy, but want donors to political-party campaigns made public. Sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander, accusers argue. But is there truly a parallel?

This matter came up in Member of Parliament Raymond Pryce's motion in Parliament. He asked for a debate on the need for legislation on civil-society groups so as to protect Jamaica's democracy from "unknown or tainted sources of funds or hidden agendas". Pryce did not clearly specify the kind of groups he had in mind, and it has since (especially from a UTech forum of 17/9/15) turned out that he intended private-sector, for-profit lobby entities of the kind common in the US.

Response came, however, from not-for-profit NGOs, and the first answer of five of them was that abundant legislation already covers them - Companies Act, Charities Act, Friendly Societies and Cooperative Societies Act, etc.

Through audits at annual general meetings and submissions to the Companies Office, as required by these acts, the public and Government get access to NGOs' major sources. These sources are often the same as Government's, by the way - United States Agency for International Development, Canadian International Development Agency, European Union, foreign embassies actually want publicity and require transparency.

Other legislation (proceeds of crime, money laundering) has armed the police with the tools to detect and track down tainted and illegal sources. Is MP Pryce suggesting they are not competent for the job?

Second, civil society's defence of privacy was for small donors in respect of gifts to rights-connected but unpopular issues - e.g., LGBT or abortion. Publicity could put an end to these gifts because their givers do not yet live in a society tolerant of differing views.


Secret donations

The big European or North American donors, to whose pro-gay agendas many Jamaicans object (and which recipient NGOs are not necessarily promoting), are already named in audits, as was indicated above.

Big and, as they now are, secret donations to political parties and their campaigns are a very different matter. Yes, a donor company or individual, if the receiving party lost an election, could well experience loss of contracts, jobs or other victimisation. This happens. But this undesirable effect is entirely outweighed by a well-known and well-acknowledged greater evil: allowing secret donations that influence a party or politicians to pass legislation that benefits particular individuals or companies but not the general good.

All big donations that seek to influence the political process should be made public. Fixing an appropriate threshold for the size of such donations is among proposals from the Electoral Commission. Legislators must debate and act on that.

Lastly, Pryce's motion implies that civil-society groups are, or could be, the channels of tainted funds or hidden agendas. No basis was given for the suspicion, which, in effect, smeared every civil-society organisation. While such entities of the American lobby kind may indeed exist, no actual cases in Jamaica were brought forward by either Pryce or the parliamentary committee considering the motion.

Is such a motion or moot (the equivalent suggested by Pryce), we must ask, deserving of debate? Legislation is normally directed at some definite reality, not the hypothetical or the obscure. Without the specifics of the evil being addressed, the legislation, too, would be general. It would lack the concrete details needed for useful application.

If, as P.J. Patterson's Code of Consultation emphasises, civil society is an essential component of governance and must be embraced, the constraints of unnecessary regulation should be shunned. Civil society itself is against heavy burdens that could stifle the freedom of assembly and expression constitutionally guaranteed.

- Horace Levy is a human-rights advocate. Email feedback to