Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | Civil-society groups must look into mirror

Published:Friday | May 26, 2017 | 5:00 AM

We desperately need to have an honest and frank discussion around how we hold civil society in Jamaica (more?) accountable. Civil-society organisations (CSOs) play a key role in our country where good governance, democratic participation, human rights, and development are concerned. We also need to talk about how we ensure that they serve our communities and country better.

When we talk about civil society, we refer to, as the World Bank states, "the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious, or philanthropic considerations". Included in this group are community-based and faith-based organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), foundations, labour unions, and charitable organisations.

There are many CSOs in Jamaica. A 2014 Assessment of the Civil Society in Jamaica that was conducted by the British Council found that there are more than 3,500 organisations operating in Jamaica. As at October 31, 2012, the Social Development Commission had 2,903 community-based organisations on their registry and 495 community development committees, 61 Development Assistance Committees, and 13 Parish Development Committees as at March 30, 2014. One hundred and fifteen are NGOs on the registry for the Council of Voluntary Social Services.

The idea of greater accountability seemingly scares many of us in the sector. Quite frankly, I think it is something that we should embrace, especially because much of our work is about holding people accountable (even if we aren't advocacy organisations). As someone who has been working in the sector for all my adult and professional life, I have seen and heard about much of what we do and how it is deleterious to the work we set out to do. The most regrettable thing I have found, though, is that there is a tendency to think that we, and everything we do, are perfect. In some cases, there is no room for (constructive) criticism, and those who dare to are ostracised by the more powerful groups.

 

NO ROOM FOR COLLABORATION

 

I'm a little worried that civil-society representatives are often resigned in a state of antagonism and defensiveness against the Government. It's almost as if we can't imagine there being any room for cooperation and collaboration. We often think that it is next to impossible for a politician or the Government to be sincere about anything. Consequently, we miss the opportunities available to us to improve our work and the services we offer to people.

It's critical that we appreciate that the State is ultimately responsible for the development of people, communities, and the country. We exist to hold duty bearers accountable and to support them, in a variety of ways, in fulfilling their duties to people and community. Civil society must also appreciate the utility and value of introspection. It keeps us honest. It keeps us grounded and real. We must understand our role as civil society. We also must appreciate the Government's role.

Results for Development reminds us that CSOs "play an important role in enhancing transparency and good governance in developing countries by contributing to increased public debate on issues surrounding the formulation and implementation of government budgets as well as in supporting greater transparency of public revenues".

For Jamaica to move forward, civil society must rid itself of the toxicity that has laden its representatives and hinders its success. Strangely, civil society complains about politicians who are unwilling to let go of power, though there is evidence of same in the sector. In our attempt to replace the State and pander to what is easier, we abdicate the critical role we play in ensuring good governance.

Those who led the movement in earlier days when things were not as easy must be open to new ideas and ways of doing and walking away. There is so much division in civil society that I can't fathom how we expect to be successful at anything. While competition is inevitable, civil-society organisations must be more open to partnering with each other. This kind of unwillingness to lend support to initiatives of other organisations and pooling resources around a common good is unhelpful.

Let us do more to ensure that our organisations perform at their very best to help make this country the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business. I encourage larger organisations to lead by example. Do more to work with and support smaller organisations.