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Grouping for a cause - Civil-society agencies defend their relevance

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Members of civil society protest against the National Housing Trust's purchase of lands which housed the Outameni Experience in Trelawny. - File

Nadine Wilson-Harris, Gleaner Staff Reporter

With fresh questions being raised about the significance of some of the civic-society groups operating locally, commentator Martin Henry is defending their work which he says "is crucial to democracy and needs to be further strengthened".

"Democracies are built on the active engagement of civil groups, and part of what is wrong with Jamaica compared to a Canada, the United Kingdom and United States, is that these civic groups are weak, small, and under-engaged," declared Henry at a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum.

The well-established newspaper columnist and academic manager at the University of Technology argued that civil-society organisations and non-governmental bodies like the National Integrity Action (NIA), which he serves as director, help to reflect public concern.

"If groups cannot come together to advocate a matter of social, political and perhaps economic interest, then where is this democratic function to take place in society except for a total reliance on political parties which now are at the bottom of the trust ladder in all societies, not just Jamaica."

Henry's comments came days before government senator Lambert Brown voiced more concern about the role of local civic groups.

"These groups are not accountable to anyone, they are not registered, and some could draw the conclusion from recent history that they are very loose and irresponsible," Brown told a meeting of the parliamentary committee reviewing the Integrity Commission Bill last Tuesday.

MP wants full disclosure

Less biting concerns about these civic groups have been raised by Member of Parliament Raymond Pryce who, more than one year ago, tabled a private member's motion in Parliament for the full disclosure of the source of funding for civil-society groups.

"Many of these organisations - that are single-focus organisations, whether it is environment, justice, human rights - are always in an excellent position to be the advocate for their portfolio areas, and that keeps democracies robust.

"But many times, they can receive funds in a subversive way that has hidden agendas, and many times those sources of funds come from agencies that are inimical to the way of life of the wider society," argued Pryce in his call for the motion to be debated.

The government MP repeated his call in June and charged that while many organisations were in an excellent position to be advocates they could get funds in ways that had hidden agendas.

For Henry, a full disclosure of the source of funding is not an issue for the NIA, which has already declared that it is financed by international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development and the British Department for International Development, and local entities, including Flow and The Gleaner.

"NGOs that emerge as pressure groups, as think tanks, as advocates for particular elements of social change should recognise their limitations and not seek to steer and direct a prime minister as representatives of anybody. They share the same rights as the people who form a mob in the streets or the people who form a church and want to adjust legislation to suit a particular moral view of society," said Henry.

For executive director of the NIA, Professor Trevor Munroe, while representatives of civil society groups are not elected by the masses, these groups still enjoy the confidence of many people in the society.

"Nobody has appointed us, but we regard it as our civil responsibility to speak out when we see things are going wrong, and we consider it as our civil responsibility to build people's understanding of issues in the country that are not going the way they ought to. So we are not trying to be self-righteous, not to be kingmakers, but simply citizens who are exercising their rights," he said.

Holding government accountable

Civil-society groups have often sought to hold government accountable for cases of injustice and negligence that have led to the lost of lives and property, or to lobby for laws that could improve the lives of the citizenry.

Recent events which saw the involvement of these groups include the Mario Deane killing at the Barnett Street Police Station in Montego Bay, and the National Housing Trust purchase of the Outameni property.

One of the newer groups is Citizens Action for Principles and Integrity and its co-convenor, Dennis Meadows, believes that it has already enjoyed success in its fight to address human-rights issues and educate people about their rights.

"I think we have played a significant role in terms of advocating on behalf of the country. We are a leading voice that impact the whole principle of governance in terms of practicality and transparency," added Meadows of the group which has four executive members and an estimated 4,500 members online.