Civil society began to attain prominence about fifty years ago as non-state actors outside the political and business communities. The World Bank defines civil society as “a wide array of organisations: community groups, non-governmental organisations [NGOs], labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, and foundations.” Under generally accepted principles of democracy and accountability, civil society organisations are expected to have a membership, rules, and objectives. Their leaderships are elected periodically and report to their memberships. In the area of which I am most familiar, the Guyana Bar Association would be considered as a prime example of a civil society organization. There are several other professional organisations in existence which generally confine themselves to their mandated areas.
Civil society initially gained prominence as organisations which combatted authoritarian rule, particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America. In the latter case liberation theology inspired mass civil society struggles against Latin American dictatorships. In the early part of the 1970s in Guyana, the moribund Guyana Bar Association was replaced by an active, vibrant, united body, which had revolted against political complacency when it publicly demonstrated and called a strike against the Administration of Justice Bill. At that time sections of the trade union movement were stepping up opposition to prevailing economic and political conditions. These developments led eventually to the establishment of the Citizens Committee in 1978 to combat what became known as the Referendum Bill which was promulgated to abolish the requirement of a referendum to enable a new constitution to be passed by a rigged two-third majority in the National Assembly. The Citizens Committee was an umbrella organization for a wide range of groups, including church organisations, that were not politically aligned, even though their objective was indirectly political. Although their immediate objective of stopping the referendum and a fraudulent constitution were unsuccessful, their work elevated and enhanced the opposition to authoritarian rule, which eventually ended in 1992. This was the apotheosis of civil society activity up to that time.
Among the most important contributions to governance inspired by civil society was electoral reform and labour legislation providing for the settlement of labour disputes, recognition of trade unions and severance pay. The Constitution Reform Commission was comprised of political parties and civil society in about equal numbers. The Amerindian Act was also inspired by organisationes representing Amerindian interests. Although not strictly civil society according to the definition, the Private Sector Commission and the Manufacturers Association were established and the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce attained vibrancy. Many other developments took place as a direct consequence of the influence of civil society starting in the 1970s. Government policies were front and centre of these developments.
With democracy and freely elected governments in place since 1992, which had originated, promoted or adopted many civil society demands, the momentum was gradually lost by many civil society organisations. However, by this time both in Guyana and among the donor community, respect had grown for civil society and their views were canvassed as a vital component in policy making. But a faltering civil society struggled to find new areas in which to channel its interests. Corruption became a major issue in the 2000s and even before, but apart from Transparency International Guyana, which has a limited role of assessing national corruption, no other body of consequence to which respect and recognition can be given, has emerged. The Auditor General reports provide substantial material for civil society to highlight and act on. Hence, the recent political criticisms against the Government by a group of largely unknown bodies, some of which have already withdrawn their sponsorship of the statement, which appear to have been organized for the purpose, fell flat.
Civil society bodies can play a major role in improving Guyanese life, not only in areas of transparency and accountability but in other areas not having as much sex appeal and in which the Government can play a major facilitating role. I once wrote on the traffic situation. The number of road deaths has been appalling for decades. Minister Edghill recently bemoaned the high number. The best way to sensitise and educate the public about the entire gamut of traffic issues, and reduce road accidents, is through a civil society body which will campaign for road safety. Such a body will not automatically spring up and if it does it will be under resourced. Funding should be offered by the government if such a group is established. If the Government stay as far away as possible, avoid the temptation of intervening and allow the body to function independently, much can be achieved. The same can be done for violence against women, alcohol abuse and other areas. Legal aid and Help and Shelter, which are civil society and receive government help, are excellent models that the Government can follow. Independent civil society bodies, supported by the Government, as in the latter cases, can and will have a significant impact. The key to success is governmental distance, as has already been proven. The Government already gives assistance to many other civil society bodies that attract no public attention.
The recent fiasco demonstrates that some parts of civil society has lost their way, is unfocused and is floundering. Civil society bodies should limit their roles to their self-determined mandate or face the accusation that their groups are a cover for political activity.