The undoing of civil society in Jamaica

The undoing of civil society in Jamaica

Thursday, November 30, 2017

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Dear Editor,

The civil society architecture in Jamaica is a fragile one, and has been for some time. There have indeed been periods of strengthening, most notably through the formation of the short-lived Jamaica Civil Society Coalition (JCSC).

The JCSC emerged after the 2010 security forces' operation into Tivoli Gardens and provided great hope that civil society would have a greater voice in governance. However, over the last seven years since the founding of the JCSC there has been a steady erosion in the voice and impact of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society actors.

No doubt, the great undoing began with Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) and that sex education scandal from which they have not really recovered. JFJ was the most visible, and arguably the most active, civil society organisation (CSO), and its downfall had a chilling effect throughout the NGO community.

Funding has, of course, remained the greatest challenge for most CSOs, but they are also bedevilled by poor management practices and lack the capacity needed to be sustainable. Much of what has been done by CSOs have been funded and influenced by international development partners (IDPs) such as the United Nations and the European Union, which could explain why their action and growth has not been sustained. When civil society action is not driven from a grass roots level it becomes difficult to sustain when grant funding dries up, as it often does.

The constant refrain of CSOs is that much of the funding they get from IDPs is for specific programme items and cannot be used to invest in the long-term sustainability of the organisation. No one doubts the value of IDPs in their support and funding of CSOs, but the model they have used in doing so is too heavily focused on meeting their own agendas and what they perceive to be the need of the society.

Another imposition of IDPs is that they have, in a sense, forced governments to include CSOs on a number of government bodies and committees as a condition of development assistance. While in theory this is a desirable outcome, one only needs to attend a meeting to which CSOs have been invited by the Government and it will become clear that their presence is only one of tokenism.

Then there is the inability of the CSOs to have a collective voice and action that is sustained. The silent death of the JCSC is proof of this. The disparate interest of CSOs and the limited IDPs funding for which they compete automatically pits them against each other. The EU has sought to engineer a unified NGO sector in Jamaica by encouraging and stipulating that CSOs collaborate in order to qualify for funding, but this strategy has not been a success. The EU has also issued grants aimed at building the capacity of CSOs, but the impact of this is yet to be seen.

The weaknesses which characterise CSOs in Jamaica do not bode well for good governance, particularly at a time when respective governments have become skilled at placating CSOs by inviting them to weigh in on policy decisions without taking their input seriously.

Levi Hinds

CSO action

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