Whither civil society in Jamaica?Friday, May 14, 2021
WHO or what is civil society? Put this question to the average Jamaican and he or she would remain befuddled, unable to come up with a definitive answer. And, yet, in the very final analysis, he or she, in one context or another, may well be a member of civil society.
The World Bank states, “Civil society refers to a wide array of organisations: Community groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, and foundations.”
Research reveals that the term became popular in the 1980s when groups began to defy authoritarian regimes, particularly in central and eastern Europe and Latin America. A mobilised civil society has the power to influence the actions of the Government in its role as policymaker as well as corporate entities. With the advent of social media against the backdrop of technological developments and the evolution of many societies that were once almost homogeneous, civil society continues to emerge in more enlightened nations as a force to be reckoned with.
One of the major challenges that civil society faces in Jamaica is that it has been consistently impacted, both negatively and positively, by the country's political culture which is very tribalised. Indeed, as one prominent politician once expounded, there are two tribes — the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) — that are perpetually at war for scarce benefits and spoils. (And while they fight for the power and the glory, Jah kingdom goes to waste.)
In a bid to fully understand and analyse the evolution and relevance of civil society in Jamaica, this writer delved into a report coming out of an international action research project coordinated by CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation), which did an assessment of Jamaican civil society in 2006, exploring two centuries of volunteerism impacted by the tribal nature of Jamaica's political culture. Of course, the operative word here is “volunteerism”, as the actions of civil society are primarily predicated on the basis of citizens giving free service and support to a cause.
On the other hand, in order to effectively carry out their mandates, civil society groups do get financial and other types of support from international funding agencies, the private sector, and the Government, or through a variety of fund-raising efforts. It must be noted, however, that these organisations can be starved for funds or manipulated by their donors or sponsors, which ultimately rob them of their independence or may even see to their demise or ineffectiveness.
Historically, Jamaica has emerged as a nation after the abolition of the slave trade and the Emancipation of slaves in the 1800s. In the 1920s, black nationalism came to the fore with the entrance of Marcus Garvey to the socio-political scene which helped to engender a national movement in the 1930s which would have seen, for example, the activism of Norman Manley, who founded Jamaica Welfare Limited, a private community development organisation.
By the 1930s, social unrest, triggered by the harsh economic conditions in which the natives found themselves, led to the formation of trade unions, mainly the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) founded by Sir Alexander Bustamante and the National Workers Union (NWU) established by the PNP, resulting in the consolidation of political unionism. Thus, it is fair to say that, at that time of the country's history, civil society was alive and kicking.
Needless to say, the private sector was forced into a corner by these developments in civil society and sought to counter them by entering the political arena with the formation of the Jamaica Democratic Party (JDP), which comprised mostly white individuals who contested the 1944 General Election, and failed miserably. Interestingly, it was just about then that the infamous split between Alexander Bustamante and the PNP took place, which led to the labour leader starting his own party, the JLP. And the rest is history.
In the late 1960s coming into the 1970s the Black Power movement held sway, followed by the PNP's dalliance with democratic socialism, which led to a great deal of civil society activism, affected both positively and negatively by narrow partisan responses. It was in the 1980s and 1990s, when structural adjustment dictated by the Internalization Monetary Fund (IMF) determined the policies of the Government (many of which were deleterious to the masses), that leaders of the Government began to recognise the legitimate role of civil society as a partner in governance.
Ultimately, crime and a persistently weak economy, further exacerbated by rampant corruption and a lack of accountability, led to great mistrust and basically a dysfunctional society. On the one hand, powerful business interests united under the umbrella of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), which in its infancy was cynically referred to as the “Privileged Sons of Jamaica” and remains to this day as the most influential and powerful civil society group. Regrettably, a general lack of public spiritedness among most Jamaicans, plus narrow partisan perspectives, have dissuaded many citizens from becoming actively involved in civil society groups. Indeed, save for human rights and environmental issues, civil society seems to have gone to sleep. And what is most disconcerting is that it is mostly expatriates or white people who have been at the forefront of these groups — no offence meant.
In its conclusion, CIVICUS noted that, “The score for the impact dimension of 1.8 reflects civil society's limited impact on development in Jamaica, and this could have been higher if not for the lack of trust within the society leading to low social capital — crime and violence is impeding the building of social capital. The low score for civil society's role in holding state and private corporations accountable is also noticeable.”
With the scourge of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the crime situation getting completely out of hand, the Andrew Holness-led Administration is being forced to become more and more autocratic as well as complacent because of its comfortable majority in the House of Parliament and a dithering Opposition PNP weakened by internecine warfare and leadership issues.
In this context, the role of civil society in Jamaica should take on greater meaning. It is time that the Jamaican citizenry realises that this country's sure salvation will never be accomplished by mere partisan politics. It is the people, by virtue of its democratic rights, that must be the main agent of change and reconstruction. Is Jamaica ready for such a revolutionary departure or must we remain stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea?
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaican media for the past 44 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica, where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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