NGOS BRING VOICE OF PEOPLE TO TABLE

Commentary

By Virginia Jealous

Islands Business Magazine

SUVA, Fiji (July 2004) - Welcome to a world of acronyms, where lengthy titles are shortened to something more manageable. Here, groups that represent civil society are known generically as non-government organizations, or NGOs. Sometimes they're known as non-state actors (NSAs) or civil society organizations (CSOs).

These include church groups, women's groups, environmental groups and trade unions and many more. Some are based locally within small communities working on specific issues; others are national, regional and international.

And, for some reason, when civil society asks governments to listen to its voice, governments often get very cranky.

So what or who exactly is civil society? It's probably easier to define what it isn't. It's not government and it's not the military, but it is just about everything and everyone else. Civil society is churches and schools and businesses and hospitals and shops and media and everybody that uses them. In other words, it's you and me. And it's politicians and soldiers when they're off duty, too. In fact, it's most of society.

Conflict, criticism and controversy are regular milestones in developing relationships between NGOs and governments. Even two of the greatest advocates for peace used the language of conflict to describe a transition to a healthy civil society. Mahatma Gandhi recognized that "democracy necessarily means a conflict of will and ideas, involving sometimes a war between different ideas"; Nelson Mandela reinforced this when he said that "one of the strongest weapons is dialogue". Those of us living and working in the Pacific might do well to remember that the conflict between governments and NGOs is a vital part of the process of development.

Most NGOs take on one or more of three roles that should, where possible, be dovetailed with existing government initiatives. After all, democratically elected governments have popular mandates to act‹those of NGOs are more limited. One of these roles is awareness raising, which usually takes the form of information and education campaigns (for example the spread of HIV-AIDS won't stop if people don't know about it). Another is service delivery, finding funds and technical assistance for community-driven projects (for example rehabilitating and managing coral reefs). And the third is advocacy, which generally means publicizing issues and lobbying governments for change (for example the Fiji Bill of Rights legislates for equality of opportunity for people with disabilities; advocacy can push a policy like this into practice).

This all sounds quite reasonable, but sometimes the work of civil society is hindered by competition. This can be between NGOs chasing the same donor funds or the same development agenda, or between NGOs and governments that resent the apparent attraction that civil society holds for the international donor dollar. The figures still favor governments though, with development cooperation granting on average 85% of funds to governments, and 15% to NGOs. Commonsense suggests that if we all share an end goal of poverty reduction and sustainable development, we'd do better to collaborate rather than compete.

This may sound a bit doom and gloomy, but change is on the way. During the recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting, a welcome recommendation came out of the Special Leaders' Retreat, where one of the Leaders' Decisions identified the need to "[s]trengthen Forum engagement with civil society". There was a general consensus on this, despite some later hostile responses from individual leaders. Implicit in this recommendation by Pacific leaders is recognition of two key issues. One is that civil society‹you and I‹have a valid role to play in engagement with government.

The second is that governments seek our help partly because they need us.

The many innovative policies put in place by governments to achieve sustainable development and reduce poverty are almost guaranteed to fail because of the generally weak links between governments and communities; NGOs can provide a bridge between the two. This allows both the turning of people's actions and aspirations into policy, and the linking of policy initiatives with the reality of what happens in their lives.

The Forum declaration also notes that it is desirable 'to draw on the knowledge, policy views and grassroots connections that many civil society groups possess. Civil society includes not only NGOs, but also other groupings and institutions with a wealth of expertise that could usefully be better harnessed in the regional decision-making process.' There have already been occasions in which cooperation, consensus, collaboration and communications between civil society groups pave the way for significant policy outcomes.

At regional level, for example, the Treaty of Rarotonga was lobbied for long and hard‹and not without controversy‹by national and international NGOs. The resulting South Pacific nuclear-free zone is now a matter of regional pride for the respective governments and the NGOs that lobbied them to act.

More recently, the Fiji parliament has passed The Family Law Bill after 13 years of patient work by NGOs with a commitment to social justice. At international level too, the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines came about as a result primarily of the work of civil society.

So civil society's engagement with government can work and, at its best, results in policy initiatives of which we can all be proud of. In the end, it's not us and them; after all, it's simply "us."

July 27, 2004

Virginia Jealous is Program Development Advisor for the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific (FSPI) in Suva.

Islands Business: http://www.pacificislands.cc/pm82003/index.php

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