Colombo Telegraph

‘Civil Society’ Needs To Be Nationalized!

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

‘Civil Society’ is old and as is usually the case predates the term. Scholars argue that it is drawn from the Aristotelian phrase ‘koinōnía politikḗ (κοινωνία πολιτική)’ which refers to a community of citizens subject to the rule of law. Apparently it entered the Western political discourse only after Aristotle’s work was translated into Latin by late medieval and early Medieval writers such as William of Moerbeke and Leonardo Bruni. Its more recent meaning derives from the usage of dissidents such as Václav Havel who used it in contradistinction to intrusive holistic state-dominated regimes in the Soviet Bloc of nations.

Another term that is often used as coterminous with ‘civil society’ is NGO, i.e. Non-Governmental Organizations. Like civil society, the term came late although the notion dates back to the late eighteenth century. The term came into popular use only after 1945 when the UN discussed a consultative role for outfits that are not member states or governments.

Technically even corporations are NGOs since they are not nations or governments. Technically, they can claim to be part of civil society too. If we delve into things and processes deep enough we can of course make the argument that even NGOs, like corporates are embedded in ‘government’. And, if we keep digging, we would have to ask whether NGOs are really part of civil society.

On the surface, however, the distinction is clear enough. There’s always been a fair amount of distrust between the NGO community and successive government, even though prominent NGOs in Sri Lanka (in particular those whose ‘civil society’ credentials are suspect) tend to be pally with UNP governments or leaders who have antipathies towards Sinhalese and Buddhists. Outwardly NGOs and governments have shown suspicion about each other’s motives and see each other as spoilers.

NGOs badmouth governments and governments return the favor. We’ve seen a lot of that. They both claim representative edge. Governments say ‘we were elected, therefore we have a right to represent’. NGOs say, as mentioned, that they are a part of civil society. They can and do point out that being elected is one thing but that does not necessarily mean the elected represent the electors. This we know.

There’s a question that’s not been asked enough: ‘What right in terms of numbers, reach and acceptance do NGOs have to toss around the representational rights implied in the term ‘civil society’ which they use as though they own it?’

I wrote an article seven years ago titled ‘And civil society (real) floors civil society (imagined)’. Fake would work better than ‘imagined’ I now feel. Anyway, the article contained the following observation:

“NGOs are made of workshops, seminars, project proposals, reports, double-billing and overheads that make up more than two thirds of annual budgets. They are also made of claims, chief among which is that of representational lie. ‘We are civil society,’ NGO personnel like to think and state. They are an incestuous bunch, these NGOs. They form consortia and forums which are made of the same groups and led by the same people. They appoint each other to each others boards. They applaud one another and occasionally give each other awards for this and that. They quote one another. They scratch each other’s backs.”

As for their use of the ‘civil society’ tag, this is what I wrote:

“They say they represent ‘civil society’, but don’t say ‘well, no one elected us, and to be honest, our views are marginal or less and more seriously are based on assumptions that reality rebel against’. Ask them to organize a demonstration or announce a public seminar and less than a hundred turn up. Indeed, most of their operations are of the behind-closed-doors kind. And yet, they bat on. Courtesy of friends in big-name diplomatic missions and big-name countries whose political agendas vis-à-vis Sri Lanka coincide with theirs.”

The article contrasted this patten of operation with a resolution passed at the Annual General Meeting of a bank that was built by the thrift and credit cooperative movement of this country, better known by its Sinhala acronym SANASA. The shareholders, many representing SANASA primary societies, unanimously resolved to reject the infamous ‘Darusman Report’. To those who may have forgotten, this report was the one produced by a ‘panel of experts’ appointed by the UN Secretary General to investigate accountability issues related to Sri Lanka’s war on terrorism. The name refers to the Chairman of the panel, Indonesian politician Marzuki Darusman.

The key issue here is representation. The SANASA movement counts over 8000 primary societies whose work covers thrift and credit primarily, but also embraces social, cultural and moral development. At the time, over 3800 such societies owned shares in the SANASA Development Bank. Each society has between 100 and 2000 members with the average being over 400. Even if we took the average as 200, this meant that over 740,000 people were represented at the AGM.

From a movement which counts over 8000 primary societies or groups devoted to the subject of thrift and credit, with social, cultural and moral upliftment embedded into agenda, SANASA counts more than 5000 entities that are active and hundreds with assets and business that easily best branches of well-established commercial banks. A total exceeding 3800 own shares in the SANASA Development Bank.

Now that is ‘representation’ and that’s what is important, not whether they approved or rejected some flawed report put together by the ignorant or misled.

Now these people don’t use the term ‘civil society’. The question is, do those who actually use the term have anything like the representational cloud that the SANASA movement has?

A highly celebrated NGO personality (decorated by fellow travelers and given to decorating fellow travelers) was once asked how many people he could get to a demonstration if his funding dried up. His answer says a lot: ‘to be honest, none’.

So where’s the accountability? To whom are they answerable? To ‘the people’ implied in the usage of the term ‘civil society’ or to donor agencies (International NGOs and foreign countries)? When the Right to Information Act was being drafted, I know for a fact that ‘NGO representatives’ involved in the process did their best to limit the legislation to state agencies. It was no small victory that the Act included provisions for binding NGOs to respond to queries, even though we have heard noises about NGOs refusing to cooperate.

The problem is that the term ‘civil society’ is loosely used and in practice has little to do with ‘all of society’. Rather, the work is mostly about furthering the ideological projects of the minuscule numbers that make up these outfits. Just to illustrate the point, during the conflict, a demonstration was organized at Lipton’s Circus by a group calling itself ‘100 Peace Organizations’. There were less than 100 people attending that protest.

This is why it is argued by some that ‘civil society’ is just another name for name-board outfits made of people who are members of multiple NGOs whose ‘work’ can be described as agitation and whose innovation and creativity is framed by narrow political agenda at best and by monetary needs in the main.

Sometime in the early years of this decade, Indika Jayaratne, an announcer at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, made a pertinent comment on NGOs and civil society. He said, in Sinhala, ‘sivil samaajaya janasathu kala yuthui’ (civil society should be nationalized). The word ‘nationalization’ was turned into cuss-word by the UNP and the political right. That’s another discussion of course. The reversal, interestingly, was called ‘janathaakaranaya’ (‘peoplization’) in the Premadasa years. It was in essence, at best, a ‘some peoplization’ in that it allowed the wealthy to take over state-owned enterprises.

The word however has some uses. If you want to call it janathaakaranaya then a ‘peoplization’ of NGOs would give more credibility to the ‘civil society’ label. ‘Nationalization’ or ‘janasathukaranaya’ would be even better for multiple reasons. First it implies ownership by the people and not a few individuals who rake in the bucks under cover of a rubber-stamping set of overseers on a ‘Board’. Secondly, it would necessitate a solid and comprehensive understanding of the entire nation and not just some constituent part, typically a Colombo-based, insular community who uses as alibi some collective that suffered some injustice, perceived or real. It all boils down to bucks, social standing and the furthering of narrow political projects, as mentioned.

The issue is, we don’t know if NGOs are really interested in being honorable about using tags such as ‘civil society’. Typically, those who have the edge do not concede it without a fight. Lump all NGOs who use that term and ask them to come up with numbers and representational spread and the response would be silence or contentious. The problem is that they’ve given civil society a bad name and thereby robbed the empowering potential of the idea, just like how this government has made it next to impossible to use the term ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance).

The reality check arrives unexpectedly, though. It happened when the entire federalist tribe was stumped despite the bucks, access to resources and close connections with the dominant political leadership of the time. They, then, typically talk about masses being asses. The fact of the matter is that the ass-masses, so-called, are not stupid. They know who represents them and who cannot. They know how to pick the lesser evil of the moment.

It is better for NGOs to explore ‘civil society (real)’ and find out the degree of mismatch between aspirations and indeed overall understanding of social, economic, cultural and political realities. They can back off from the practice of prescription and lip-servicing notions such as ‘participation’ (typically purchased by ‘attendance fees’). They can discover ‘nation’ in its entirety including its history and heritage in all its rich detail including of course error and horror.

Nationalization of Civil Society (fake). Now that’s a project, but one which they might not get any funds to implement, but that’s the only way to get a hang of Civil Society (real) and win the usage-rights. This side of nationalization (in the most comprehensive meaning of that term) one can only expect error, abuse, further corruption of the term and eventually the subversion of civil society (in the broadest and most accurate meaning of the term).

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.

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