Colombo Telegraph

The Role Of Civil Society In Developing A Future Strategy For The Well Being Of The Nation

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Frustrations among civil society activists, journalists and others who expected a yahapalanaya and a change in the style of politics from the current government are starting to appear in the news media in various forms. For example, in a recent article by Sarath de Alwis following comment appears:

This government has failed. Speed is essential for meaningful reform. If reforms do not follow immediately after change, the movement loses its momentum. The change of 8th January 2015 failed to dislodge the entrenched elite. All they needed was a small window of opportunity to hijack the movement for reform by raising concerns of national security.

People who yearned for good governance now demand it. The demand is directed to a regime that has reneged on its promise. The political success of a reform movement pivots on the consistency with which it correlates vision with process. Proof of the pudding is transparency of process’ (CT 25.12.2016).

If there is no credible vision and a process theoretically initiated by the Yahapalana government, what should the civil society organisations do?

In an article I wrote on Crossover Politics, Political Class And The Craving For Positions on December 26th 2014, I raised following questions:

The crucial question to ask is whether the political culture promoted by the political class that has been constructed from political families and the system within the system will change with the next Presidential election? Which coalition will change it and how? Will the ‘official’ system become prominent over the ‘unofficial’ and the ‘personal’?’

In the face of any meaningful action from the current government on some issues, e.g. corruption, and ‘the burden of governance system’ exemplified by the continuing privileges enjoyed by the ruling political class in its current configuration, and the debt ridden nature of the economy, it is no surprise that frustrations of the civil society activists and more enlightened sections of the society are yet again filtering into the media this way. What is the role of civil society organisations in this context? What is the way forward for civil society activists and non-mainstream political parties to bring about desired changes in the governance structure and remove the grip held by the political class and political families away for a better future? In this article, I examine a few options.

Firstly, civil society organisations that are focused on social justice, non discrimination, racial reconciliation, human rights, gender equality, education for all and poverty alleviation have a continuing role to play in terms of articulating the current issues facing the population. Irrespective of the stand they took in the previous elections for electing the President and the members of parliament, they have a duty to do so in good faith for devising a way forward. In a situation where there is no ‘effective’ opposition party in the parliament, such a role exercised by the civil society organisations, the media and enlightened individuals in society is very much required. The issues to ponder can be not only the day-to-day mundane matters such as the Hambantota Fiasco, new road rules, the bond issue or the import of luxury cars for the MPs. They could be issues of long term interest such as those of the country’s dependence or independence on foreign powers for economic development (along the growth model), environmental sustainability, sustainable development, unemployed youths, foreign debts, rights of citizens irrespective of ethnicity or gender, cost of government, indigenous vs Western dominated knowledge construction, education suitable for the country, and how to divide powers between the centre and provinces. People from all walks of life can and should have a view about these issues and express them in various fora rather than being victims of the consumerist culture and living for the sake of living according to the designs mapped out by the corporate sector.

Secondly, articulating views individually or collectively in groups is not enough in itself. There has to be a critique about the existing policies and strategies that need to be made public. If the existing policies and strategies for resolving national issues are not adequate, the reasons need to be explained as to why? If the current government is not following a rational path to achieve required goals in various fields, this needs to be highlighted. For such achievements, leadership is a necessary quality. Are individuals who have been appointed to roles of leadership sleeping at the Wheel? Are there some who are trying to make a difference? Who is in the way of such individuals preventing their agendas and programs designed for public good? These need to be examined, discussed and exposed.

Thirdly, a future strategy has to be developed by the civil society organisations, concerned journalists, academics, professionals and minor parties to achieve the goal of a socially just society and a yahapalanaya. This is the most important and difficult task to address but one that could not be avoided in the current context. Without a clear strategy developed in consultation with each other and the public at large, no amount of expressions of frustration and critique will suffice. I am referring to minor parties here because I believe there needs to be a third political force in the country now that the public seems to be fed up with the two party system of governance –in terms of various coalitions (yet rule by political families). In developing such a strategy, several factors need to be taken into consideration:

  1. How far political and social change can be achieved by keeping faith in the two main political parties and their alliance partners? Is it going to be the same old wine in new bottles if we follow this path?
  2. Should civil society organisations and other individuals who are politically and socially conscious about the national issues play a political role for instance in the forthcoming local government elections? A recent book published by Laksiri Fernando provides some useful ideas on this front (see book review in CT by this author)
  3. How to make alliances among civil society organisations and socially conscious individuals such as journalists, academics, professionals, business community, religious leaders, etc. for a future trajectory for the country? Some groundwork is necessary on this front.
  4. Once a strategy and a plan is developed, how to market it to the stakeholders and the general population?
  5. How to make international linkages with like-minded organisations and individuals?
  6. What resources are required for a political and social program to gain a degree of intellectual, political and social power for the cause?
  7. How to avoid conflict in moving forward with stakeholders and when they arise how to resolve them?
  8. How to win popular support for the vision, policies and strategies (platform) of the civil society organisations for a better future for the country?
  9. What relationships should such organisations maintain with mainstream political parties and their leaders? Should the former rely solely on mainstream party leadership or help to form a middle to bottom level civic block that should lead a different campaign for achieving well defined set of goals articulated by the civic organisations?

It is the author’s belief that civil society organisations have to play a crucial role in charting the way forward when the political and religious leaders fail. In this task, it is unavoidable that they have to play a direct political role to achieve a degree of power rather than following the dictates of established political leadership that is not attuned to the needs and aspirations of the people for a yahapalanaya.

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