Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

COMMONWEALTH: Caribbean NGOs Want Real Influence

Dionne Jackson Miller

MONTEGO BAY, Nov 27 2003 (IPS) - As the Commonwealth gets set to shine a spotlight on civil society and governance, Caribbean NGOs say that much needs to be done to ensure that civil society’s participation in helping to build societies goes beyond lip service..

A major part of the problem is the constant under-funding that plagues many NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and community-based groups, they add.

"We’re struggling because we depend mostly on international donors, and most of our work is actually through project funding. Most of the time we do not get core funding (for administrative and recurrent expenses), and that is why most (NGOs) become dormant and are less efficient," says Amsale Maryam, chairperson of the Association of Development Agencies (ADA), an umbrella group of 13 NGOs in Jamaica.

As a lead-up to December’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Nigeria, over 60 senior government officials from 40 Commonwealth countries met with NGO representatives in London earlier this month.

Civil Society organisations there called on governments to provide financial and other resources to support their work.

Maryam believes that civil society has earned the right to demand financial support from government.

"I would use the word compensated, because we are doing a lot of work on the ground, in the community," she said in an interview, noting that she has heard similar calls from groups in other Caribbean countries.

"For umpteen years, civil society has been making a difference for government. Right throughout the Caribbean, NGOs are making a difference and they too are calling on government to say, ‘value our work, by assisting us financially, build our capacity and we can deliver more, because you have seen our work’," Maryam adds.

But Judith Wedderburn, director of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), a private non-profit organisation that fosters dialogue between society’s players, notes that there can be complications when NGOs accept government funding in the small, often politically polarised countries of the Caribbean.

"There are several NGOs and CBOs (community based organisations) in Jamaica, depending on the nature of their work, who do receive a government subvention. Some NGOs feel that it is their right, that they’re doing credible community work and that therefore they should (receive financial help from government)."

"There are others who don’t want anything at all to do with government because in our political system, there could always be the perception that if you got assistance from this particular government than you must therefore support the government, and that if the government changes, you’re in trouble," adds Wedderburn.

She says the problem becomes more intense in the smaller islands.

"There have been cases where in fact, NGOs, CBOs have used their organisations as a front for (political) opposition work, which really messes up the credibility of the organisation."

"Where that has happened in a particular country it has taken years for other NGOs to come out from under that shadow and to demonstrate that ‘yes, we may be critical of the government but we’re not interested in opposition politics, we just happen to disagree with your policy’," Wedderburn adds.

In a recent survey, three-quarters of more than 200 civil society groups polled in the region said that inadequate financial resources was "the major constraint on effective operations of NGOs/CBOs".

Meaningful participation in governance was another problem cited in the survey by The Caribbean Sustainable Economic Development Network (CSEDNet).

Although an average of 78 percent of respondents in 12 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries said they participated at a high level in policy-making exercises, just over 55 percent said they were satisfied with their actual influence on decision-making.

Maryam agrees there is a disconnect between participation and influence.

"There’s still too much lip service, meetings for the sake of meetings. And sometimes everything else has been agreed and you’re called to say yes you were present, just to say civil society was there."

Caribbean civil society groups called strongly for more meaningful participation at one in a series of regional consultations earlier this year under the auspices of the Commonwealth Foundation. Other regional discussions were held in India, the UK, Kenya, New Zealand and Gambia, Africa.

The 30 Caribbean groups focused on encouraging government to increase civil society’s participation in governance.

There was, for example, a call for legislation to be enacted that would: recognise civil society organisations and their participation in democracy, governance and development; provide permanent spaces for groups’ involvement in government delegations to regional and international meetings; and establish national and regional information disclosure policies.

But there are also calls for civil society to practise some of what it preaches.

At the London meeting between senior government officials and NGOs, the officials raised concerns about governance of civil society organisations, especially their transparency and accountability. They also called for the development of a code of conduct for civil society.

Wedderburn says that make a lot of sense.

"I think (a code of conduct) is very important because while civil society organisations are in fact critical of government, and call for transparency and accountability to their constituents, it needs to apply to both sides."

"I think that a code of conduct would be the place for that to be enshrined, and it needs to be developed by civil society themselves," she adds.

Wedderburn believes that increased collaboration and specialisation are also critical to strengthening the region’s NGOs and boosting their credibility.

"It appears to me that there are some NGOs that are surviving because they have developed an expertise, like the Jamaica Foundation for Children," she says.

"You can’t be all things to all people, so whatever is your vision and programme commitment, your plan of action should seek to really develop your capacity to be strong at that, so when you speak, you speak with authority."

Another problem NGOs in Jamaica in particular have faced, Wedderburn says, is scepticism from government.

"There are persons in the political directive … who don’t understand that a young man or young woman representing a CBO but not carrying a partisan position can have a credible position, so there is that dilemma."

"But there are a number of people who have persisted, insisting that ‘yes, we do represent a credible position, we do represent x hundred or x thousand persons, and we do have a right to do so’; so that process of governance is what needs to be broadened and deepened," she adds.

That persistence appears to be paying off, as indications are that civil society groups in some Caribbean countries are being taken more seriously.

The CSEDNet survey singled out Jamaica as an example of a government that has withdrawn policy positions on the advice of civil society, and noted that in St. Lucia, many sustainable development projects are planned and managed jointly by public sector agencies and NGOs.

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