Civil society and its good, bad and ugly manifestations
By Sugeeswara Senadhira
While most Western Nations believe the civil society has a major role to play in democratic societies, most developing countries believe, with valid reasons, some of the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) work according to a covert agenda designed by affluent funding nations or agencies. Adding another controversial point to the ongoing debate on CSOs last week, India’s powerful National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has described them as the “new frontiers of war” which can be manipulated to hurt a Nation’s interests.
Speaking at the passing out parade of the 73rd batch of IPS probationers at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad, he said, “The new frontiers of war, what you call the fourth-generation warfare, is the civil society.” Explaining further, he said wars have ceased to become an effective instrument for achieving political or military objectives. They are too expensive or unaffordable and, at the same time, there is uncertainty about their outcome. “But it is the civil society that can be subverted, suborned, divided and manipulated to hurt the interests of a Nation. You are there to see they stand fully protected,” Doval said.
In Sri Lanka, we have seen different sides of many CSOs and their actors, the Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) over the years. There is universal acknowledgement that some of the NGOs do a yeoman service to the downtrodden and needy people. At the same time, there are bad and ugly ones too. The existence of a hidden agenda in international development is not an imagination charge or an exaggeration of the factual situation. One of the main accusations is that the CSOs working in the field of development have been acting as agents of neo-colonial forces, serving a neoliberal agenda, by weakening the state in developing countries.
It is interesting to analyse the reasons for these allegations. There are INGOs with latent ideas to promote social change in traditional societies. The INGO activities during the 30 years of conflict in the North and East dealing with ethnic minorities who receive aid from European and other Western agencies were highly suspicious. The popular spheres of NGO focuses are the part of the development projects: gender equality, environmental awareness and economic rationality. On face value, the transmission of a hidden agenda does not correspond to any explicit intention of the foreign aid actors as it is disguised in democratic logic of empowerment of people, strength democratic values and ensure social changes. The INGOs came to teach Sri Lankans about democracy, failed to understand that those values were deep-rooted in the country, which is the first in Asia to introduce universal adult franchise 90 years ago.
It is not easy to generalise, as some CSOs can play a very useful and important role as watchdogs. Consumer organisations, academics, action committees, environmental groups can draw attention, for example, to problems with health hazards of toys, canned goods, powdered milk for infant, etc.
One of the main reasons for suspicion over the INGO activities is they failed to understand the sentiments of the people in developing countries where they try to implement Western ideas and beliefs without changing them to suit local situations. It would be interesting for people who work in international development to think about how certain strategic areas of intervention are proposed and implemented. They try to avoid the top-down implementation process and to establish a bottom-up implementation decision process.
When it comes to grassroots development, a key part is to listen to and try to understand what indigenous communities are saying and why they are saying it. They must realise that important social transformations in Europe and in United States was a very slow process and it took nearly a century. Unfortunately, most INGOs are in a great hurry to produce results. They have to first understand how the Asian or African societies correspond to their own cultural values, norms and traditions. To get them activated through difficult processes of consciousness, mobilisation and social recognition are the prerequisites. It is a slow process and there cannot be an immediate transformation. Hence, it is important to know, listen and dialogue international development agendas without assuming the legitimacy and universality of certain objectives and goals. Development projects should be a two-way street, where consensus is a crucial part of the final decision.
Most developing countries including Sri Lanka seem to regard INGOs with increasing suspicion. In Third World Nations, anti-NGO laws or at least strict regulations have been imposed. However, it is incorrect to interpret them as a part of a trend of reverse transitions, in which countries slide away from democracy. They are merely steps to safeguard independence, sovereignty and national interests of those countries. However, such steps could lead to shrinking or closing of civic space, unless the NGOs re-examine their role and obligations and recast their strategies to work in close coordination with the authorities.