Sunday 21st August, 2008

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Civil Society holds the key

September 12th’s thinly disguised PNM mobilisation of proto storm-troopers, together with its failure to seek any type of permission from either police or mayoral office, is a worrying sign that Patrick Manning could be heading down the road of a Forbes Burnhamesque “paramountcy of the party” philosophy.

I may be wrong, but the best way to stop abuse of power is to assume the worst and seek to stop in its tracks immediately.

I remind, in this context, of an earlier column in which I noted that, 46 years after formal political independence, Trinidad and Tobago is still struggling to make the transition from an authoritarian, colonial society “ruled” by a governor to a consolidated democracy run by the citizenry via elected, accountable representatives.

In their book on such transitions from authoritarian to consolidated democracies in the rest of the world, two academics: Jan J Linz and Alfred Stepan, identify a key role for civil society. They note that:

“A robust civil society can help start transitions, help resist reversals, help push transitions to their completion, and help consolidate and deepen democracy.

At all stages of the democratisation process, therefore, a lively and independent civil society is invaluable.”

By civil society is meant voluntary, autonomous groupings of citizens who come together to realise common interests. The PNM was constructed on the backs of a range of such civil society organisations, spawned under colonial rule.

Unfortunately, party politics has come to mean either controlling such groups or coercing/subverting them out of existence. As a result, few of these pre-independence groups—with some notable exceptions—still exist as independent entities.

Fortunately, a new range of community based organisations (CBOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sprung up.

One recent example is the Sustainable Development Network (SDN), formally launched yesterday during a conference at UWI linked to completion of three studies on the role of the oil and gas sector in T&T.

The SDN, co-ordinated out of the Cropper Foundation, was formed some years ago and actually undertook an earlier study— The Northern Range Assessment—under the leadership of Angela Cropper.

On Tuesday there will be the start of another conference of civil society. The conference’s theme is: What do we the people want from next April’s Summit of the Americas meeting and the November, 2009, Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting? both to be held in Port-of-Spain.

This two-day conference is being co-hosted by a range of national and regional civil society organisations, including the CRF, FITUN, The Network of NGOs; Emancipation Support Committee; UWI Guild of Undergraduate Students; GOPIOtt; TTTI; TYC; CPDC; CAFRA; CANARI; WINFA; GRENCODA (Grenada); St Lucia Civil Society Network and the Forum for Effectiveness and Solidarity (Guyana).

Day 1, at the Cipriani Labour College, begins with registration at 8 am. The first panel will address the topic of “lessons of civil society engagement with prior Summits of the Americas and Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings” with presentations by Hazel Brown and Kris Rampersad; Ravi Lutchman and Nelcia Robinson.

The second panel will address “Lessons of Civil Society Initiatives at Governance/Constitution Reform.”

Speakers here will include Ivor Jenkins, of the Institute for a Democratic South Africa; Renwick Rose and Cynthia Barrow Giles, Constitution Reform Commissions of the St Vincent/Grenadines and St Lucia, respectively.

The third panel on Tuesday will hear from a range of other regional presenters on civil society-led initiatives, including Mike McCormark, of the Forum for Effectiveness and Solidarity (Guyana); Judy Williams, (Grenada); Brandon Antoine (St Lucia) and Hermione McKenzie (Jamaica).

On Wednesday (Republic Day) the Conference shifts to the CWU Hall, Henry Street, PoS. There will be presentations on job/food/personal security and governance and also on equity and environment/natural disaster issues.

Speakers on the second day will include David Abdulah, Folade Mutota, Winston Rudder, Victor Hart, Indira Mendoza and Sarah McIntosh.

The conference will culminate with the third Republic Day Walk organised by the CRF, to stress its importance as something more than a public holiday and a day on which citizens should celebrate their democratic rights in a “free republic,”

The march will begin at 3 pm from the CWU and will wind its way through central Port-of-Spain and then return to the CWU.

The organisers can promise no freeness, and certainly have no power to employ or fire. Those who understand that democracy, like any other flower, will wither if not nurtured, will turn out. See you then.

There is a $50 registration fee, but the conference is free to students and unemployed.

Lunch will be on sale.

For pre-registration: E-mail: [email protected]; Fax: 663-9536. Call: 662-7239.

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