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Our era of animated corpses

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An element central to our post-independence development is missing. It has to do with the absence of civil society groups. I say this as I reflect on the richness of the eras from the 1970s to 1990s. Granted those were the pre-independence and immediate post – colonial periods which had their own momentum. Civil society was at its best with the prevalence of a number of non-governmental organisations that were active and perceived their role outside of the governmental circle. Civil society broadly applies to groupings outside of government and business. Included are trade unions, community organisations, church groups, farmers organisations and others that labelled themselves voluntary. By the late 1970s what were called development organisations emerged. Included among civil society groups were activist groups, many arising from the Black Power Movement, the protest against the banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica and from  the Sir George Williams Computer affair in 1969 in Montreal that involved Caribbean students.

There was an exuberance about that period. The Black Power movement with its theme of ‘black is beautiful’ that went beyond the physical allowed Afro-Caribbean people to develop pride in their history and in themselves. The annual celebration of African Liberation Day allowed linkages with the broader struggle for rights of blacks in the diaspora and the demand for independence for those countries still under colonial rule.

My focus however is on the non-government sector. This was a period when the National Youth Council which was an umbrella grouping of community and church organisations, predominated. It played formative roles in advocating for independence and in having Chatoyer as our first national hero. It was instrumental in 1985 in having an obelisk established at Dorsetshire Hill in memory of the struggles of Chatoyer. The groups I want to highlight however are those labelled ‘development’ organisations. Foremost among them was the Caribbean Peoples Development Agency (CARIPEDA) that embraced ten organisations in seven countries- Jamaica, Belize, Dominica, St. Lucía, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, and Guyana. Its work was regional in scope but also national working through its national members. It was first facilitated by the Canadian agency CUSO and worked with assistance from a number of International agencies with whom it had built links. Apart from working among farmers, fishermen and budding entrepreneurs, it collaborated with and assisted other groups in society. At its meetings one of the highlights was a conjunctional analysis that analysed developments in the region and provided member agencies with a framework within which their activities could be carried out. It provided opportunities with development goals in mind. One example was the sending of a fisherman from Bequia to observe the organising of fishing cooperatives in Belize. It advocated on behalf of aggrieved workers. In 1990 it protested the dismissal of 16 women workers form the Taiwanese owned Civic Textiles Company in Belize. Letters were sent to the Government and company protesting the dismissal and to the Women Workers Union expressing solidarity.

It focused on popular education and used popular theatre to allow people to analyse their own situation. Environmental and gender issues were highlighted with particular attention paid to gender images in the media. It was critical of governments when it considered them not acting in the best interest of its peoples. Today our society is dominated by a reliance on government. Even our very thinking is seen in narrow political terms. CARIPEDA was strong in trying to develop the capacity of our people allowing them not to be dependent on government but to carve out their own space on the development agenda. There was a richness in the kind of environment that emerged from the work of all these organisations and a push for people working through their organisations to play an important role in their own and their country’s development. Today those are no more as we operate like animated corpses.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian