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Too narrow approach to “renewal”

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I am sure that I was not the only one somewhat relieved to hear of some concrete plans for the celebration of our 40th anniversary of the reclaiming of our national independence. Those plans were spelt out last weekend by Chairman of the grandly-named “Renewal at 40” Committee, Mr Elvis Charles with the blessing of both Prime Minister Hon. Ralph Gonsalves and Minister of Finance Hon. Camillo Gonsalves.

Both these gentlemen had first raised the issue of a year-long celebration to commemorate the special occasion when they made their respective contributions to the 2019 Budget debate. However, since that time, six months ago, the public has been no wiser as to either the composition of the Renewal Committee or its work plans. Based on the evidence provided so far, it seems that the Committee is primarily composed of representatives of state agencies and ministries and from what was said last weekend it is expected that civil society organisations will be called upon to participate in activities. It seems that the approach to such an historic occasion is in the mould of what one former Prime Minister had termed, “I conceive, you receive”. In other words the Committee, a statist grouping, will draw up plans and then we are expected to fit in.

This cannot be the way to go. One must remember that civil society played a major role in 2000, during the industrial and social conflicts, in paving the way for the premature resignation of then Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, the abrupt end to his party’s term of office, the holding of general elections in March 2001, two and a half years before schedule, and the election of the ULP to office that year.

In the euphoria which followed there were many positive signs of a new, more inclusive and harmonious relationship between government and civil society in general. A number of long-standing demands of trade unions and civil society organisations were met by the new government. There were also practical manifestations of a new role for these organisations in governance. For instance, the historic Constitutional Review Committee which spearheaded the failed constitutional reform process 2003-2009, was not dominated by the state but by majority civil society representation including participation by the Parliamentary Opposition. The state facilitated and supported what was essentially an independent process.

A similar approach was taken in the case of the Local Government Committee. Moreover, there were clear attempts to put the government-civil society partnership on a legal footing in the establishment of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDEC), approved by Parliament and much admired in many Caribbean islands, hailed as “innovative”, “progressive” and even “revolutionary”.

Unfortunately there was not consistency in either maintaining or strengthening these positive moves. As we approach the end of the ULP”s fourth term in office, it is clear that in practical terms, those heady and inclusive earlier days have faded into the background. Mind you, government alone is not to shoulder the blame for there have been failures too on the part of civil society to keep the promising partnership at the level where it began.

As a result, the constitutional reform process ended up in a narrow partisan contest between the two parliamentary parties, with the 2009 referendum seen as a dry-run for the 2010 general elections. The Local government process was abruptly truncated without even public discussions on its recommendations, still secret. NESDEC was allowed to atrophy and go into oblivion, the much-vaunted Banana Assistance Measures (BAM), originally conceived as a government-civil society partnership, ended up under total state control and direction and the government-trade union courtship of the early period has deteriorated.

There are many reasons for this back-sliding but all too often, one gets the impression that the state is all too impatient in dealing with the frustrations that cultivating such a partnership demands. So we have the back-tracking, the failure to provide the necessary support to underpin such a delicate, but necessary partnership and the resort to methods like those in instituting the Renewal Committee.

In February of this year this column raised the matter of the approach towards such a Committee. It read in part, “while in principle one can have no quarrel with any programme to celebrate an occasion like our 40th anniversary… we cannot help but wonder whether there should not have been a much more ambitious venture and one that is far more all-encompassing than that proposed”.

The article went on to call for “a broad-based National Independence Committee to spearhead the activities and to involve all sectors of our people, including of course, the political opposition”.

Today the Committee is borrowing the successful idea of Best community, made famous under the leadership of former NDP Minister Herbie Young, so wouldn’t it be useful to have some of that experience in going forward? Similarly the failure of the private sector to play a positive role has been decried, but what role is there for them in the effort?

I can only conclude by again quoting from the February article:

“Let us try to bring it all together and unite our people, irrespective of their respective persuasions in this grand effort. Please revisit the concept and INVOLVE THE PEOPLE.”

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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