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Civil society and constitutional reform

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One of the features of what one generally terms the “modernization of governance” in parliamentary societies, has been the recognition of the role of what is loosely termed as “civil society” in that governance. With adult suffrage having being achieved in St. Vincent and the Grenadines a mere half century or so ago and party politics being even more recent than that, our society is faced with a far shorter maturation period than that of the western democracies on which its style of governance is based. It is a fact we must bear in mind in grappling with any proposed constitutional changes.{{more}}

Today, most international institutions and agencies make it mandatory for some sort of civil society participation in governance. The various agencies of the United Nations for instance, insist on some level of consultation with non-governmental organizations in the formulation of major policies and to varying degrees incorporate them in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of those plans.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as a full member of the U.N. family is party and parcel of this modernizing approach on an international scale. Similarly, it is a signatory to the all-embracing COTONOU AGREEMENT of 2000 signed between the European Union (EU) and member states of the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) group. That Agreement, which replaced the Lome Coventions in place between the two groupings since 1975, covers a wide range of areas of co-operation between the EU and ACP. It provides both the basis for the substantial aid that ACP states have been receiving from the EU and the political framework for the current economic and trade negotiations under what are called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

Most of the time we as a people are not aware of what we have signed in the international or regional stage, via our governments. It is not all our fault since previous governments were not particularly inclined to make civil society as a whole privy to what its legitimate representatives signed on their behalf. But, to be fair to the current administration, it has made commendable efforts in that direction. We need as a people to show more initiative in this area and to seek appropriate information on our obligations, since, as Ottley Hall has demonstrated, it is on our shoulders as a people any burden will collectively fall.

So it is interesting to note what that Cotonou Agreement, to which we have signed, says about civil society participation. There are five pillars of the Cotonou Agreement including poverty reduction and “involvement of civil society, the private sector and other non-state players”. This latter is set out in Article 2 of the Agreement (Fundamental principles) under the sub-heading participation. In order to reinforce and provide for this participation, Article 4 makes it clear that non-state actors shall…. “Be informed and involved in consultation…. Be provided with financial resources…. be involved in the implementation of cooperation projects and programmes… and be provided with capacity building support…”

All this to say that our country, like the other 76 ACP states and the then 15 EU nations took civil society participation very, very seriously at the very highest levels. They set the seal on the emerging international principle of broadening dialogue and participation beyond the traditional political boundaries to include the citizenry, especially at an organized level.

Our country and the other ACP ‘“emerging democracies” can be proud of having been part of that bold, pioneering step, for, as I started out by saying, such young democracies have not had the time for the maturation process in our political decision-making and implementation to run its course. Naturally such bold moves would have their detractors and be met with even skepticism in some quarters, SVG is no exception.

Interestingly, when John Horne, as minister of trade, Industry and Consumers Affairs, affixed our country’s signature to the Cotonou Agreement on June 23, 2000, local civil society had then been an active participant in brokering a solution to a grave political and social crisis then confronting St Vincent and the Grenadines and has been signatories to the grand Beach Accord signed by the Government and opposition under the CARICOM umbrella. Those who think that civil society participation is a pipe-dream should check their history.

-PART III next week

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