12 November 2013

Keep friends close, enemies closer!

Medical professional and founder of MERCY Malaysia, Dr Jemilah Mahmood delivering the Keynote Address of the Commonwealth People’s Forum yesterday, outlined the challenges that civil society will have to contend with as the Commonwealth thinks about the international post-2015 development agenda.
While calling on civil society actors to seriously consider, embrace and engage with the complexities involved in delivering justice and better life chances to their stated constituencies, Dr Mahmood pointed out the importance of ‘keeping friends close and enemies closer’. 
From the time the acronym NGO entered the lexicon of political, social and development discourse, the relationship between governments and the NGO community have been marked by mutual distrust.  To be fair, both entities have ample reason to suspect the motives of the other and to see the other as ‘spoiler’.  Neither is a monolith of course and not only because the personnel within each sphere come and go.  Each can charge the other of hijacking mandates or even conjuring mandates where none have been given.   They can also point to less than glorious track records of deceit and other wrongdoing, complicity or guilt in theft as well as representing agenda that are not quite in the ‘people’s interests’.
For all this, the reality that has to be acknowledged is that both entities exist, for better or worse.  Neither can claim to be the other. Both have strengths and weaknesses.  Both are made of human beings prone to error and vulnerable to bending rules for personal gain.  Accountability and transparency are matters in which neither have exactly covered itself with glory. 
This brings us to Dr Mahmood’s other point, the need for civil society to fashion itself into a reliable and trusted conduit.  That’s a tough one, especially in Sri Lanka where  ‘civil society’ is not earned but worn on shirt-sleeve with ‘society’ as such quite oblivious to the relevant usurpation of voice and agenda.   Is ‘civil society’ another name for the name-board outfits made of people who are members of multiple NGOs whose ‘work’ can be described as agitation and whose innovation and creativity is framed by narrow political agenda? 
No.  There are NGOs and NGOs. There are those who are donor-driven and would be quite lost if funding dried up.  There are also organizations that truly engage with the world and the community, working creatively around the obstacles thrown before people by systems of dispossession and subjugation.  The distance between the two types is in fact wider than the distance between NGO and government institution. That is something that has to be kept in mind.   Nevertheless it is the later type of NGO that governments and indeed the private sector ought to focus on.  Painting one another with a broad brush helps personal agenda, not communities that need to be inspired and empowered.  That amounts to keeping a fair distance from enemies.  Won’t help, according to Dr Mahmood. 
In the end we have to swallow our personal enmities, cultivate respect and resolve, speak clearly and be ready to admit error and mend our ways.  That’s ‘prerequisite’ for partnership.  



sajic said...

Very objective piece. Takes me back to the 'slap' and the 'embrace'!