The International Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank Spring meetings held in Washington DC during the week of April 9, 2019 provided a mine field of issues and ideas in a multitude of sessions on the future of sustainable development. The leadership of the World Bank and IMF engaged with policy makers, practitioners, scholars, entrepreneurs, innovators , and citizens from across the world in open sessions in areas such as financial access, rethinking crisis response, climate action, and austerity and the right to health and education. The Caribbean had a small but vibrant presence led by Barbados' Prime Minister, Mia Motley and several of the Region's Ministers of Finance, representatives of CDB, CARICOM Secretariat, OECS and Caribbean Ambassadors, among others. Among the most significant features were the emphasis placed on the World Bank’s Human Capital Project including the establishment of a human capital index and the prominence given to the Civil Society Policy Forum. Representation from the Caribbean at the Forum was absent or invisible.
In the coming weeks, Global Frontier will examine some of the main aspects of the Human Development Project. However, this week we brings into focus, the Civil Society Policy Forum in an effort to stimulate a greater awareness and engagement of Civil Society in the national and regional policy dialogue. In so doing we are also prompted to recognize that the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington DC were taking place at the same time as the 16th Global Convention of Civil Leaders in Belgrade to mark International Civil Society Week. More specifically we zero in on the lessons for Civil Society in the Caribbean.
The Triggers from the IMF-World Bank Civil Society Forum
The Civil Society Policy Forum has become an integral part of the Annual Spring Meetings and provides an open space for dialogue among representatives of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and other stakeholders. The major themes of the 2019 Forum with 36 sessions were Building Resilience, Challenges to the Economy, Engaged Community and Investing in Human Capital. In addition, there were 4 interactive plenaries with IMF and World Bank officials, and a CSO Innovative Fair that provided insights into the vital roles of civil society across all the major themes. While the website link provides an idea of the scope of the discussions, it is impossible to capture the vibrant spirit and impact of this 4 day event.
The wide range of issues provide a useful template that would contribute to the viability of CSOs in the Caribbean.
The Evolving context of Civil Society in the Caribbean
A long history of Civil Society activity in the Caribbean dates back to the 18th century. It evolves out of a spirit of volunteerism. During its earliest manifestation following the abolition of slavery, Free Villages were established by neighbours helping each other to erect structures, farming, and the building of roads and other civil works through voluntary service. Groups of individuals initiated investment and savings schemes outside the formal banking system in the form of su-su, box hand, and the pyramid scheme. The emergence of trade union movements from the early 20th Century, and professional organizations like teacher’s associations injected a changing structure of civil society. The black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the anti-apartheid struggle that escalated in the 1980s and 1990s provided an international dimension. In the contemporary period, the articulation for gender equality in the US has merged into the “Me too” and “Times up” movements. Then there are the inroads of the gay rights movement. In the Caribbean there have been the rulings in the High Courts of Belize and Trinidad and Tobago that to criminalize same sex relations between consenting adults in private is unconstitutional. A similar ruling by the CCJ on "cross-dressing” in Guyana has consolidated the stand for human rights among others. These trends together give validity to NGOs and CSOs that champion Justice for All.
The CARICOM Charter of Civil Society : Projecting "the Soul of the Region"
The CARICOM Charter of Civil Society, for example, provides a unique set of transformational aspirations. Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community signed the Charter in February 1997 in St. John's, Antigua and Barbuda. It was the first of its kind in the world. This Charter undertook to pay due regard to one of the strongest recommendations of the West Indian Commission (WIC) as contained in its report, Time for Action.
"We attach much importance to this proposal for a Charter of Civil Society. CARICOM needs normative moorings; we have found widespread yearning for giving the Community a qualitative character [in which] values beyond the routine of integration arrangements themselves can be judged and to which they can be made to conform. The Charter can become the soul of the Community, which needs a soul if it is to command the loyalty of the people of CARICOM.
It is also worthy to note that the 2002 dialogue between CARICOM Heads of Government and civil society representatives in Guyana inspired the LILIENDAAL STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES ON FORWARD TOGETHER. It agreed on institutionalizing regular engagements and more constructive participation of Civil Society representatives in appropriate decisions making organs of the Community. Although a Task Force established a comprehensive strategic framework for triennial forums, Forward Together was never repeated, presumable because civil society leadership was perceived to have competing political ambitions and Caribbean Civil society was not sufficiently cohesive at that time to take a stand. CARICOM ostensibly lost its soul. But it can be restored.
Optimistic Trends in the reformulation of Civil Society
There are some recent developments in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region that parallel those at the IMF-World Bank's Civil Society Policy Forum. The VIII Summit of Americas process, April 12-14 ,2018 in Peru under the theme, Democratic Governance against Corruption established codes of conduct by which to hold Governments, Managers in the Private Sector and Boards and members of Civil Society accountable to the highest standards of governance. Similar guidelines were approved at a sub-regional consultation of the Caribbean Regional Civil Society in late 2018 hosted by the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC) in Jamaica, under the theme, Caribbean Civil Society Setting the 2030 Agenda: Counter Narratives and Heterodox Thinking. More notable were the recommended solutions to the challenges faced by Caribbean Civil Society. Among them were adopting the timelines and the targets of the selected area(s) from among the 17 SDGs; establishing strategies for the pursuit of shared responsibility with the private and public sector; participation of civil society in the monitoring of government management; involving civil society in climate resilience, and supporting the call of Dominica's Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit for investments after the devastation of Hurricane Maria to make Dominica the first Climate resilience country in the world.
Barbados is an outstanding example of the involvement civil society in planning for sustainable economic development. The refrain used by Prime Minister Mia Motley from her acceptance speech after her party's landslide victory at the polls, December 2017 is "putting people at the heart of the matter". This has been put into effect by a social partnership process for economic recovery that includes trade unions, business and civil society. It provides a voice for civil society in formulating plans and taking action on policies related to the reorganization of government regulations, sharing the debt burdens, mitigating the social effects and averting increased unemployment while restoring free tertiary education as an investment in human capital. This is the second occasion that Barbados has highlighted the tripartite partnership model of shared economic planning in response to an economic crisis.
Perhaps among the most path breaking of global developments among CSOs are the activities of CIVICUS, an international non- profit organization. It is a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil societies around the world. It has representatives in New York and Geneva to liaise with various UN Forums. While registered in both New York and South Africa, it has moved its headquarters to Johannesburg to better represent its primary constituency in the Global South. Its annual State of Civil Society Report monitors major global developments and key trends impacting civil society. Its 2019 Report covers 196 countries, of which all CARICOM member states are included. Its Monitoring and Tracking Civil Society Space Watch List draws attention to 111 countries, including 6 billion people where there are serious challenges to civic freedoms of expressions, association and peaceful assembly. www.civicus.org
Speaking at the 16th Global Convention of Civil Leaders and the 4th edition of international Civil Society week in Belgrade on April 11, 2019, Lysa John, Secretary General of CIVICUS placed the role of civil society in perspective. "We cannot be the generation that lost the fight to protect civic freedoms and democratic values. There is need for refreshed strategies to challenge discrimination and exclusion or new ways to demonstrate innovation and accountability as a sector "
The issues promoted at the IMF-Word Bank Civil Society Policy Forum in Washington DC and the advocacy at the Global Convention of Civic Leaders in Belgrade are significant. They bring into picture the important recommendations of the West Indian Commission issued 27 years ago and the need to revisit the institutionalization of the CARICOM Civil Society Engagement in keeping with the Caribbean Charter on Civil Society introduced 22 years ago and the recommendations from the CARICOM Civil Society Conference Forward Together 14 years ago. But the discussions in Washington DC and Belgrade provide new perspectives on inclusion, social accountability, human capital, gender equality and financial access. So too are some of the more recent Caribbean models. Chief among these are the Barbados Social Partnership Initiative (2018) and the Strategic Plan for Caribbean Policy Development Centre (2018) which includes adopting timelines and targets of the selected area(s) from among the 17 SDGs and establishing strategies for the pursuit of shared responsibility with the private and public sectors.
More recent global developments have increasingly placed emphasis on some specific themes: "weathering the next storm - Debt relief as a Crisis: Response for Caribbean SIDS", "Strengthening Civil Society Response in Climate Action Initiative", "The right to health and education" , " Youth Leading on the SDGs", "Stakeholder engagement in the face of the shrinking Civil Society Space and Reprisals against Community Representatives", "Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity".
The impetus for giving prominence to civil society in the development equation of the Caribbean exists. So is the enabling environment for Caribbean Civil Society to claim its rightful place in the social partnership to achieve sustainable human development. As we reflect on the meaning of International Civil Society Week, we must aim at redeeming the soul of the Community.