Civil society and engagement needed, the politics can rest

There are several interesting phenomena that are emerging in the context of Antigua and Barbuda’s spatial politics and social engagements which raise questions as to what more can be done to have a more participatory democracy. Caribbean Times believes that in a rather subtle way, this country is calling out for a more all-inclusive society, and a society in which the partisan tensions are greatly reduced for the sake of achieving broader national objectives.

It is perhaps, too far a stretch to suggest that the country is being crippled due to the present tensions which coagulate around essentially the dynamics of two political parties. Nonetheless, Caribbean Times believes that it is necessary for a critical and reflective conversations to get underway without the customary hardened political positions that tend to limit the scope of those things that can be achieved in the national interest.

Seriously, how can civil society broadly defined and inclusive of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), church, business, youth groups, charity associations, societies, and other bodies come together to engage in focused discussion on the major issues affecting the lives (positively or negatively) in the country? Caribbean Times is advocating for forums capable of attracting informed discourse. This is not to make impotent any political party, but seriously to create and/or encourage other channels of communication, and by extension the proficient utilisation of civil society. Civil society ought not to be hemmed in by political closeness or co-option.

A 2000 study called ‘The Voices of the Poor’ claimed that: “From the perspectives of poor people world-wide, there is a crisis in governance. While the range of institutions that play important roles in poor people’s lives is vast, poor people are excluded from participation in governance. State institutions, whether represented by central ministries or local government are often neither responsive nor accountable to the poor; rather the reports detail the arrogance and disdain with which poor people are treated. Poor people see little recourse to injustice, criminality, abuse and corruption by institutions. Not surprisingly, poor men and women lack confidence in the state institutions even though they still express their willingness to partner with them under fairer rules.”

In another study by the Commonwealth Foundation that was published in 1999 and conducted in over 40 countries, that too found “a growing disillusionment of citizens with their governments, based on their concerns with corruption, lack of responsiveness to the needs of the poor, and the absence participation or connection to ordinary citizens.” While there is no intent to cast aspersions on the current or even the former governing administration, it is clear that the perceptions disclosed in popular discourse, rightfully or wrongfully, state most or all of these factors.

Indeed, since the National Coordinating Committee under the chairmanship of Ambassador Clarence Henry has launched its educational and sensitisation programme to bring to the public the merits and demerits of migrating from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and to adopt the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the country’s final appellate court, the familiar claims have resurfaced. This, even as well-entrenched excuses to thwart what on the surface is supposed to be a bi-partisan approach. Thus far, the main objections coming against Antigua and Barbuda migrating to the CCJ have been steeped in the teas of bitterness and political vendetta, even in the presence of factual, logical, and sound evidential materials.

Objectors have rightly pointed to perceptions, but have failed to show that there are communication channels that ought to be opened or explored which do not trap the real discussions in political diatribe. Access to justice, significantly reduced costs, and moving towards completing the circle of independence appear more rational and practical reasons for moving to the CCJ, especially when the structures that maintain the judiciary’s independence from the political architecture are in place.

If objections ought to be taken seriously, and treated as real concerns, then Caribbean Times is highly supportive of the planned public forums that the NCC are to carry out. These types of approaches to governance and disseminating information engender civil society and deliberative democracy to take place through the participation of the public. How else can we solve issues of the poor not being able to access justice and being marginalised? Should their fates, due only to economic lack and social standing be the determinants of who can afford to go to the Privy Council, when there is a CCJ properly structured and ably functional?

Civil society has to become more inviting and more vocal. If there are problems, as a country we need to face them and fix them rather than cower behind the veil of political proximity and placement. Antigua and Barbuda needs reforms in governance that open new spaces for citizen engagement. The NCC’s programme seems an ideal area to start, and gravitating to the CCJ by the electorate assuming that the referendum comes about makes much more sense than playing the political card only to retard and hinder the country’s right to sovereign development and the rejection of neo-imperialism as to be found by continuing with the Privy Council’s late claim of superficial welcome and change.