Thursday October 28, 2021

A toothless tiger?

April 02, 2016

I had proposed a civil society initiative to constitute a People’s Planning Commission as a possible check on wasteful expenditures of public money by the state in these pages (‘Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission’ March 25, 2016). The responses to the article suggest that readers agree with my critique of the existing Planning Commission, but are sceptical of the recommendation for civil society activism.

The reservations extend from questioning the very existence of civil society, pointing out its fragmentation to asking whether it has any way of choosing qualified individuals. These are legitimate questions, and given that I believe civil society activism to be virtually the only mechanism for moving forward in Pakistan, the onus of arguing the case is on me.

The concept of civil society is simple. Subtract from our universe the spheres of the state and the market, along with their associated organisations, and what we are left with is the sphere of civil society. The rationale for this division is that the state and the market have the power to take actions that impact the lives of members of civil society but the latter, as individuals, do not have the power to resist these actions if they are unjust, unfair or in any way detrimental to their welfare. Civil society activism is the attempt to make possible collective actions to protect or advance the interest of citizens. The vehicle for such actions are voluntary organisations that are non-state and not for profit.

As a citizen without power, I consider myself a member of civil society and the opinion I wrote was a manifestation of civil society activism, in that it proposed an action that would protect or advance the interests of citizens in a situation where I felt those interests were being jeopardised. In that sense, all citizens without state or market power, who advocate change, are activists of civil society.

As mentioned above, civil society activism at the level of the individual can suggest ideas for action, but it cannot be a substitute for the action itself, which requires collective effort. This brings us face to face with the reality that civil society is not a monolith with all members in agreement over what is to be done or how. On the contrary, civil society is fragmented with many interest groups, often acting at cross-purposes. To add to the complication, civil society actions can also be malevolent, dishonest and detrimental to welfare.

It is not this complexity that is surprising; rather, it is the expectation that civil society can be anything but otherwise and the conclusion that this complexity renders civil society completely ineffective. The real world incorporates a political process, in which many competitive interests are at play. In such a process, the choice is not between doing nothing and conjuring up some mythical, united countervailing power. The choice is between passive acceptance and engagement; between being silent spectators and raising a voice, and then strengthening the effectiveness of that voice. This is hardly a choice, even when the odds appear insurmountable at the outset – the battle is surely lost without an engaged citizenry.

The argument that civil society has no way of nominating or selecting individuals to represent its interests is also based on a misleading conception. Civil society is not a political party that has to hold nationwide elections or choose from a list of all eligible candidates; rather, civil society activism involves the coming together of a sufficient number of concerned individuals to contribute a countervailing voice in the political process and in the realm of ideas.

Some examples should both clarify and put to rest these concerns. The number of effective citizen watchdog groups in the US is an obvious starting point. A number of truth and reconciliation commissions have been formed through civil society activism and the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, initiated by Bertrand Russell, was a powerful intervention that challenged the narrative of the state. In India, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties has long been a credible voice. In Pakistan, one can credit the slow and continuous pressure exerted by a coalition of women’s groups to reverse the negative legacies of the Zia era and to push through new legislation.

For those who continue to doubt, the most stunning recent example has been the success of civil groups lobbying for same-sex marriage across the globe. The objective seemed unattainable, yet the relative speed with which the tide turned is testimony to the power of civil society, irrespective of how one might view the action itself.

With this background, the way forward for those wanting to establish a public watchdog in Pakistan should be quite clear. All it requires is for five individuals with professional competence and recognition to announce their availability. From there on, it would be a patient struggle, using right-to-information provisions, public interest litigation, people’s tribunals for specific issues and a broad educational and support mobilisation campaign. All this may appear daunting, but nothing ever comes easily and all journeys begin with a small and seemingly inconsequential step.