Civilians, activism and the role of CSOs

Chayanika Sonnadara

Chayanika Sonnadara

Written by Chayanika Sonnadara
Intern with Pinelands Creative Workshop in Barbados
IBA in Political Science and French
York University, Toronto Canada July 27, 2015

Private enterprises have economic means, governments have the advantage of managing policy development, but what defines civil society organizations? In the bid to be heard and recognized in the national, regional and international agenda for progress and development how do CSOs advocate for their causes?

To determine what gives CSOs their power we need to look at why they exist and for whom. Corporations represent private economic interests, sometimes these are affiliated with those of governments in terms of gaining revenue. Governments are interested in maintaining their power, whether that means backing socially unfavourable projects to gain economic advantages, complying with international organizations to keep in the good graces of more powerful players, or supporting civil issues in order to maintain compliant citizens. So what do CSOs represent? CSOs were created to fill the deficit created by a lack of civilian representation in government, they exist to balance the scales between private enterprises, local governments, foreign governments, international organizations and civilians.

CSOs represent the people, and as such their power comes from the people. The collective power of civilians is immeasurable. Civilians can influence government policy, and redirect private enterprises. As governments need civil populations in order to be legitimate, civil unrest creates a powerful incentive for governing bodies to make policy changes in favour of public interests. As for private enterprises, they work on a supply and demand structure in which the rate of consumption affects their success. As the demand is controlled by the people it can be used as a bargaining tool to implement more ethically sound business practices.

Thus far things may seem straightforward, however it is not as simple as it seems. Even though civilians are the power base of civil society, and CSOs are meant to advocate on behalf of civilians for their interests; getting the support of civilians can be difficult. Disengagement and disenfranchisement of civil populations is seen as a growing issue globally. With civilians seeing their interests poorly or not represented in the political sphere they disengage from the political process as a whole. The common person perceives their attempts to make an impact on the socio-political sphere as futile which discourages public involvement in governance issues. This is where CSOs need to step in and reignite a passion for political agency in civilians.

This enlightenment begins with education and empowerment of the public. Starting from grassroots up, CBOs and NGOs need to instill belief in individual political agency and collective political power. This starts with local community based knowledge of issues affecting people.

The information exchange needs to be reciprocal, CSOs need to assess the needs of their communities from their constituents and then provide the knowledge, platform and tools to create change. CSOs also need to re-instil public faith in the importance of their role in the political machine and showcase the power that individual agency and collective bargaining can have. This process requires CSOs to educate civilians in governance issues and indicate the everyday impacts larger policy decisions can have. Showcasing the connections between policy and common issues can encourage civilians to see their own role in making substantial policy contributions.

The connections between civilians, the government and corporations will always exist, however when we let the civilian contribution lapse the public ultimately suffers under the misapprehension that they lack power. As CSOs representing the interests of the people it is your responsibility to encourage advocacy and reignite the power of the people to achieve the change they want.