News 1st Editorial: The time has come to build a strong and proactive civil society

News 1st Editorial: The time has come to build a strong and proactive civil society

By Lahiru Fernando

Dec 25, 2016 | 8:45 pm

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has – Margaret Mead

What did she mean when she spoke thus, almost half a century ago?

An unfortunate circumstance in our country is the absence of a strong and proactive civil society. This lacuna provides for an ill-informed, and at times misinformed citizenry, which is unable to contribute to progress.

Despite persons being educated, their inability to meaningfully contribute to our society is a root cause for the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves in. This status-quo is unsustainable and it must change. Citizens are oppressed by the authorities, politicians and public officials through cunning, threats and intimidation solely because of the absence of a strong and sound civil society

Example

A passenger gets in to a bus to go to work, to school or on a different journey – and on most occasions they are never given the balance rupee or two from the due bus fare. If this unfortunate soul so much as dares to request the balance amount, the bus conductor turns in to a wild ruffian embarrassing the passenger.

What prevents the other passengers on the same bus from coming together and standing up against such injustice? This is simply because they fear that they too may fall victim to such intimidation and embarrassment.

If all the passengers unite and raise a singular voice of protest against this intimidation, the conductor cannot intimidate or act irresponsibly and will be left powerless.

It is saddening that our citizens do not stand together whereas in a developed society, there will be unity among all passengers against intimidation and no single passenger will be left alone. This is because of the presence of a strong and proactive civil society in these democracies, which means that the citizenry is constantly aware of their rights and their power.

It is a common occurrence in our country that whilst many queue up for a certain service, others obtain that very service through the back door. While the first person in the queue squirms at the immorality, persons behind him do not even bother to inquire.

They fail to realise that their position as next in line, has also been usurped by unscrupulous individuals. However in a progressive democratic society – all those affected will raise their objection in unity which mitigates the number of instances of unfair practices in that society. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, a majority of those who appear as ‘civil society leaders‘ are either affiliated to a political party, a politician or are politicians themselves.

In some instances they are simply on the payroll of various NGOs and show no interest in the society they are meant to be serving. A strong and vibrant civil society cannot exist without impartiality and a commitment to public service. Strengthening civil society does not mean displaying a banner and rallying people behind it. It does not mean issuing statements to the media. Standards should be met when appointing a civil society leader who should possess an exemplary and unimpeachable character.

We do not have standards. Be it for persons, roads or bridges.

Or in politics.

When a road is being constructed, we accept it as a road.

But we do not look in to the quality of the road.

When leaders are appointed, we accept and expect them to lead us.

This will not help in strengthening the civil society or creating leaders with standards.

The time has come.

The era where people have to bow before politicians should come to a stop. Instead the politicians should go to the citizens, the people in whom sovereignty is vested. It is time to show the power of a strong civil society.