Amplifying citizen voices —Syed Mohammad Ali

Advances of major contemporary phenomena like corporate globalisation, neo-conservative politics or increasing fundamentalism have begun to tear apart the social fabric of societies around the world

If you ask the poor why they don’t try to improve their own lives, they will almost always blame forces beyond their control for their deprivation. Broader contexts do indeed exert considerable influence on ground realities such as the opportunities available to secure a healthy and productive life.

The impact of socio-economic and political trends on individual lives becomes evident if one notices how advances of major contemporary phenomena like corporate globalisation, neo-conservative politics or increasing fundamentalism have begun to tear apart the social fabric of societies around the world.

Unfortunately these phenomena, based on narrowly defined and exclusive ideological assumptions, have become predominant enough to undermine the legitimacy of important state functions.

Under pressure from neo-conservative or neo-liberal pressures for instance, numerous states have been increasingly deterred from playing mediating and regulatory roles to help secure the well-being of their citizenry. Instead private philanthropy and corporate social responsibility are accepted as legitimate substitutes for government intervention.

Such inaction comes at a cost, of course, which inevitably undermines the existing capacity of governments to adequately ensure basic human rights within their own sovereign territory.

As public efforts aimed at addressing socio-economic inequities are being curtailed, it is not surprising that a profound sense of isolation and alienation permeates the lives of many people around the world, which cuts across traditional class, race, gender and national divides.

Instead of contending with the prevalent challenge of undeterred market forces, states in developing countries like our own, which are under pressure from international financial institutions, and caught in peculiar geo-strategic tussles, have diverted their attention to uphold a misplaced sense of national security.

This strategy of suppressing discontent, instead of dealing with its root causes, may resonate with neo-conservative policies that have been in vogue since 9/11, but it is breeding dangerous forms of militarism which have intensified divisions between peoples, instead of reducing them.

In the face of intensifying civil conflicts and the rampant commodification of life, common people seem to be loosing their sense of community. In such desperate circumstances, any form of community can seem better than none at all. Therefore, it is not surprising that fundamentalism, which can provide comforting worldviews to buffer against the existing chaos, or else can help simplify the complexities of the contemporary world, is gaining steady ground.

However, while fundamentalist interpretations offer simplified worldviews that can provide a homogenised and easily identifiable sense of identify, the myopia inherent to these interpretations also reinforces a range of existing stereotypes, concerning gender or race for instance. Reducing life’s complications to a simplistic vision of right and wrong also often results in identification with power dynamics that are in fact embedded in patriarchy, race and class.

It is thus understandable why fundamentalism often implies preservation of existing hierarchies which dilutes its effectiveness in bringing about meaningful social change, even when fundamentalists get a chance to rise to power.

A country like our own does not need to look very far to find evident illustrations to this effect. The effectiveness of the Taliban in achieving socio-economic equity, for example, is hardly inspiring. To a lesser degree, the religious alliance which had been ruling the NWFP until the recent general elections was also fairly fundamentalist in terms of its political ideology, but it too remained unable to make little headway in improving the lives of ordinary people across the province during its tenure in government.

But fundamental worldviews cannot be blamed singularly for preventing positive social change. Even the increasing concentration of mainstream culture on consumerism has eroded the sense of social justice which is vital for lessening the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

Poor people are themselves often too caught up in the struggle to make ends meet, and do not really have the time or space to identify alternatives which can help improve their lives. This moral responsibility lies on the shoulders of those who have the time and luxury to think about what is wrong with the prevailing system, and what can be done to make it less exploitative.

Social activists point to the need for developing strategies that reaffirm widely held values of dignity, fairness and reinforce the need for alternative worldviews based on an inclusive and sustainable notion of well-being of human beings, as well as our planet.

Such activists often disagree with prominent donor approaches like that of the World Bank, which is accused of being premised on a neo-liberal world view, which places undue emphasis on growth instead of equality. There is now increasing acknowledgement by ordinary citizens of the world for the need of a more just world as well. Evolving communications technologies and increasing global migration trends have allowed diverse civil society groupings to be forged.

Tangible work done by the International Land Mines Campaign, or the thriving energy of recent annual events like the World Social Forum, proves that this public convergence of thought is not mere wishful thinking.

Whether our trans-border civil society communities will have the leverage to discredit the prevailing fundamental worldviews, and to mend the damage done by them so far, remains to be seen. Doing so may require developing more equitable linkages across class and geography, and reaching out to other partners in government, business, media, and amongst donors, who are like-minded, and from whom strength can be drawn.

Some successful experiences in building successful partnerships between citizens, civil society organisations and the state in the recent past have begun to emerge. These include building up of a coalition for citizen participation in monitoring government oil revenues in Azerbaijan, analysing and influencing national budget allocations in Malawi, planning urban regeneration in Romania, participatory budgeting in Brazil, and tracking government expenditures in India.

Pakistani civil society organisations are also gaining more credibility in the eyes of their own government, and donor organisations, albeit at the cost of increased opposition by fundamentalist forces.

There is however still much room for amplification of citizen voices, and for using evidence-based and solution-oriented advocacy techniques, in order to enable ordinary people to exert more influence over the way their world is being shaped, rather then allowing dominant but undeserved ideologies to continue doing so on our behalf.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Source: Daily Times, 15/7/2008

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