Posts Tagged ‘Civil Society’

Civil Society: Myth or Toothless Tiger?

April 3, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

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 (Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission, The News, March 25, 2016). The responses received suggest that readers are in agreement with my critique of the existing Planning Commission but skeptical of the recommendation for civil society activism.

The reservations extend from questioning the very existence of civil society, to 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 organizations 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 organizations 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 jeopardized. In that sense, all citizens without state or market power who advocate change are activists belonging to civil society.

As mentioned above, civil society activism at the level of the individual can suggest ideas for action but cannot 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 welfare-reducing.

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 super-united countervailing power. The choice is between passive acceptance and engagement, between remaining silent spectators and articulating 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 nation-wide elections or choose out of 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 USA is an obvious starting point. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, US Public Interest Research Group among many others. 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 challenging the narrative of the state.

In India, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties has for long been a credible voice. Within 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 world. The opposition to such a change was immense within the state, the religious establishment, and within civil society itself. 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, establishing people’s tribunals for specific issues, and a broad educational and support mobilization campaign. All this may appear daunting but nothing ever comes easily and all journeys begin with a small and seemingly inconsequential step.

This opinion appeared in The News on April 2, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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A Single-Point Agenda for a Better Pakistan

February 16, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I believe strongly that single-point agendas can reverse the continuing decline in Pakistan. The catch, of course, is the unlikelihood of agreeing on one. But there too, I am hopeful enough to make the case.

There are literally thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs) with, rightly so, their own local objectives. The good ones among them are making a difference in their limited domains. The impact at the level of society, however, remains insignificant. This is inevitable given that the organizations are focused on many different tasks, pulling, as it were, in different directions. The cumulative impact is real but diffused.

I believe that without abandoning their local objectives, CSOs can exercise collective influence by agreeing additionally on one global single-point agenda every year. All of them would then pull in the same direction corresponding to the nature of the agenda adopted for that year. The weight of numbers would make itself felt at least to an extent greater than we have been able to exercise to date.

We can find mechanisms for a democratic choice of the annual single-point agenda for which the CSOs would then lobby collectively. This would be different from an Imran Khan-type dharna which is also focused on a few major demands, e.g., an end to corruption and clean election practices, but, for one, is very much top-down, one man’s crusade in the old populist style of politics that has been found wanting in the past.

For another, its demands are such that except for die-hard loyalists not enough people are convinced that Imran Khan could deliver – his party includes leaders who were allegedly on the wrong side in the past. This is inevitable given the structure of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan – it is virtually impossible to win a plurality without compromising with traditional power brokers.

The choice of single-point agendas has to be such that they bring together citizens across the various divides – ethnicity, sect, class, etc. – that ruling groups use to fracture popular movements. Single-point agendas that are impervious to such divisive possibilities are therefore necessary as starting points to have some hope of success.

But even within such single-point agendas, there are critical choices – some would require much more resources than others. Take for example the demand to provide clean water to all. There is no conceivable reason for the failure to do so in the 21st century – the underlying technology is among the simplest. However, the state can plead lack of resources as it has for decades. Similarly, the right to education is a unifying demand but one should anticipate the divisions that would ensue on the content of education.

I have a suggestion for a single-point agenda that is free of such constraints. CSOs should lobby to transfer the prerogative of appointing the chief executives of public sector organizations (PSOs) from the state to civil society. The benefit-cost ratio would be infinite simply because the costs are zero and the benefits, as all would agree, significant. There is little doubt that competent leadership of PSOs can make a huge difference to their performance.

In theory, the state has a claim on such appointments by virtue of being the principal owner of PSOs. However, the state exercises this prerogative on behalf of the citizens who are the true owners and who have delegated the responsibility to their representatives. Given that the state has so grossly and scandalously abused this trust over decades, citizens are within their right to take it back into their own hands.

There is need to lobby for the creation of an independent appointments commission free of state control. Although it is possible to delegate the authority to a bi-partisan committee in parliament, the track record of parliamentarians in Pakistan does not inspire confidence that the arrangement would yield the desired results.

The appointments commission ought to be completely under the control of civil society and comprised of a mutually agreed board of private citizens who have established their credibility over a lifetime of service. It would distract from the subject to suggest names at this stage but I can allude to individuals from the past who would have been eminently qualified had they been alive. I would confidently have nominated people like Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, Professor Karrar Hussain, Justice Rustam Kayani, and Justice A.R. Cornelius, among others. Individuals of similar integrity exist today and would step in to serve the country.

This proposal might seem far-fetched but is very doable. It is also a necessity at this point in time and just raising consciousness about the issue would be a major contribution. Above all, it is a unifying objective that does not call for resources except for the allocation of time divided over millions of citizens. All we need are a few brave CSOs to step forward and organize the challenge.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on February 15, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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$1 Trillion NGO Industry

December 21, 2011

By Farooq Sulehria

The NGO sector is growing globally. Statistics indicate a 400 percent increase in the number of international NGOs. From a couple of hundred in the 1960s, the number had reached 50,000 by 1993 worldwide. In 2001, the last year for which complete figures are mostly available, the size of the “non-firm, non-government” sector was estimated at 1.4 million organisations, with revenues of nearly $680 billion and an estimated 11.7 million employees. Over 15 percent of development aid is channelled through NGOs. A UN report says that the global non-profit sector with its more than $1 trillion turnover could rank as the world’s eighth largest economy.

The growing NGO influence is evident in many ways. On one hand, the overall global flow of funding through NGOs increased from $200 billion in 1970 to $2,600 billion in 1997. On the other hand, the buzzword ‘civil society’ has been appropriated by the NGOs. (more…)

An Exercise in Analysis

September 17, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I received the following announcement from the Pakistan Solidarity Network in connection with a teach-in planned in New York on Friday, September 17, 2010.

The Urgent Need for Solidarity With Pakistan’s Flood Victims


Even as Americans revisit the lingering destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, half a world away Pakistan is experiencing one of the most calamitous disasters in recent memory.


Sleeping Beauty: Pakistan’s Civil Society

September 8, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place?

The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart. (more…)

Are Some State and Non-State Actions Evil?

June 5, 2010

In a number of preceding posts we have discussed how best to characterize the repressive actions of the Indian state in its dealings with the tribal population. The ensuing discussion has fanned out to include the violent actions of Naxalites and Islamic groups. What motivates these state and non-state actors and how do they themselves understand and rationalize their actions?

In one of the posts we had presented a hypothesis about the Indian state: that it saw itself as a ‘modernizing’ state that felt it necessary to propel the ‘backward’ elements of society into the ‘modern’ age, against their will if necessary, if such action would advance ‘national’ progress. It was a ‘utilitarian’ state that viewed human lives in the calculus of gains and losses and was not averse to imposing costs if, in its view, the net benefits would be positive. (more…)

After the Long March – What Now Comrades?

March 17, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

Let us begin when everything was as it was supposed to be.

Before you came,
Things were as they should be:
The sky was the dead-end of sight,
The road was just a road, wine merely wine.

It was November 2006. The sun was in the sky, everything was alright with the world, the Enlightened Moderate, everyone’s favorite, was firmly ensconced on the throne, the Chief Justice was still the Chief Justice, and the lawyers were beyond the dead-end of sight.

This is what we recommended, based on our analysis of the situation, in a paper presented in Islamabad:

So what is to be done beyond the struggle for civilian rule? In the absence of a political coalition to support the demand for improvements in human rights, civil society groups at the present juncture in Pakistan should look for mechanisms to strengthen the instruments of social control over governments, to weaken the latter’s control over critical areas of resource allocation, and to increase the accountability of its actions….

A critical area is the rule of law where the arbitrary power of the state or of one individual over another needs to be curtailed. Mechanisms need to be found to shelter the judiciary from the predatory powers of the executive and to try to ensure easier and more equitable access to and enforcement of justice. Civil society should devote efforts to wrest a lot more input in the design and staffing of the institutions of government providing justice and enforcing the law and a lot more control over the promotion of officials within these institutions. Once again, we learn from Tocqueville that this is not likely to be an easy struggle: “Unable to do without judges, it [the government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than justice itself, between the government and the private person.” Do we need Tocqueville to remind us of this reality in Pakistan? Nevertheless, the efforts need to be made as part of a multi-dimensional strategy to exert pressure on the state.

Fast forward to November 2007: All hell had broken loose, the Enlightened Moderate had shown his true colors, the Chief Justice had been sacked, and the lawyers had appeared on the horizon. All the talk was about a new dawn with the restoration of true democracy.

Now everything is like my heart,
A color at the edge of blood: 

And the sky, the road, the glass of wine?
The sky is a shirt wet with tears,
The road a vein about to break.
And the glass of wine a mirror in which
The sky, the road, the world keep changing.

This is what The South Asian Idea had to say on the day the Emergency was declared:

So, going back to “free and fair” elections, back to “true democracy,” as promised by a dictator, ruling under an emergency, to a bunch of democrats ready to cut a deal, is not going to do much good. It will be very old wine in very old bottles. Well-wishers of Pakistan, at home and abroad, need to grasp the one promising development in an otherwise sorry history. They have to agree on a one-point agenda—the Supreme Court has to be restored; the independence of the judiciary has to be guaranteed. This is the only leverage we have at the moment, the one issue on which a broad coalition can unite. This is where the fight for “true democracy” begins. Whosoever is next anointed by God would need to be put to this test of sincerity. Otherwise, the moment and the opening would be lost. Those who are fighting would need to go on fighting.

Forward again to March 2009: The Long March is over, the Chief Justice has been reinstated, the Supreme Court has been restored.

What now? Is this the Revolution?

We don’t think so. As we said: This is where the fight for “true democracy” begins.

There is still no political coalition at the grassroots pushing for systemic change. This is still a movement led by civil society that needs to act on behalf of citizens to wrest control from the state to enlarge the space for democratic action.

Old habits die hard. Civil society has to ensure that the next person anointed by God to govern this country does not wrest back this hard-won advantage, does not shrink this space that has opened up. The independence of the judiciary would have to be guarded and guaranteed so that it can stand up to the other organs of the state and begin to act on behalf of the citizens of the country.

And there could be some new complications on the horizon.

We wish the Peoples Party had succeeded because it had representation in every province of the country and could have furnished the glue for national unity. But that was too much to hope for – as we had mentioned “this is a society at a stage of development where political parties are personal affinity groups.” If the Peoples Party had been a political party we would have seen it exerting control over its leader and not the other way around.

Now, although an important victory has been won, there is the danger of provincial polarization much as we saw when the Awami League emerged dominant in one province and had no support elsewhere in the country.

How will the political parties (that are not really political parties) deal with this complication? How will civil society force the politicians to maneuver through these rapids with care?

Civil society has been here before – Ayub Khan was toppled by the students and Bhutto fell at the hands of the traders. But then civil society folded, gave back its gains, and succumbed to the charms of the status quo. Professor Ralph Russell noted this many years ago: “For a century now all sections of the modern sophisticated elite have continued the traditions of their medieval forbears (in regarding it as the whole duty of the unsophisticated masses to do as the elite tells them) and the traditions of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (of looking for essential support – even if, in some cases, only moral support – to more powerful forces based outside their own country, be it the British, the Americans, the Russians or the Chinese).

And even more ominously, as a friend from Ahmedabad put it: Who will protect us from civil society? 

As we have said: The fight has just begun. Some parts of the picture have brightened, others are threatened with darkness. Even civil society has to prove itself. It is still a long way to go.

Don’t leave now that you’re here –
Stay. So the world may become itself again:
So the sky may be the sky,
the road a road,
and the glass of wine not a mirror, just a glass of wine.

[Excerpts are from the poem by Faiz (rang hai dil ka merey) translated by Agha Shahid Ali (Before you Came). The quote from Ralph Russell is from his essay Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia.]

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