NGO constraints and challenges

NGOs in the Pacific operate under a number of constraints. Questioning of their legitimacy (Who do they represent? To whom are they accountable?) has become a familiar theme and clearly stems from discomfort or wariness on the part of governments about NGOs playing an advocacy, even worse a watchdog, role. Latent tensions that exist between those who see themselves as the legitimate (i.e., elected) leaders of Pacific people and those who are seen, at best, as self-appointed guardians of the public interest are not helped by NGO-bashing. The savage attack made by Professor Ron Crocombe on regional NGOs behind the Pacific Plan statement no doubt provided welcome grist for the mills of those Pacific leaders who might have little regard, much less respect, for NGOs. [17]

While such attitudes might suggest a strict demarcation between the spheres of government and civil society in Pacific states, this is not necessarily the case. Many Pacific governments have had in the past, and still have, close working relations with selected national NGOs and/or NGO umbrella bodies. In some cases, NGOs are aligned so closely to a government they are effectively ‘subcontracted’ to carry out work it would otherwise do, as in the case of the Soqosoqo Vakamarama in Fiji and Women’s Interest Officers. Conservative NGOs overwhelmingly predominate in the Pacific. Mostly charities or apolitical providers of services, they do not present any challenges to the political leadership and usually enjoy an easy relationship with governments.

In the past decade or so, some NGOs in the Pacific assumed strong advocacy roles in support of women’s rights, democracy and human rights, peace and development, media freedom, good governance and the rule of law. They have also worked to try to ensure that states meet their obligations in respect of international conventions they have signed onto, or commitments they have agreed to through UN conferences. Women’s NGOs in Fiji and Samoa, for instance, played key roles in shadow-reporting on their countries’ performance in relation to their obligations to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, while the NGO Coalition on Human Rights in Fiji produced a shadow report on Fiji’s Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination obligations.

As organised pressure groups, some of these NGOs came to acquire the kind of negative image once reserved for trade unions, and became the bane of governments. This is especially so for high-profile, outspoken NGOs which regularly use the media to criticise or challenge governments, and/or resort to using the courts if necessary in pursuit of their objectives. If their stance concurs with that of an opposition party or movement they might be branded ‘political’. In extreme circumstances, governments might go as far as stripping them of their legal standing, using the conveniently available colonial-era legislation under which NGOs are required to register, which narrowly circumscribes the activities they are legally authorised to undertake. The deregistration of Fiji’s Citizens’ Constitutional Forum served as a stern lesson to NGOs not to take their watchdog role too far. If the stated commitments to civil society consultations in the Cotonou Agreement and other such treaties are to have any real meaning, however, new legislation that provides proper protection to the diverse range of civil society organisations that exist today is urgently required. After the deregistration of the Fijian Forum, the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre commissioned the University of the South Pacific’s Institute for Justice and Applied Legal Studies to undertake a review of legislative and regulatory frameworks under which civil society organisations register in ACP member states in the region (Lakshman 2001), but existing legislation, based on the idea of NGOs as ‘charities’, remains in place. Until they are repealed, NGOs which take on governments remain vulnerable.

Kinship and friendship ties between people in small Pacific Island states, as well as the prevailing ‘customs of respect’, can make it difficult or uncomfortable for NGOs to confront governments. This is not helped by the revolving door between NGOs and government in some countries and, while it might be defended by many NGOs as an effective ‘inside-outside’ strategy, it can have the effect of moderating positions taken by NGOs, weakening their ability to hold governments or regional bodies to account. Criticising government tends to bring charges of being ‘anti-government’, or siding with an opposition party, or ‘being political’, which NGOs that have a place at the table, so to speak, are not expected to be, although strong NGO leaders retain their autonomy and are not in any way compromised by engaging with governments and intergovernmental bodies.

The resource constraints of small island states are often theorised. These constraints extend to human resources and, among the region’s people, the numbers of those with the capacity, critical perspective and inclination to be activists are in short supply. Becoming an activist is a heart and soul thing — it comes from an understanding of, and deep concern about, injustice and a dedication to working to change it. In a small society it takes courage to remain an activist, and it often carries considerable personal costs. In today’s world of professionalised NGOs, activists are a dying breed. And the Pacific has recently lost some of its leading public intellectuals and activists — Amelia Rokotuivuna and Grace Molisa among them. Some critics and activists have also, sadly, been lost to better paying international organisations within the region or abroad in what some might describe as cooptation. This is particularly the case where critical minds have been lost to institutions involved in reform implementation, where they might take on the agenda of reform out of an honest concern to turn the region around, and address problems that really exist but for which they are no longer exploring alternative ‘solutions’ to the ones being put before them by the drivers of economic liberalisation.

NGOs have also been adversely affected by funding constraints and over-dependence on donor support. Competition among NGOs for limited grant funds, the influence of donor priorities on NGO agendas, the burden that donor reporting places on NGOs, and the resultant professionalisation of NGOs, have all had the effect of changing the nature of Pacific NGOs. While they are better resourced today than ever before, and are encouraged to take on wider social responsibilities as states are urged to narrow theirs, understanding how and why they have come to be so apparently favoured is important. In a Greenpeace report on aid, published in 2002, Teresia Teaiwa wrote, ‘In the Pacific, aid surrounds us like the ocean. We are implicated in it and by it’ (Teaiwa et al. 2002). A sobering statement, to be sure, but the bottom line surely is that no amount of funding or aid should buy NGO silence.

Challenging economic ‘reform’ and trade liberalisation requires having a critical perspective on development. There is almost no one today asking questions that used to be asked in the 1970s — the decade of independence for some Pacific Island states — such as ‘Development for whom?’ and ‘Who decides?’. Contrary to the claims of a recent ADB report on poverty (Abbott and Pollard 2004), which commented on the obstacle to ‘reform’ presented by University of the South Pacific academics who were teaching outmoded development studies at odds with current policies, there are precious few critics of neo-liberalism within academia, at the University of the South Pacific and elsewhere. As such, it’s a sad indictment of the ADB authors, and of the ADB, that they should want no dissenting voices or alternative perspectives to be heard in academia. The reality is that critical development theory is slipping off the curriculum, supposedly invalidated by the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of neo-liberalism. Few who emerge from regional universities are equipped with a critical perspective, nor have they had any experience of working voluntarily with NGOs on issues of concern while they were students. Global issues have tended not to interest or concern students outside of the classroom; student politics in Fiji has been largely corrupted by ethnic and national politics, and ‘sitting allowances’ paid to students for attending their own council meetings condition them to expect to be remunerated for any involvement in civic affairs. Outside university, with the exception of what feminist organisations are providing, there are no training or mentoring programs for activists interested in broader development issues or public policy.

Despite the constraints on NGO advocacy and activism discussed above, NGOs in the Pacific have unprecedented resources for effective advocacy today. They have the means of accessing information and analyses produced by their counterparts abroad, are able to connect via email to a vast global network of NGOs to seek solidarity support for national campaigns, as well as to the media, intergovernmental bodies, and even political leaders of other states. Indeed, the primary blocks to Pacific NGOs working effectively to counter the forces of neo-liberalism in the region are, firstly, the low priority they individually and collectively give to research and analysis of economic and trade issues — not least because they have yet to acquire understanding and expertise in these issues — and, secondly, the absence of an alternative vision for the future of the Pacific. If they are well-organised, inspired by a clear vision of the kind of future they want to build in the Pacific, and equipped with a clear understanding of the political economy of globalisation and neo-liberalism and with the capacity to be effective advocates and watchdogs, civil society organisations in the Pacific region can become a force to be reckoned with. But unless they give priority to working collectively on economic and trade issues — and there is an urgent need to do so as things are moving rapidly in respect to trade liberalisation in the region — NGOs will lose the opportunity to effect any real change in present developments. It is imperative that we reclaim what Amelia Rokotuivuna referred to as the ‘spirit of the 1960s and 1970s’, when deciding development options meant thinking creatively and deciding for ourselves what kind of society we wanted to build.