Participation levels in civil society have decreased, study says

Civil society’s involvement in the areas of governance and peace has yielded limited successes, a recent study argues, while noting that stakeholder confidence is low and participation has declined.

A survey conducted here as part of the 2008-9 AmericasBarometer series of surveys, under the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), found that “participation levels across all forms of civic participation have decreased” when compared with results of the previous survey in 2006. It noted that some of the decreases have been dramatic, like participation in labour unions falling from 14.5% to 5.5% and in religious groups, from 81.4% to 62.2%. Further, it said there was no clear explanation for the across the board decrease.

The findings of the survey of 2,514 respondents, who were drawn from a nationally representative sample, were published in the study ‘The Political Culture of Demo-cracy in Guyana, 2009: The Impact of Governance.’

Overall, the study said that Guyana compares well with other countries in the area of civic participation, although such participation is notably higher (51%) in the hinterland regions, which are traditionally organised along community lines. It said for all forms of civic participation, with the exception of political parties and trade unions, hinterland citizens of regions 1, 7, 8, and 9 participate at much higher levels. Region 4, the most populous region, is ranked last or second to last for participation levels when it comes to solving community problems (33.5%), and participating in religious groups (56.1%), community improvement committees (20.1%), professional associations (11.7%) and labour unions (4.5%). The study said this phenomenon was reflective of the coastal response to community issues, which is magnified in the capital, “where communities are less cohesive and local authorities are in a state of considerable disarray.”

According to LAPOP’s analysis, hundreds of groups at the local and national levels are currently addressing deve-lopmental issues and seeking to make a positive difference in the quality of life of citizens. These groups, the analysis added, are reinforced by hundreds more in the extensive Guyanese Diaspora, which typically maintains Guyana-focused agendas. It said by pursuing public goods such as workers’ rights, humanitarian relief, education, health, economic development, environmental protection, security and HIV/ AIDS prevention, these groups are increasingly seeking ways of working across divisions in a manner that promotes social cohesion and capital.

LAPOP added that the country’s civil society is typified, as elsewhere, by mass-based organisations such as religious groups and labour unions and a growing non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector. It said these have co-existed along with political parties, “as demonstrated by the extent of cooperation – or lack thereof – with partisan agendas, which unfortunately since their inception are still perceived to mirror ethnic divisions.” Among the challenges it listed for civil society groups are an outdated legal infrastructure, limited resources, poor governance and tendencies toward authoritarianism. While it said many groups are demonstrating capacity for healthy organisational performance and are achieving results and meaningful impact despite the obstacles, it emphasised that “significant challenges” remain at all levels to better equip them to build trust.

The study said the role of civil society in decision-making has been recognised in the constitution and its work has seen a reduction of political and social tensions in the past. However, it concluded that “civil society’s participation in decision-making processes in the areas of governance and peace – key sectors for building and demonstrating interpersonal trust – have yielded limited successes.” Civil society initiatives like the Forum for Effectiveness and Solidarity and the Electoral Assistance Bureau and the Peacebuilders Network were cited among the recent collaborative civil society efforts.

Decline

Among civil society organisations, labour unions recorded the lowest level of citizen participation, according to the survey. It said there had been a sharp decline in participation at labour union meetings over the 2006 to 2009 period. In 2006, 14.5% of respondents indicated they attended union meetings at least once per year, while by 2009 the figure had been reduced to 5.5%. A regional analysis, showed that participation was highest in regions 3 (9.2%) and 6 (7.2%), followed by regions 2 (5.4%), 10 (5.2%), 5 (5.0%), 4 (4.5%) and in the hinterland (2.0%). The hinterland situation, the survey noted, reflected the absence of unions there, while the high levels of participation in regions 6 and 3 were suggested to be attributable to sugar workers and agricultural workers’ unions.

Political party meetings were another area where citizen participation was found to be low. In 2009, participation at political party meetings was measured at 16.4%, compared with 2006’s 21.6%. It was noted that 2006 was an election year and may be responsible for the differential.  Among the regions, 2 (23.1%), 3 (22.7%) and 6 (20.1%), described as PPP/C strongholds, demonstrated the highest levels of participation in political party meetings. Traditional PNCR strongholds Region 4 (13.1%) and Region 10 (10.3%), the survey noted, occupy the lower end of the comparison. PNCR stronghold Georgetown, it was further noted, registered the lowest level of participation at 9.1%. Participation in the hinterland regions was measured at 18.7%.

Participation in meetings of Parent Associations also suffered, according to the survey, which found a decrease from 54.9% to 46%, when compared with the findings of 2006. However, it said there was no apparent reason for the decrease, while further pointing out that Guyana still ranked the eight highest among countries in the survey. It said this phenomenon may reflect the increased compulsion citizens feel to participate when institutional performance is weak. The survey also noted that the two more developed countries polled, Canada and the US, had the lowest levels of participation in parent associations, at 24.7% and 23.6%, respectively.

The survey included a separate battery of questions measuring a more direct and active type of participation. It polled respondents on whether they had ever requested help from MPs, local authorities, ministries or state agencies to solve problems and looked at the relationship between protest activity and civic participation.

It was found that persons who attended meetings of a civic organisation were more likely to make demands of MPs, local authorities or state agencies. Meanwhile, with regards to protests the survey found that community improvement organisations, political parties and unions were the only civic organisations with a significant impact on protest behaviour. Only 7.5% of those who did not participate in community improvement organisations participated in protests, while 16.3% of those who did participate in such organisations participated in a protest. Further, it was noted that participants in religious organisations, with 9.4%, had the lowest level of participation in public demonstration or protest, while those who participated in political parties had the highest level, at 22.9%.

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