Civil or Uncivil Society?

April 30, 2015

I recently returned from the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama, where I attended the first-ever “Hemispheric Forum of Civil Society Organizations and Social Actors,” or “Civil Society Summit” for short. This was a great step forward – an formal acknowledgement by the OAS that citizen groups must be part of establishing the OAS’s development agenda.

And civil society came out in force: 800 delegates from more than 20 countries came together to discuss citizen participation, health, the environment, migration and security, education and more.

The Civil Society Summit felt anything but civil. NGOs who have long pressed authoritarian regimes for reform clashed with newly formed pro-government organizations, particularly from Cuba and Venezuela. Two days of discussions were disrupted as certain voices demanded political recognition before they would engage in a dialogue on priorities. For some observers, it reinforced the stereotype that civil society actors who work with deeply flawed governments are inevitably compromised.

For me, it highlighted the tensions within an inherently heterogeneous civil society. We do not all agree, we do not all align, we do not share the same political dogma. As I see it, this tension and heterogeneity is our strength if we learn to harness it. If we can learn to come together as a community despite our different interests and agendas, perhaps we will then have the skills to sit with governments for discussions on a range of issues where there will be tension and disagreement.

First things first: we need more opportunities for civil society to hear its many-flavored voice, and to practice our own skills. The Summit was messy, but a good first step for us. Thank you, OAS, for giving us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves.