Over the last few weeks I have been discussing activism and the general strengthening of the non-governmental sector in Barbados with another activist. Over the last few years, the Government has been trying to find ways to reduce overall Government spending. Usually the discussion about austerity stops there, but many of us in the activist space know that non-governmental players are picking up the slack in needs across Barbados.
This is being done on an already weak organizational platform for non governmental organizations (NGOs), reduced resources from Government for NGOs and in the midst of issues with engendering volunteerism as a feature of the Barbadian psyche. These are the issues that I wish to reflect on this week.
There are two main factors currently affecting the organizational strength of NGOs at the leadership level. The first is the collateral damage done by the investment in the politics of inclusion during the last decade of the twentieth century in Barbados. Before I explain the fallout, I should indicate that I understand both the need for and the benefits of the politics of inclusion as it was marketed and practiced by the Owen Arthur-led administration starting in 1994.
However, as Arthur sought to gather the best minds and girth for the business of righting Barbados from the brink of economic collapse then, the NGO community suffered because its leaders, sometimes both the top and next tier, were repositioned into national service. Two things ensued. Firstly, there was another set of actors who came to the NGO space hoping that if they used the platform for two or three years, they too could aspire to political inclusion. In many cases they brought no real commitment to the NGO space, and they did not expend maximal energy on rebuilding the NGOs they were associated with.
The second thing that happened was that almost overnight the institutional knowledge of many NGOs was destabilized. This is even more catastrophic when we realize that much of the history of NGOs and the operational functioning are kept in the heads of people.
Related to the loss of leadership and institutional knowledge with the inclusion of NGO actors in national service is the second thing that accounts for current weaknesses in the NGO space. In many cases it feels as though there is some disconnect between activism and its specific history in Barbados and the Commonwealth Caribbean. There are activists in the NGO space right now who do not understand traditional methods of organization in Barbados, who cannot call the names of or cite seminal works from Caribbean leading intellectuals or are seized of the issues affecting fellow NGOs and causes.
The dearth of understanding results in ephemeral treatment of issues as well as an NGO sector that seems to be quite ‘ lightweight’. There is also disregard (many times due to ignorance) of traditional modes and methods of self-help and community work beyond government platforms and resources.
The issue of reduced funding for NGOs is self-explanatory. The Government, in trying to cut its expenditure, is in slash and reduce mode. The result is that subventions or grants to NGOs are seen as luxury spending. To the people served by NGOs the funds are far from luxury – they usually represent a stop gap that prevents people from being consumed by their circumstances.
Finally, the NGO sector in Barbados is plagued by low membership numbers. For some types of NGO activity, bodies to make light work can make up for money lost in austerity. When both resources and hands are low, it leads to burnout for the few remaining actors. We have discussed how to make volunteerism a part of the Barbadian psyche but we are still waiting on actions out of the discussions. The new requirements that University students supported by Government should have a set amount of hours in community service should go a long way if rigorously implemented.
Am I suggesting that everybody in the activist and NGO space is working in good faith and for the national good? Absolutely not. Am I willing to overlook the issues of corruption and mismanagement within the NGO space? Absolutely not. Am I asking for a rationalization of the NGO sector and capacity building as a part of our overall austerity plan? Yes. Very little separates Barbados now from the social realities of Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana. How we confront our issues will either repeat history or rewrite it.
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)