Dr Ryan Allard and Shaun Biggart-Hutchinson.
A few days ago, several civil society groups helped organize and endorse the very first non-partisan forum for the general public to engage with candidates putting themselves up for a General Election for selected constituencies (Tobago East and Tobago West). It was shown on local cable television (Tobago Channel 5) and was streamed to thousands across the Internet to the world racking up over 23,000 stream views over three nights of conversations. It allowed thousands of persons to submit questions directly in their own words to the candidates via video call, voice call and via over 1,000 online comments. Below is presented some background to the event.
With the announcement of the general election for 10 August, several Civil Society members identified a problem. As far as we could see the electorate does not get the opportunity for non–partisan discussion with the candidates in the immediate run up to the election date on issues of concern. Interaction during this period generally occurs on political platforms where candidates are surrounded by their supporters and are not challenged on issues of concern. Worse yet, real interaction is often limited to carnival trucks rolling through residential neighbourhoods. Candidates of incumbent parties stress any successes of their party, and candidates of new parties stress the need for “change”. There is little balanced discussion of what progress has been made nationally or locally, what specifically needs to be changed, how change will actually result, what hard decisions need to be made, or why problems persist in certain areas. Additionally, only limited interaction occurs with the incumbent representatives or other candidates during the period between elections. This is a deep problem that cuts through our democracy and severely limits how we progress as a nation.
At the same time as these problems were being identified during the run up to election day, social media calls were being made by Youth and Civil Society Organisations for a debate between the main parties, and this soon evolved into a broader discussion about accountability of the candidates, empowerment of the people, and consolidation of a new type of interactive and participatory politics. Discussion focused on the role of Civil Society, the current arm’s length relationship between representatives and constituents and crucially, ways in which that gap may be closed.
But what exactly is “Civil Society”? We use the term a lot, and it has numerous meanings and versions (like Non-Governmental Organisations – NGOs, Community-based Organisations – CBOs, or Faith-Based Organisations- FBOs). For some it’s the groups that come begging for money for events. For others, like the authors of the National Roadmap Recovery Report, it seems to be organisations that only do social protection work especially for women and children. But here we use the term “Civil Society”, similarly to how the UN does: basically to represent the “third sector” or “non-profit and voluntary sector” distinct from the government and the for-profit sector, and hence it includes a wide range of organisations like social, sporting, religious, scientific groups, trade unions, and yes political parties. Basically, civil society is any volunteer group formed to collectively act, express, promote, pursue or defend a field of common interest. All members of the public should feel free to join and contribute to any Civil Society group that matches their interest. But back to Tobago election candidates.
With election campaigning underway and in full swing, the call for closer interaction between constituents and the candidates selected to represent them was taken up by Tobago Channel 5 who agreed to broadcast the series ‘Public Conversations with the Candidates’ as part of their elections coverage. 4 Civil Society groups planned for and achieved a collaboration with this media house and with each other to organize the live broadcasts, and seven additional groups endorsed the series of events. Several sectors were represented by these eleven Civil Society groups: education and literacy, entrepreneurship, environment, tourism, youth, and agriculture. These sectors represented the interest of the people and some of the issues of concern that candidates must be able to act on. The event enabled meaningful dialogue with the candidates vying to represent them in a non-partisan forum. It also allowed the public to give the candidates instructions on the most pressing matters to be taken up in Parliament. By this event, the common woman’s and man’s crucial participation in the country’s political affairs has been established as one of equals not followers; neither passive audience, nor vote banks, nor childlike pupils being lectured to. The people have declared their right to be informed by the candidates themselves prior to Election Day.
This historic initiative was, we understand, the first ever such event in Trinidad and Tobago.
The several Civil Society groups who planned for and endorsed the collaboration with Tobago Channel 5 to produce the three live broadcasts include: Organisers: Youth Votes Matter TT, Tobago Entrepreneurs Business Network, Tobago Writers Guild and Tobago Literacy Support; Endorsers: Tobago Youth Council, Environment Tobago, Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville, Tobago Jet Ski Association, The Castara Tourism Development Association, Tobago Agricultural Society, and the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association. We are confident that given more time, far more Civil Society groups would have endorsed the event.
We wish to formally express our gratitude for the enthusiastic participation and gracious contribution of the six candidates vying for the parliament who agreed to foster participatory democracy, and also to the thousands of viewers and those that submitted their comments and questions to the participative and democratic process in Tobago. We also would like to thank our moderators Julian Skeete and Latoyaa Roberts who were engaging and courteous.
We intend to continue to facilitate the engagement, interaction, liaison and unity between the people and the authorities on an ongoing basis, and expect that this type of interaction and dialogue between elected representatives and people will continue and strengthen our democracy.
But there is immense opportunity for more people to become involved in Civil Society in Tobago to further this and other developmental activities on the island. Do you have a skill? Definitely. Imagine using it to advance Tobago via Civil Society. Do you have interests? Surely. There might be a Civil Society group that focusses on it. If not, maybe you can expand the work of an existing group or form a new one. Tobago’s Civil Society has shown the importance of getting involved to improve the island, and has made history in the process. Where will you be when history is made again?