Wednesday, July 12, 2017

When Elitist Hierarchies & Systems Fail: A Community Empowerment Model 

Dr. Siri Gamage
Whether we read newspapers, listen to radio or watch Television, there is no shortage of issues confronting the country as many stakeholders, commentators and politicians express themselves freely their views through such media. This is in quite a contrasting situation when compared to the atmosphere that existed before the present coalition government came into power in 2015. But the issue now is not the lack of freedom to express or comment on social and political issues. The concern now is lack of action on many critical issues that the voting public in 2015 had high hopes and the failure of hierarchies and systems in place to serve those in need. When questioned about this those in authority come up with various excuses including blaming the previous regime or the lack of political will in one of the constituent parties of the government. Listeners get more frustrated with these arguments, explanations and counter arguments when they realise that these are mere talk shows and no action. Some commentators have even characterised the existing governance situation as paralysis.
The model of representative democracy fails where there is a self serving ruling class or an enlarged elite group who do not work toward nation building or work efficiently to address the needs of those at the end of various hierarchies established to serve people, in particular those who are weak and vulnerable. A measure of a compassionate society is how well it’s governance mechanisms take care of these segments. However the story since independence in Sri Lanka shows how the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer? How the rich and powerful enjoy the fruits of globalisation, free trade, liberalised economies, migration, employment and education opportunities unleashed by the opening of borders (among these beneficiaries are some members of the middle and working classes but their life chances and net wealth may be much less compared to those in the privileged class’s, politics being one major avenue of privileging).
The hierarchies that have been established over centuries to serve the interests of the people have become burdensome and non-liberating entities for the majority of people. One could even characterise them as oppressive, anti democratic, elitist and anti people. Serious critical reflection is necessary about the contemporary relevance of various hierarchies that control life in general. While a command and control system is required for the administration and security of the people, these hierarchies should be there to serve the people of all ranks and statuses. Likewise, religious and social hierarchies need to serve the interests of the masses without distinction instead of serving those who occupy leadership positions. When political and bureaucratic organisations fail to meet the needs of people, in normal times and in emergencies, their value is no more. Unfortunately, the hierarchies, entities and systems that have evolved in the country seem to function to safeguard the powerful rather than the weak. In this context, what is required is fresh thinking about the model of governance suitable for a small country like Sri Lanka to serve the needs and interests of people, particularly those at the bottom end of governance hierarchies rather than a new constitution that entrenches the power and privilege of the ruling elites or class with big government. Smaller and inexpensive government is a necessity if the desire is to continue with representative democracy, which has been diluted by having an executive President.
In this context it is important to reflect on a few issues not necessarily from party political lenses but from a more communitarian perspective. Let’s take the issue of race, ethnicity and religion about which so much has been written in the media recently. Every human being from the richest to the poorest need a sense of belonging and connectivity with other human beings. This is why we call humans as social beings. This is one lesson we learn when we study sociology- science of society. Some find such belonging in their family, community, school networks, ethnic groups, religious community, language community and so on. By doing so they derive strength to carry on with life, meet daily challenges, find likeminded fellows, happiness and more. Such belonging and connectivity are important when one grows older and become frail. So, there is nothing wrong when individuals in a society are seeking to be affiliated with social and cultural entities like the ones mentioned here.