Lecture by Harsha Kumara Navaratne

Lecture by Harsha Kumara Navaratne

On Civil Society

Who represents “The People”? The Role of Sri Lankan Civil Society Groups in Peace and Reconciliation
Lecture by Harsha Kumara Navaratne

What and who is civil society? Is it simply equivalent to the sum of established non-government organizations (NGOs)? What is the role of civil society?

In answer to these questions, Harsha Kumara Navaratne of the Sewalanka Foundation shares the story of Sri Lanka, highlighting the many ways that their story could also be our own.

Sr. Lanka boasts of a past where traditional village societies thrived. Decisions were made locally as people came together and shared their experiences, wisdom, and knowledge handed down over generations. As members decided over the fate of their own lives, villages also nurtured a sense of ownership of the community.

However, political changes in the country (e.g. colonization and shift of decision-making to the centralized government) upset this traditional way of communal governance. With the growing bureaucracy to meet the demands of developmental and social needs and the elitist majority-based politics, common people are excluded from the public sphere. Economic policies favored the wealthy, leading to a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Populist policies to win over votes of the majority led to minorities being marginalized. Their voices ignored, the minority became increasingly resentful and frustrated, turning to violence to make their voices heard.

Herein lies the root of the conflict – “majority of the people feel there is no space for them” (emphasis mine). People are not empowered in a way that they should be in a true democracy. It is in this context that we talk about civil society.

There are three essential things about civil society – about what it is not and what it is:

First, civil society is not a new phenomenon. Sri Lanka’s traditional village society in the past testified to the presence of an active civil society, way before the term “civil society” became popular.

Second, civil society is not equated with NGOs, although the latter may be considered as one type of civil society organization. NGOs represent the interests of certain groups of people. They do not represent all the interests of certain groups of people. They do not represent all the people and therefore cannot claim to speak on behalf of all the people.

Third, civil society sets up that space for people to participate in decision-making and makes them feel empowered to effect changes within their communities. Only when people feel that they are active members of civil society – able to organize and mobilize – will there be sustainable resolutions to the peace issues in Sri Lanka.