The growing role of NGOs in democracies


Elaine Smith and Instituto Geracao


Elaine Smith

Everything started with a government financial crisis and quickly became a movement of reform and request for change. I am not talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement nor any other Occupy somewhere else movement, I am talking about the French Revolution (1789-1799). But I can definitely read into the parallels in history after over 200 years with recent civil protests all over the world (Athens, Kuwait, across America and main cities in Europe, Cairo…). 

Back to the French history: the struggling working class fighting for their rights against (or compared to) the privileged helped to pave the way for what is considered modern democracy, where all classes of people could have the same opportunity to education, health, environment and other citizenship rights provided by the government with the collection of taxes. But what we are seeing in the streets in the present is people exercising their right to express themselves, not waiting for official elections to complain and request better conditions.

Government creates the opportunity for education, health and other rights in several modern democracies. But in young democracies (such as Brazil), the disparities are still huge between the 99% poor working and middle classes and the 1% top wealthy taxpayers. What should be an equal opportunity is only ordinary access, and access to education or health or security doesn’t mean all will have the same opportunity. Conditions are very different in terms of quality. A public school in the state of Rio de Janeiro is very different from a public school in Amazonas. A hospital in Parana is very different from a hospital in the Northeast. Tax brackets are almost uniform across Brazil, but depending on where you live, your taxed money has a different social result. And yet people are not used to requesting their rights in the democratic voting system, and usually have no voice and no condition to climb the ladder for a less distant or more centric way of life. In young democracies, people do not rule with their vote.

In the beginning (really beginning – as in Greek and Roman history), democracy suggested that all people should have certain rights. Christianity suggested that men were created equal in the eyes of God, a pure democratic idea of equality. But how can we diminish the social inequality across the globe in present times?

A continued wave of NGOs tries to minimize disparities of social classes worldwide. Even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon mentioned the importance of NGOs and civil society organizations in helping transitional countries and their governments that cannot do it all alone. It is a powerful coalition with alliances and multi-stakeholder platform, said the secretary.

The network of NGOs relies financially on donations, grants and several times consultancy fees from corporations and wealthy families. In turn, the generous demand frequent results and evaluation of their so-called social investments. To survive, NGOs organize their participation in giving circles and work hard with donors and grantmakers to transform philanthropy into social responsibility. The education path is from charity to investment dollars supporting social change.

Usually young democracies have very scarce tax incentives. The government keeps the lion’s share of taxes and does not share the responsibility of providing level opportunity for all. By not sharing taxes through incentives, it should be the government’s job to protect and endure people’s rights of life, liberty, property, security, the pursuit of happiness and resistance to oppression (thanks to Rousseau). But people are repeating history by going to the streets to protest against the lack of ability of governments to provide it all. People don’t feel their rights are being covered. And the irony is that people relate their concerns with NGOs and other civil organizations, several times identifying their ability and focus in social change.

If people feel NGOs relate to their protests, and governments can use another hand in doing social work, maybe it is time to take advantage of the NGOs network. NGOs could use resources to continue their work, people would continue to see the results and governments would benefit from a better social grid. Can we work together towards the same objective?

Elaine Smith is development manager at Instituto Geração.

Tagged in: Disparity education Healthcare NGOs Occupy Wall Street

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