From the general observation of a Ghanaian and one who pays attention to daily happenings in the media, public space and political spaces, I am convinced that Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Think Tanks (TTs) have influenced positively the development of our country. In the wake of democracy and participatory governance, individuals, civil societies and political organizations have shaped ideologies and policies of our state.

Criticisms, fair or otherwise, must not dissuade them from their fundamental goal of the establishment. Genuinely, criticisms are useful inputs and data that cannot be taken for granted if they can really engender proper sociopolitical and economic discourse. It is also inexpedient to claim inerrable in their thoughts and decisions. Wading into every commentary, especially on personal levels, just to defend their positions rather undermines their philosophy and goal for which they were established.

This opinion piece comes at the backdrop of the banterous encounter between certain individuals and some CSO actors which have assumed the regrettable status of personality attacks and name calling. This squabble in the media has drawn my attention to respectfully remind all individuals involved to reflect on their overall mandate and vision for the country and its citizens. With this, I hope they reflect more on the implications of their current actions on themselves and the future of CSOs and public space.

Industrial workers, legal units, academia, clergy and laymen alike contribute in diverse ways to help shape the direction and development trajectory of the country. Appreciation to these CSOs and Policy Think Tanks must be deservingly enormous and endless. Our general development trajectory has gone through phases of trial and errors. Much efforts have yielded great dividends such that though we have not gotten to our promised destination, we live with some magnitude of contentment and hope. CSOs and PTTs are part of the movement and experience.

Efforts of CSOs/PTTs

Economic policies and financial decisions have not only emanated from governmental innovations but ideas, advice and inputs from experienced financial experts who either worked with private institutions or offered to work for the government. We cannot mention macro and micro economic policies without acknowledging the inputs of CSOs and Think Tanks. Indeed, key input of technocrats were solicited to inform decisions on taxation including how to widen tax bases and modalities of taxations. Again, economic directions, such as loans conditions, the implications and the country’s capacities thereof, have not taken off without ideas and analysis of Think tanks.

Laws, legislations and legal frameworks that have been promulgated by the Parliament of Ghana always receive critical inputs and in-depth thoughts shrouded in extensive nation-centric ideologies. Think tanks have contributed to the speed at which Acts of Parliament were passed by providing the missing data and research findings to facilitate decisions. Even bills to consider had prior inputs from CSOs and concerned individuals.

Worthy of mentioning, is the Domestic Violence Act (2007) which was primarily inspired by the concerns, actions, expressions of fear, demonstrated agonies, and pressures expressed in collective actions and stakeholder consultations by groups of women, CSOs and security experts. It is not possible to discuss Ghana’s development without due gratitude to Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Institute of Statistical, Social, and Economic Research (ISSER), IMANI Centre for Policy and Education and Institute for Democratic Governance (IDEG) and Ghana Centre for Democratic Development (CDD Ghana).

Modest Posture or Immunity?

While it is without doubt that a lot of the efforts of CSO and Think tanks have yielded a lot of useful outputs, though without hard facts, we can equally admit that many challenges bedeviling the state and failures of governments can be partially attributed to the Think tanks and CSOs. It is fair that they share in both the successes and failures of governments in this fourth republic, especially when freedom of speech, openness of governments and receptiveness of political heads are more advanced than before. Policy think tanks and CSOs must accept with pride to share in the successes and failures of our country’s development trajectory these 27 years of Ghana’s uninterrupted modern democracy. Refusal to admit to the failures as much as they have claimed a part in the successes will be a dangerous and irresponsible posture to governance and ideologies.

Think tanks and CSOs cannot consider themselves infallible while labelling all others defective. This is because, irrespective of which ideology we profess strongly and dogmatically, we must be aware of the inherent flaws in our ideology that we may not be able to address or overcome. Beyond the awareness of the flaws, we must accept them and admit that there are others with alternative ideologies with integral strengths which can complement those flaws embedded in ours. This simple principle could perhaps guide the thinking and profession of CSOs, Think tanks, and of course assertive patriots of our country. 

The CSOs, policy analysts and Think tanks must be open to critique and even criticisms. Individuals, other think tanks and political actors may question their ideas and inputs either from noble perspectives or with ill-intentions. Either ways, it beholds on the CSOs and PTTs to remain focused on the primary goal of influencing policies and development directives from an impersonal position.

CSOs and PTTs are not revered religious organizations who question people’s personal lives and judge their moral standings in personal lives or examine moral piety of those who critique their work. Being derailed from the overriding natural obligation of helping define our development course into engaging in personal banters on personal convictions and needless squabbles defeat the foundation on which CSOs and Think tanks hinges.

Consequences on the Public Space

CSOs operate within the public space not controlled by skewed political ideologies or dominated by partisan political actors. Some political theorists are of relishing reckoning that the public space is a space where freedom of speech and opinions are welcomed without political tags. They allude that people or groups who are independently minded find their voice welcomed and accepted here. It is the space on the streets, the bars, in trotros and at the parks where people can voice their opinions, whether sound or otherwise without feeling intimidated or threatened.

Today, the public space could be social media and the phone-in programmes where everybody, to put it bluntly, can call in and speak their mind. I do not need to discuss the amazing relevance of such engagement to democracy, understanding needs of the non-elites, simple and voiceless and their wildest wishes. Should anybody, unit, or institution be averse to this? Should it be regulated? Should people feel intimidated within this space? If intimidation occurs, should CSOs, PTTs and human rights advocates who promote human freedoms and free speech be known to be culprits of such reprehensible agendum?

Explicitly, this public space is for people who are not inspired by partisan political interests and ideologies. Instead, it is for people who are guided by national interests and ideologies. So for the new lay person, it is the operating field of the neutrals. However, it is completely artificial, theoretical and irrational to be convicted that these neutrals will wholly share ideas and engage in national discourse without aligning to, introducing, or referencing aspects of ideas, positions and philosophies shared by one political leaning or the other.

For example, it is impossible to consistently discuss an economic policy without toggling between aspects of capitalist, socialist or communist theory. In the same way, it is impossible to discuss law without making reference to one religious orientation or another. The same encounter will accompany discussions of governance principle. Why? Because, irrespective of where we strongly stand in ideologies, no single sociopolitical or economic ideology is inviolable or absolutely ideal for any group or people or country. Each has its own flaws, undermining, madness and inhumanity while we acknowledge their strengths, usefulness and practicality.

Agreeing with this, it beholds on us to be receptive and accepting of people’s position in the public space. Even if we do not agree, it becomes more compelling to tackle the embedded issues or identify the critical issues and address them accordingly. This is how we can develop together: Acknowledging our weaknesses, welcoming inputs and critique and working collectively to address those challenges. To fail to do that is to suppress people’s freedom, undermine democracy, make democracy pretty dirty and unattractive and indirectly endorse autocracy and military style of governance.

The mandate of a policy think tank or CSO is to stay true to its cause of informing policies and directing and influencing responsible discourse centred on holistic and sustainable development. This course comes with detractors and those who share counter opinions and idea. It is natural and very useful in institutional processes. Counter ideas and discourses are even central to CSOs upbringing because of the space, the public space, where they operate. Diversity, divergence, split ideas, concurring and complementing notions, conflicting and confounding ideas are all integral parts of the public space within which CSOs entertain themselves seriously. Any public space that does not have these aspects does not qualify to be a real or genuine public space.

Indeed, the relevance of policy think tanks and CSOs is not based on the exchange of invectives, personality attacks, and muddying themselves in the immature play of insults, and sentimental contests. We do not need to insult in order to stay relevant. The very establishment of a CSO or think tank makes it germane in its own sense. The goals and objectives of CSOs and policy think tanks extend beyond personal gains, honour or selected-group aggrandizement.

It has everything to do with national, regional and global wellbeing and growth which seeks to ensure that every well-meaning human being, dead, born or yet to live can reap in proudly and sustainably. CSOs have an ideal of looking beyond themselves, today, or personal benefits. This makes the mandate of CSOs and Think tanks morally admirable and worthy of support than partisan political aspirations and philosophies. However, if CSOs and PTTs derail and engage in insults, personality attacks, and undermine the opinions of others who enter the public space, I deem it necessary to ask them one question. In century to come, is this the legacy they are building and the kind of public space they are hoping to hand over?

A call for Support

Truly, different issues may not always merit the same level of response. Big issues will demand big responses and vice versa. For example, corruption, power crises and major economic crises may come with serious reaction compared with occasional fuel hikes, though they are all issues at the heart of the people. In similar manner, governments who regularly engage with and solicit ideas from civil society and the general populace may receive less intense reactions when infractions occur, as compared to a government which does not.

There is rationality in this behaviour. Hence, I believe many people can understand why on different issues, the reactions of CSOs and Think tanks are not the same across the board. The daunting and uphill tasks of CSOs and PTTs call for trust and support from us. Wrongly aligning them to political parties makes their holy work even more challenging and rougher. We should provide them with all the support we have, counsel and ideas to execute the development agenda. Undermining their credibility is both demonic and unpatriotic. In most instances, we are inaccurate in this hasty and passionate perception. We are only right because, yes, these CSOs and PTTs do no cling to our partisan dogmas inexorably.

Meanwhile, for me, it is a genuinely real or emotional concern for someone to question why the reactions of CSOs and PTTs are different at different times. It lies on the CSOs to educate others on their position and institutional conviction. They should also at all times be more open and receptive to fair and bad criticisms from all angles. This is where they get the best ideas to shape society’s interest.

However, to undermine and condemn people who express concerns within the public space amount to intimidation and oppression within the public space which is supposed to be welcoming, friendly, accepting and encouraging. Remember, the public space may be a perfect vehicle or ground where voiceless, sociopolitically oppressed, and growing individuals may find their bearing, footing and voice. CSOs stand for this as well.

My position is that let us respect and support wholly the work of CSOs and PTTs. Let us not try to undermine their objectiveness or credibility. They are not perfect because they are run by human beings like any fallible person. However, the best approach to strengthen an institution is to provide constructive inputs and not to undermine its very existence. Having said that, CSOs and PTTs are not perfectionists.

To think that they cannot be questioned or critiqued is both arrogant and a claim to unwise superiority that does not exist. Even if they are unfairly criticized and maligned, the maturity must remain unsoiled and untampered. Stay glued to the cause of action and collective interest of the nation where the objective is not to battle critics but to shape policies, provide directives, make dispassionate socioeconomic and political inputs and engender sustainable and competitive development.

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Emmanuel Asare Owusu is a PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology at the University of Ghana, Legon