Let’s begin by outlining some frameworks. Firstly, as regards nomenclature, I shall use the term ‘associations’ throughout, recognizing that associations occupy a vast and highly diversified field in which many names are in common use: non-governmental organization, civil society organization, third sector, voluntary agency, extra-governmental organization, community-based organization, stakeholder, non-state actor… What some intergovernmental bodies label ‘partners’ or major groups could also be included.
The second framework concerns the extraordinary range of activities of associations in the world, whatever the designated name they use. An immense number of associations work day and night to promote “a good cause” – for example: gender equality, social justice, preserving the environment and combating climate change, protecting and housing refugees, humanitarian and disaster-relief interventions…and a thousand more good causes.
Innumerable associations in the world are also committed to combating “an evil cause” – racism, trafficking, gender-based violence, drug abuse, corruption and far too many more. Beyond these two very broad categories of association action, there are those that cover professional, scientific, technical or trade union domains; and those active in promoting culture, heritage, faith, ethics, information and communications. Cooperatives are another special category, grouping millions of persons around the globe.
It is with these immensely variegated backgrounds in mind that I want to draw attention to some vital common factors of associations throughout the world. An association is essentially a grouping of individuals exercizing their right to freely assemble; to freely determine their goals, their standards, and their internal structures and responsibilities; and to freely hold and express opinions, including on public policy. These fundamental freedoms are laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in subsequent United Nations Covenants, and in several regional Human Rights Conventions. They are the incontrovertible bases of association independence.
This independence does not in itself imply opposition to government policies or decrees, nor defiance of just laws. It reflects the inalienable rights of individuals, on their own or collectively, as they choose, to participate constructively in public policy deliberations, to contribute positively to decision-making by parliaments and authorities, and to hold governments to account and to ethical standards.
It is therein that we enter the area of associations’ relationship to “power”. The independence of associations is an inherent element of democracy and a contributing factor to the Rule of Law, the bedrock of human rights and social justice. The participatory democracy embodied by the existence of active and responsible associations – of all categories – is a complement to representative democracy embedded in parliaments that are freely and fairly elected on a recurring schedule. Associations do not in general represent electorates; they above all represent the cause or ideal or goal for which they are established, and which they pursue every day and every year.
What then is the implication of the words “Speaking truth to Power”? In some parts of the world, governments label themselves as “The Power”. (Perhaps these are countries where free and fair elections are not the rule.) In other parts, national constitutions specify that “The People” are the ultimate Power, this being exercized through open elections and perhaps referenda. Even democratically-elected governments may lose touch with their electorate. Some may downplay parliamentary initiative and control. Some may prove unable or unwilling to achieve the societal goals that constituted the platform on which they were elected. Government leaders and officials may believe that only they have the “right answers”, only they have “the truth” and have no need to consult citizens and relevant associations.
Therein lies the need, and the justification, for associations to Speak Truth to Power. We all have our duty to contribute to the wellbeing of society, to good human relations, to social and economic justice. Because of the causes, ideals or goals that associations have freely adopted, we have not just the right but the duty to contribute to public policy discussions, each association on the basis of its members’ competence, their experience, their availability, their willingness to Stand Up & Speak Up. Public policy is everyone’s business. To those who may say that this is “political”, my response is simple. Changing the world for the better – even only one step at a time – is plainly political.
I will give just two quite different illustrations of this thesis. Firstly: Abolishing patriarchal laws and practices that suppress women’s rights is not just a juridical imperative, not just a humanitarian imperative, but an urgent political imperative. Secondly: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a body of eminent scientists basing their multi-year research and conclusions on inputs from many hundreds of other scientists. When the IPCC tells governments that climate change is real, is threatening and needs urgent action today, that is Science Speaking truth to Power, for we have all seen that governmental responses to impending climate chaos largely fall short of what science has clearly indicated to be needed. So Speaking Truth to Power is not just the prerogative of “political” associations but of scientists and many other academics and professionals.
To sum up: When competent and responsible associations – of whatever shape, form or purpose – mobilize their constituencies and their strengths to Speak Truth to Power, their input leads to better-informed decision-making by the authorities, and therefore to better governmental output. This enhanced output, whether in the form of new or amended laws or of more realistic decisions of the bureaucracy, is more likely to generate public support in the subsequent stages of implementation. Yet another reason for governments to welcome hearing the truth coming from outside the corridors of Power.