Beyond Government: tackling societal challenges

Recent economic successes have created an unhealthy culture that sees Government as the solution to all maladies.

The external economic and political environment of the last few years has become less favourable to security and prosperity everywhere.  Geopolitical uncertainties will continue weighing on economies.  So will trade disputes and disruptions.  Inflation and changes in the labour market have resulted in higher income disparities.   Climate change is posing a major challenge.

The challenges confronting us cannot be overcome by governments on their own, however strong they think they are.  They will fail unless they have behind them a nation that is vibrant and inclusive, fair and competitive, resilient and united. History says so.  If Malta and its people have come through successive crises and done well, it has been because its governments’ efforts have been complemented by a strong society.  This remains no less true to improve our chances of surmounting future challenges which are bound to come.

Many larger societies have become divided and weakened because difficult issues were not tackled directly and effectively, rival interest groups jostled against one another, and leaders put their own interests above the nation’s.  As a small dot on the world map, Malta cannot afford to make the same mistakes and suffer the same consequences. Regrettably, oftentimes it seems that we are courting disaster.

I was prompted to write this piece by what Archbishop Charles Scicluna told the Times of Malta in an interview in January.  The head of the Catholic Church in Malta said that the government lacks a ‘sense of State’. “The State is not just the (Labour) party and its supporters. Serving them should not become the only metric of success.  Just because the PL rose to power doesn’t mean Nationalists don’t have a place in the State anymore, and the same goes if it were the other way around,” he said.

An active, free, and well-organised civil society are the linchpins of a healthy democracy.  Yet, the reduction in civil society’s scope and room for manoeuvre is a global reality, not least in Malta.  In an era of rapid external and internal change, Malta must work ever harder to keep its society together and strengthen its sense of shared identity and nationhood.

A new approach

To meet the opportunities and threats of the future a new approach is needed that gives greater freedom and responsibility to our communities.  Civil society is central to this approach.  Despite all the pressures civil society is currently under, it does an extraordinary job through its reach and impact. It continues to create opportunities for citizens to chart their own path, by helping and supporting different groups of people, particularly by uplifting the most vulnerable in society.

Big societal challenges beckon, including the future of social care, community integration, and housing.  They can only be tackled through solutions that bring together public services, businesses, and communities.  The country needs new providers to take responsibility for youth services, domestic abuse services, addiction services, and offender rehabilitation services.  There is also a crying need for new models for funding and running services for children and the elderly.

Unlike extreme liberal thinkers on the one hand and equally extreme conservative thinkers on the other, I believe in a strong State.  But not in an almighty state.  I feel that recent economic successes have created an unhealthy culture that sees Government as the solution to all maladies, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic and its excellent handling.  To make it worse, certain people in high circles equate the Government with the State, as Archbishop Scicluna has rightly pointed out.  This is all too clear from statements in which the two words are intermixed as if they are one and the same.

So, I for one do not think the provision of services is just the business of the government but it is also that of the State, where the community, not solely the government, play a role in expanding opportunities for people.  Similarly, public funding cannot remain the overpowering source of financing.  There is no way this can be accomplished in an increasingly ageing society. 

Alongside public funding, private finance should be used imaginatively to support services, stimulate innovation, and reduce risk for the taxpayer.  There is much that we could learn, for example from the UK, which is the world leader in innovative social finance models and, with the US, the joint world leader in ‘tech for good’ innovations.

Government needs to strengthen the organisations, large and small, which hold our society together.  Ironically the moment is opportune, when new technologies and ways of working pose threats but also suggest extraordinary new possibilities for the way we live and work.  It should be the objective of the government, consulting in a genuine fashion, to build a sense of shared identity focused not on what the government thinks the sector should do but on how the government can support and enable civil society to achieve its potential. The effort should be the beginning of a continuing process of policy development and collaboration.

Philanthropy and volunteering

Unlike Dr Franco Debono and others, I believe that philanthropy and volunteering should play a strong role.  And then, what about Business?  It has been elevated to godly proportions but isn’t it about time that it should rediscover the original purpose of the corporation: that is to deliver value to society, not just quarterly returns and outrageous profits to shareholders?  Businesses of all sizes are part of the fabric of communities up and down the country. They deliver prosperity, jobs and livelihoods.  Corporate social and environmental responsibility should be an integral part of how they operate and how they plan for long term success, including managing risks and sustaining trust in their goods, services and brands.  As it is, corporate social responsibility is just a buzz-word to be discussed to exhaustion in frequent seminars.

The younger generation

Often, one hears that young people are only interested in owning cars and partying. But have we really engaged with them to discover how they can contribute to a thriving society, help the country tackle its most urgent challenges, and deliver a better future for all of us?  Instead, the subliminal messages from those in power are about the huge opportunities to become “sinjuri żgħar”  ̶  with the emphasis on “żgħar” mind you, lest the big fish do not get the highest possible slice of the cake!

Civil society can help us tackle a range of burning injustices and entrenched social challenges, such as poverty, obesity, mental ill-health, youth disengagement, reoffending, homelessness, isolation, and loneliness, and the challenges of community integration.  These are complex, inter-related issues beyond the control of any one agency in the public, private, or social sector. In response, we need more than a series of individual programmes to ‘fix’ individual challenges.

Local councils

What else is lacking?  Well, I cannot fail to mention the languishing local councils. Following  the ‘Xebbajtuna’ protest organised by environmental NGOs last May, mayors from both political parties expressed concerns to the media about their limited authority in dealing with consecutive crises.

When he talked about the autonomy of local councils, the President of the Local Councils Association, Mario Fava  ̶  himself a Labour councillor  ̶  then told  ILLUM that “we are still lagging behind”.  Contrary to the spirit of the original legislation, power has been taken away from local councils, such that local officials and professionals have to struggle with excessive bureaucratic interference.

A more inclusive participation

There seems to be no appetite for institutionalising civil society’s accessibility to, and participation in, all intergovernmental processes.  Why invite interference in the government’s megalomania about unfettered control?  On the contrary, the strategy should be to create and practise extensive direct communication with civil society and bring about a more inclusive participation.

Civil society deserves total and effective access to the available information and resources, not being continually brushed off by Government and its authorities when it demands information and reports.  What is “sensitive”  ̶  the standard excuse for refusing the requests  ̶  is not the information, but the likelihood that somebody will be found to have not quite followed good governance rules.

Checks and balances

Implementing robust checks and balances across all our institutions, including the highest echelons of Government, is crucial to prevent potential issues and ensure accountability.  I just cannot understand how the many banana skins that the Labour governments have skidded on have not taught them the lesson that, in matters of public interest, scrutiny of their actions and ensuring that government is answerable for its decisions, are for their own good.

Political checks and balances are of the essence.  A vibrant democracy thrives on the diversity of voices and ideas. Through constructive debates and diligent responsiveness to inquiries, this diversity can contribute to increased clarity and, ultimately, result in improved policy outcomes that benefit the people.

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