Mention the word “coalition” and most Guyanese think ‘politics’. This might be quite understandable in light of the central place that politics plays in our national life but in the big picture, it is unfortunate. Coalitions are a mechanism for telescoping the achievement of almost any social goal that one may conceive.
Beyond a shadow of doubt, there are any number of worthwhile goals outside the political realm that need to be achieved so that we may become a more cohesive and fulfilled society. Right off the bat we can think of addressing violence – be it domestic or criminal – alcoholism, poverty, crime, etc. As a thought exercise, one can conjure up any of the various ailments that are exposed daily in our newspapers and we will quickly appreciate the benefits of pooling our efforts in order to root them out.
A coalition is merely a coming together of various groups in a temporary alliance to tackle a problem or to achieve a common goal by engaging in joint activity for a period of time. Very few coalitions are permanent and, typically, when the goals are achieved, the partners go on with their agendas that may differ in other regards. At the most mundane level, the formation of coalitions enables the resources available for tackling the identified problem to grow. This increase is not just the arithmetic of simple addition but through the possibilities and benefits of reaching a critical mass, it becomes exponential. There is always strength in numbers.
In the US, an object lesson in the power of coalitions can be seen in the growth and success of the environmental movement. Sprouting up in various locales, especially since the sixties when the effects of environmental pollution was literally coming to the surface, these groups formed coalitions that effectively challenged the corporate world that was behind the environmental degradation in their unbridled pursuit of profits. In this effort, they showed that they could play the same game – and better – as big business in getting behind and backing political candidates that were supportive of their interests.
The whole welter of environmental legislation that has so profoundly altered the way US corporations can do business is a direct result of the efforts of the coalitions of environmental groups in that country. In the last couple of decades, there has been the internationalising of such coalitions and they have also succeeded at the global level.
Coalition building is not black magic: it just needs that some prerequisites be satisfied. There are three basic steps. In the beginning at least, one of the groups must recognise that they share similar or comparable goals and that secondly, working not only in tandem but together will enable all of them to easier achieve those goals. Thirdly, and as importantly, the initiator will have to demonstrate quite clearly that the benefits of the coalition will outweigh the costs. These costs are rarely material since coalitions typically increase the physical and financial resources while opening up the number of contacts available to each group.
The costs go mainly to the matter of ego: most activist groups are dominated by individuals that would rather remain as big fishes in small ponds. One can only think of our several consumer advocacy groups.
In a more principled vein, some groups may have problems with the modus operandi of other groups and even be at variance on issues outside the one in which a coalition is being sought. The leaders of these latter groups can comfort themselves that at least a portion of their agenda is being advanced by the possible coalition and that in any case, the latter is temporary.
Another major hurdle that has to be overcome is the “disequilibrium of size”. The larger groups may see the smaller ones as not their equals and even as “free riders” and adopt a dog-in-the-manger approach in working relationships.
These issues may be addressed by the incentive of the greater legitimacy conferred by the wider agglomeration of groups but ultimately it comes down to the maturity of the leaders of the larger potential or actual coalition partners.
In the real world, however, the scorecard clearly demonstrates that the benefits of forming coalitions far outweigh the disadvantages. We hope that our groups in Guyana take heed.