Stakeholder is a relatively new word in a family of words that often mean less than they should. Grassroots and empowerment are slightly older words in the same family; which are soft versions for radical (root), dissent and protest. Each reiteration of these concepts has made them softer and softer, so that, they sound good at dinner parties and you can, as they say, ‘take them home to mother’. I am uncomfortable with the word, used in the context of radical politics, for this very reason; while it first invoked for me something like the Oklahoma land rush – ride in and stake your claim – now it suggests a bland cooperate style of looking good, as in ‘we will consult with all the stakeholders’ (while we make profits).
That said, what does it mean? A stakeholder has an interest so significant in something that she/he must be affected by the outcomes of that something.
Let’s say that something is Sri Lanka, this island we live in. And so, who holds the stakes? Does Robert Halfon the MP for Harlow, in the UK Commons have a stake in Sri Lanka? He is the author of a widely circulated article entitled, “The Sri Lankan government must stop persecuting Tamils and acting like a rogue nation,” which he says follows a major debate in the commons on Sri Lanka. His column betrays deep misunderstandings of the situation in Sri Lanka; but this is not what I wish to discuss. Let’s take whatever he says and ask, “Does he have a stake?” Well he has a stake in Harlow for sure, because he may wish to be reelected there, but does he have a stake in Sri Lanka? Well in an extended sense he does, because if his efforts to have Sri Lanka listed as ‘rouge nation’ are successful, then his chances of reelection could increase.
Stakes, as it turns out, also have a moral centre or, if you like, a politics. Robert Halfon has a stake, but I would argue it’s not a legitimate one – his career in politics will be enhanced by a negative outcome in Sri Lanka. And yes, that’s my moral or political judgment, and yes, you may well disagree.
What about others? Those of Sri Lanka descent in Harlow? Do they have a stake, even if they wish the worst for Sri Lanka? Yes they do, and it’s a legitimate stake I say, if they are also willing to take the consequences that go with nation being labeled a rouge state. If someone is willing to live in this country, and take it what comes with sanctions and boycotts, then yes their stake is legitimate I’d say – and I extend that to Robert Halfon, except it seems remote that he is going to be a neighbour any time soon.
The question of stakes came up, in a good way, when a Facebook group, “Sri Lankans without boarders, (SLWB)” began discussing a column I had written for The Nation recently. In their own self-description, SLWB is “…a growing not-for-profit network based in Toronto that provides young Canadian professionals of Sri Lankan origin with opportunities to connect, build and lead initiatives that promote peace and reconciliation in the Diaspora community in Canada and Sri Lanka.” The question of stakes was then posed to me, and my written view was, “only citizens of Sri Lanka have a stake in things Sri Lankan,” not everyone else. Now by this I don’t mean to say others don’t have a right to comment, to criticise and make their opinions known. And yes, I’d say everyone in SLWB who thinks they have a stake, does have one, because they can affect outcomes in Sri Lanka. It can also for a person of Sri Lankan descent, affect their ‘identity construct’ as Gayathri Fernando an active participant in that forum put it to me. Changes in Sri Lanka, the thing people have the stake in, change how they see themselves. That’s also an outcome.
I think stakes of those who live outside Sri Lanka, and who are not citizens, who do not really contemplate returning to Sri Lanka to live here – and that’s some, not all of the Diaspora, of course – are better elaborated through an alliance with a person, group or community that’s in Sri Lanka, that lives here with the consequences of what happens here. So it’s better that simply going with, ‘If I diss Sri Lanka I can get reelected in Harlow?’ Far superior would be, ‘If I criticize Sri Lanka, will it be a better place for someone I care about who lives there?’
And while this is my view, I’d say lots of Sri Lankan Canadians I’ve conversed with on this Facebook forum do seem to be guided by this simple principle; I thank them for the dialog, and look forward to more.
Published in print and on the web, in the Nation on Sunday, 26th Feb., 2012.