Let us start with a few junior school questions and answers concerning civil society.
What is civil society? Civil society is seen as the space between the household and the State. This space is where citizens can provide or advocate for services where the State does not fulfil its primary responsibility to provide necessary services.
Who are civil society? The wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.
What is the main role of civil society? Civil society works hand-in-hand with the government, striving to develop policy and implement new strategies. Beyond that, civil society builds so-called social capital by providing a way for participants to build relationships and make connections based on their values, behaviours and beliefs.
The above simplistic responses often camouflage the real, diverse and multi-facetted world of civil society and their relations with governments, institutions, donors and, indeed, within their own community.
The relationship between Government/International institutions and civil society organisations can best be described as symbiotic; their respective and mutual needs and interests – but different philosophies and processes often make for uncomfortable public sparring. The internecine struggles for public funding between civil society actors on an overcrowded stage can provoke unseemly spectacles; csos are often accused of working in silos, doing similar and repetitive work, rather than combining their resources and actions to work towards common ends. The above is the realpolitik behind the private clamour for public funding.
According to Tanya Cox, (Director of Concord, a European confederation of relief and development NGOs) “Civil society organisations are mission-driven, not profit- or economic growth-driven. We are value-based and rights-based, not interest-based. We focus on reaching the hardest-to-reach, the most marginalised – which does not necessarily offer ‘value-for-money’, nor is it very ‘geopolitical’. So, we tend to get labelled as unrealistic utopian dreamers – or as a thorn-in-the-side that needs to be, at best, ignored, or at worst silenced. If this weren’t the case, why would civil society space be shrinking?”
“Civil society organisations are critical for contributing to the checks and balances that underpin the rule of law,”says Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) Director Michael O’Flaherty. “That is why I firmly believe the EU and its Member States need to do more to ringfence the enabling space that allows civil society to safeguard human rights across the EU.”
FRA’s report ‘Europe’s civil society: still under pressure – Update 2022’focuses on the key role civil society plays in fostering a rule of law culture. It cites good practice examples from across the EU.
These include efforts by civil society organisations to shape laws and policies, support human rights authorities, improve access to justice, accountability and legality. It also reveals examples of how they engage in tackling disinformation and corruption, and in enhancing media literacy as well as in raising awareness of rule of law issues and the role civil society plays.
Many civil society organisations are constantly in existential mode. The Covid crisis provoked much introspection about the different tenets that underpin civil society’s motives, means and actions. There are multiple analyses, debates and inquiries by, and about, civil society in current circulation, and this piece is based on an aggregate of some of those findings.
Civil society organisations fear being blamed for failure, and accountability can too often mean ticking boxes or being timid: form-filling, fear and insecurity that stifles innovation and doesn’t address what really matters. Paperwork might be completed but poor practice, abuse and inequality continue.
“For too long many of us have focused on accountability to funders and to government. It’s time we all focus on accountability to the communities and people we exist to serve.”
Many of the discussions around civil society of the future centre on aspects of accountability, power, trust and ownership.
A common refrain from the interviews in communities: “Across our country – and in civil society – too many people feel unheard, ignored, frustrated. Imbalances in power are often at the heart of the issue: who gets listened to, who makes decisions, who is in control.”
There is a call for diverse civil society leadership at every level, opened up to people of different genders, ages, ethnicities, attitudes, world views, politics, social class, faiths and more; “funding should be decided by the people it is there to support, along with locally designed and delivered public services.”
Building deep connections is civil society’s historic role, and it has never been more needed. Today’s society is divided between urban and rural, between north and south, between young and old. It is still deeply divided on racial and class lines. Civil society has an essential role to connect powerfully across these damaging divides and fault lines and drive lasting social change. “Too often we have lost our ability to build connections, because the world is changing fast or we have become too remote from the people and communities we are here for. Our infrastructure for connecting groups and organisations is outdated, under-resourced and falling apart and there are too few connective networks to join up civil society locally or national.”
Trust is the most important asset for civil society. But trust is too often seen narrowly or undervalued. It’s considered important to win over a donor rather than something much more profound –the trust of the people they want to help. That is the core currency of civil society. Even more vital than funding/money, trust is an essential foundation for everything they do. Relationships built on trust are very different to those that are not: embodying shared responsibility, shared ownership, collaboration and cooperation. “Not just public trust, but also mistrust between different parts of civil society that is so damaging. Many people have told us they feel large civil society organisations are slaves to their brand, bureaucratic, disconnected from their supporters and too close to government or corporations, who they fail to challenge as a consequence.”
The last word is from the Director of Concord: “We need to go beyond our natural role as providers of support to communities in times of need. Now is the time to call for a transformation of our political, economic and financial systems. We can no longer accept that governments put economic growth and the accumulation of great wealth for a minority before the well-being of all people and the planet. Little by little, people’s awareness is also growing of the fact that risk is not a simple “side effect”, but the result of specific policy choices made by people in power. Societies themselves may be more aware now of the dangers of the current system and therefore more receptive to ideas for change. Civil society should build on their awareness, stimulate critical thinking, offer solutions and foster active citizenship. Now is the moment for civil society to come together, to build common ambitions.”