NGOs are not political parties, yet they play an important political role in the society.
Understanding what the “third sector” may be confusing for many. The definitions offered can often feel vague or too multifaceted. When representatives of this sector of society wish to reach out to the public, they often face the dilemma which component is more important for their audience: is it that the third sector is not focused on generating profit, or is it that they are separate from the elected political representation embodied in the government?
To overcome these issues, instead of NGOs or the third sector, I prefer to talk about organised civil society. It is a little more encompassing, and I think it enables us to have more clarity in the concept.
Who stands up
Today, we see global phenomena – acutely though not exclusively affecting Central Europe and the continent – leading to profound changes in our societies. They are not limited to civil societies, but they are visible also in the business and political sectors as well. However, these changes are very much visible in the processes in or with organised civil society – we feel it every day.
First, let’s look at what is going on within our “liberal” or “constitutional” democracies. We have a problem with our representative democracies, perhaps this is most visible through the state of political parties. A normal democratic process embodies a conflict over policies.
Examples of healthy policy conflict might arise while trying to answer questions over the appropriate retirement age or what type or amount of taxes governments should collect. These are standard questions for society to have discussions and disagreements about.
Normally, these deliberations would occur in the parliament between political parties representing their voters. What we are increasingly seeing – and is becoming prevalent even within my own generation – is a perception that entering representative (i.e. partisan) politics is something disgraceful, something to be avoided. The reluctance of people to join partisan politics makes representative democracy hard to fulfil its role.
Some of these trends are understandable; many citizens are disheartened with the political processes of their countries because many politicians are seen or have been found to be corrupt. Consequently, this has driven many active members in society to prefer to join either organised civil society or the business sector, and we simply don’t have a proper and full representation of views that exist throughout society in the party-political arena.
This results in situations where a lot of ideas and issues that are of a policy nature are only being heard from civil society. Yet, crucially, these ideas are not reverberating or being echoed by political parties in governmental or administrative spheres.
This leads to a misunderstanding and misconception that civil society organisations are in some way associated with or taking on a role of political parties or political actors. This is neither their role, nor where they want to be
Civil society organisations, including NGOs, don’t want to have a similar role as political parties in society. However, the void which is being left by either incompetent political parties or the absence of political party platforms representative of society’s views has forced civil society to become involved in the policy conflict; essentially, performing a role that fills the gap of representation in politics.
This is not normal, this is a pathological situation that we have in our societies, and it makes the work and understanding of the role of civil society organisations much more difficult. This is one element of what is going on inside of our countries.
The focus of anger
The second important element is how economic globalisation has played out for many people in society, especially in local communities.
Subsequently, many people feel that they are losers of this economic trend. This apprehension leads them to rethink the changes of the past several decades: what impact the global trade has had on mine or my neighbours’ lives and how has it affected the distribution of power and resources? Given that parts of organised civil society especially in the post-communist world has received significant support from abroad, and is seen by some as an idea from abroad, the ire for people’s dissatisfaction with globalisation can fall, inappropriately so, on organised civil society.
However, while potentially underrepresented in their own countries, these individuals are learning from like-minded individuals across borders. They see attacks on organised civil society as an act of re-appropriation of national sovereignty, and in many instances feel these actions are justified when they are targeting certain types of NGOs.
There are many NGOs helping with technical assistance or charities; they are much more efficient in completing their tasks than if these were done by the government, and these organisations are less often in the focus of attacks.
However, we see that the attacks are primarily against NGOs that focus on changing value sets, or debate about how society is and should be organised – essentially political questions. Mainly, these are human rights NGOs, watchdogs or organisations that focus on social change. Attacks on them get further exacerbated when they receive significant support, including funding, from abroad.
Just by the act of asking these political questions, NGOs are inadvertently (and perhaps unavoidably) opening themselves up to criticism by those who wish to reject the civil society’s involvement, seen as an “interference”, in these questions. This criticism is a sign of a process of introspective reassertion of national sovereignty and often a sign that the society is closing itself off Just as people desire to mitigate the negative external effects of globalisation, they don’t want to have any external influence over how their society should develop.
When you have an organisation that has a very shallow domestic constituency, and whose work is not appreciated by many, once someone attacks it, then they are an easy target. This was also the situation that Open Society Foundations in Hungary found themselves in.
Part of the problem is that, with the increase of professionalisation and institutionalisation, some civil society groups are losing sight of their domestic constituencies. They lost track of and became disjointed from those for whom they were working. This is partly a result of how the incentives are structured.
When you only want to invite a group of people together and want to serve them coffee, or help them pay for transport, you need some money, someone needs to pay for it. You can go around and collect the donations from your neighbourhood, or ask your friends to make the coffee, bake cakes, share car-rides, offer a meeting room etc. But it’s much easier to raise 150,000 EUR by talking to one person at one organisation.
This is not meant to be critical of the fact that civil society organisations are able to fundraise from abroad or from wealthy individuals, but it’s a reminder that in doing so we need to be careful not to lose track of whom are we working for at home. Using a horticultural analogy: The flower of civil society is home-grown, the seeds are domestic; it’s only the fertilizer which comes from abroad.
Having worked for an international donor, I’ve seen situations when an organisation comes and says, “what would you fund” rather than “we want to do this, are you willing to fund us”. This illustrates a distinction between an NGO that has its own mission and plans, fully informed and guided by their domestic constituency, and a salaried contractor hired for work. At times, this line can become really blurred.
What is the difference if an international company or international organisation hires a contractor in a country to organise an event, or if an organisation receives a grant to do an event? The main difference is in who owns the work. Who decides which speakers to invite and what is on the agenda. There is a genuine difference.
Philanthropy is essentially a structured gift. A benefactor gives money to someone to do the work that they wanted to do. The benefactor is not telling them that “it would be very kind for you to organise this specific event for me”. That’s what one can ask from a contractor: there are companies that do this but that’s not philanthropy.
I think that a part of the problem that we are experiencing now came about because civil society was allowed to blur these distinctions. It is fie to do work for money, and some of the organised civil society groups may have the time and skills to accomplish these tasks while using earned resources to enable them to do independent work, but the priority should always be on the mission and the original stakeholders.
This is an article from the latest international version of Res Publica Nowa which focuses on analysing the current state of affairs for civil society in Central Europe.
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