July 29, 2009
Community sector as part of civil society
On many of the major issues which confront society today, community organisations will have the same position as other sectors of civil society – like unions, churches etc. SCVO is hosting a dialogue between these various elements – exploring the feasibility of acting together as civil society in order to have more impact. Here’s feedback on recent roundtable.
A civil society roundtable, chaired by Dr. Alison Elliot, Convener of SCVO, was held in Edinburgh on 25th June 2009 to test the appetite for a shared response from civil society to the global crises: economic, environmental, of civil liberties and of poverty. Around 20 participants were selected as individuals from a wide range of civil society backgrounds to start a conversation from a civil society perspective on Scotland and the global crisis. An initial paper drafted by Stephen Maxwell, SCVO, was used as the starting point for this discussion. This paper aims to capture some of the key elements of this initial discussion.
Is there an appetite for a shared response? Yes
• There was an evident concern shared by the participants around the multiple crises affecting our economy, environment, politics and growing inequalities affecting both our own society and countries around the world. We identified an appetite for harnessing that concern and several possible courses of action were proposed.
• There was agreement that the normative role of civil society, in offering alternative visions of the good society, had been neglected and could be recovered and developed.
• It was suggested that the principles of sustainable development, (in its fullest sense, which captures economic, social and environmental dimensions) alongside good governance and sound science, could underpin a shared response to these crises by civil society. It provides a ready-made and considered framework. More analysis of its potential in this respect would be useful.
Form vs. occasion
• The global crisis needs a response that goes beyond Scottish Parliament or UK Government and beyond the party political sphere.
• Should structure precede vision, such as a civil society forum e.g. a renewed Civic Forum or an Open Democracy style website? Or should vision precede structure, such as shared cause to bring civil society together e.g. Make Poverty History, Stop Climate Chaos?
• A structure-based approach could be a forum or a website, but crucially involves people as individuals rather than as organisations and thereby avoids difficulties with representing organisational positions/remits. There is a danger however of all talk-no action or resorting to the lowest common denominator position.
• A vision-based approach would involve reacting to the global crisis on specific ventures such as climate or poverty, where the vision statement is formed before any structure is put in place. The advantage here is that civil society itself is transient, of the moment and can make a big impact if its energies are focused over a short space of time.
Structure and vision
• The global crisis needs a response that goes beyond Scottish Parliament or UK Government and beyond party politics.
• Should structure precede vision, through the creation of a civil society forum e.g. a renewed Civic Forum or an Open Democracy style website? Or should vision precede structure, as happens when a shared cause brings civil society together e.g. Make Poverty History, Stop Climate Chaos?
• A structure-based approach could be mediated by a forum or a website. A crucial issue here is whether people come together as individuals or as representatives of organisations. Acting as individuals allows for more creative thinking but also limits the potential for collective action. Being bound by organisational remits creates the danger of resorting to the lowest common denominator position.
• A vision-based approach would involve reacting to the global crisis on specific ventures such as climate or poverty, where the vision statement is formed before any structure is put in place. This capitalises on civil society’s capacity to be transient, of the moment and to make a big impact if its energies are focused over a short space of time.
Building a wider response to the crises
• There is a sense that civil society in Scotland, as in other parts of Western Europe, has fallen back from offering alternative visions of the ‘good society’. Significant parts of it now work more closely to the State and some are increasingly market-driven.
• Civil society at an institutional level can be economically and politically elitist. Just as it is important to have more economic engagement of the wider public in order to democratise business, so civil society needs wider political engagement to reduce its dependency on elites. Can civil society learn from mutualism here?
• What civil society organisations have in common is their associational nature where people come together to make a difference. The lifeblood of civil society therefore comes from its involvement of people from the grassroots of society. Yet attendance within faith communities has been falling, trade union membership has been in decline, co-operative movements such as credit unions are stronger in neighbouring countries, the Scottish Press has been in decline and there is a continuing effort to ensure the supply of new volunteers and trustees for voluntary organisations. Is there a collective ambition for civil society at an institutional level to enthuse and build its constituencies to respond to the multiple crises we face?
The roundtable was strong on energy, ideas and commitment but not on conclusions! Some possible courses of action were identified which would require further consideration.
SCVO suggests holding a conference exploring all of these issues and taking the discussion to a wider civil society audience to test the appetite for a shared response to the crises. Would colleagues be willing to be involved in setting the agenda for such an event?
Issues to be covered could include:
• How can civil society in Scotland be mobilised round a specific issue?
• What kind of forum is needed to foster opinion forming at a civil society level?
• How do we connect the economic and political energies of the wider public to the issues and challenges society faces?