Tag Archives: NGO

Part Five: Civil Society

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

I first encountered the term civil society in college, taking International Relations classes. Developing countries tended to have weak civil society institutions. It was one of the reasons their governance was so often dysfunctional.  

A graphic of a fairly big group of people demonstrating diverse races, ethnicities, disabilities, clothing, religious affiliation, etc.  Civil society teaches respect for diversity, not only in the ways we tend to think of it, but also diversity of personal attributes like attitude, mien, friendliness, and opinion.
Civil society is a nebulously defined concept. It can mean the third sector of society. If there is a public sector and a private sector, there must surely be a personal sector, right? But it is also frequently used to mean the full range of non-governmental, non-workplace activities, communities, and groups. It can additionally have connotations of components of liberal democracy, such as freedom of speech and association. The term covers the organizations that we typically think of as NGOs, such as Red Cross/Red Crescent, MSF (Doctor’s Without Borders), and Oxfam, but also includes very localized groups that aren’t issue-centered, such as book clubs and walking groups.

Without a substantial sector of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), there were no institutions formally and informally holding government accountable. Without miniature democracies operating in communities, like Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), book clubs, and environmental interest groups, citizens had no place to gain confidence in processes used in national, state, and local government, such as Robert’s Rules of Order. And without the stability of groups, community voices on issues waxed and waned depending on a given individual’s ability to commit time and energy. All of that is not even to mention the empowerment of simply belonging to a group.  

As with so many things that I learned in my international relations classes, it was only later that I fully realized that my country has this problem, too.  

The book cover of Bowling Alone.  All the way back in 2000, author Robert Putnam documented an alarming decline in civil society in the United States.

In my senior year, I did a paper on Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone (2000).  In it, he documented an alarming decline in civil society in the US. We used to have powerful community connections in this country. When my parents were growing up, concerned (mostly) moms nearly overpopulated PTAs. Membership in clubs like Elks, Kiwanas, and Rotary was commonplace. Most people attended some variety of religious services regularly. As the title suggests, bowling leagues were a popular way to engage with one’s community. Though many of these activities weren’t political, and were sometimes specifically apolitical, they kept participants informed of developments in the community in ways that made apparent the importance of politics in everyday life. They also connected people with different political perspectives.  

When Putnam wrote his book in 2000, all of these types of activities had witnessed a massive decline in membership and participation. I’m not versed in current numbers, but recent statistics on loneliness in America tell me the situation isn’t much improved.  

Our democracy is suffering for it.  

If nothing else, we have forgotten the importance of the civil part of civil society. Growing up with a strong community both in my school and in my home, I learned a lot about civility. One of the key insights I think many people have forgotten is that one doesn’t have to like everyone in one’s community. I have seen people jettison all the benefits of a community experience because they dislike one individual. We’ve forgotten how to be civil towards people we don’t like. One doesn’t have to like everyone. We’ve forgotten how to thrive in an environment with diverse personalities, perspectives, and mannerisms. It has made us altogether too willing to write a whole group off because one person has opinions we disagree with, a nature we see as ornery, or are just annoying. It has rendered us unable to collaborate or compromise, particularly at a political level. It has created a vacuum of identity in our lives that is too easily filled by the knee-jerk remonstrances of tribal politics.  

Be Kind written in sidewalk chalk.  Being members of a community, as found in civil society, can help us be kinder people.
Being a member of a community can help us be kinder people. Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

The last three strategies, with their attendant recommendations, in Our Common Purpose, the report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, focus on civil society, rather than the mechanics of government. We can make our government more representative (Strategy 1), fix our voting systems (Strategy 2), and improve our infrastructure for participation in democracy, such as public meetings (Strategy 3), all we like. But if the people don’t buy-in, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Buy-in comes from civil society (Strategy 4); in the modern world, it comes from functional social media (Strategy 5); and it comes from culture, with its norms and expectations (Strategy 6).  

Strategy 4 in the report is to dramatically expand civic bridging capacity. I know roughly what the Commission is getting at, but it is hard to pinpoint what that means. What is civic bridging? What gap is being bridged? Do they mean the space between civil society and participation in governance? Or do they mean the chasm between involvement and non-involvement, period?  

The recommendations provide some insight:

  • 4.1, Establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure. Fund the Trust with a major nationwide investment campaign that bridges private enterprise and philanthropic seed funding. This might later be sustained through annual appropriations from Congress on the model of the National Endowment for Democracy. 
  • 4.2, Activate a range of funders to invest in the leadership capacity of the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country. Use this funding to encourage these leaders to support innovations in bridge-building and participatory democracy. 

The first one is about creating the literal, physical space for civil society to operate. Book clubs, bible studies, environmental groups, and local issue groups need meeting rooms in libraries, parks with walking paths, affordable coffee shops, rec centers, picnic tables, etc. In other words, real places where they can meet, have uninterrupted conversations, hold seminars, host get-togethers, have conferences, and interact. In my observation, the density and safety of these resources vary by the income of the community. The Committee specifies that funding should go to under-resourced communities.  

An image of a community room with windows for walls in Richland, WA.  Civil society needs places like this to meet, organize, and gather.
Civil society needs common spaces for meetings, like this space in the Richland, Washington Community Center. Lori Ehlis / CC BY-SA

This is pretty straightforward. If one wants a civil society, one needs places for it to happen. We should never forestall community building for mere lack of space. It benefits democracy that such things should happen, and the infrastructure is a good investment.  

The second recommendation is a little trickier. Who counts as part of the civic one-million? Does one’s organization have to be explicitly civic, or do other parts of civil society, such as book clubs and walking groups, count? Is the Commission calling for foundations (and whoever else is part of the ‘range of funders’) to exclusively help with leadership training expenses? What other kinds of funding might be called for, here? Investing in these NGOs could mean funding many different types of activities.  

Whatever the details, both recommendations are sound, but I have the same concerns that I did for Strategy 3, Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions. The average American may or may not have more leisure time on her hands now than she did in previous decades.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics says more, but it sure feels like less. And to make it worse, when humans think that a resource is scarce, be it food, friends, time, or money, we tend to get trapped in short-term thinking and make poor choices, ironically garnering us even less of that resource.  

If we don’t have time or just feel like we don’t have time, we aren’t going to invest in civil society as individuals, no matter what the government or foundations do. And if we have forgotten how to deal with community members that just aren’t our favorites, we aren’t likely to flock to community activities.  

The Slytherin logo from Harry Potter.  Putting all the people we don't like into one house, like in Harry Potter, doesn't do much for our ability to work together as part of civil society.
Of course, unlike in Harry Potter, we can’t just
put all the people we don’t like into Slytherin.

I would propose two additions to the Committee’s recommendations here. One would be to emphasize community in schools. It’s easy to avoid learning to operate within a community when you go to a high school with thousands of classmates. If schools can’t be smaller, there should be schools within schools. We could have houses, like Harry Potter, but without the boarding in a giant magical castle. Learning to cope with and, indeed, value people we disagree with or simply find disagreeable is a skill best learned in youth.  

The other would be to strengthen legislation regarding the eight hour day and to increase the minimum wage. For many, if not most, salaried workers, the eight hour day is a sort of beautiful theory that never makes it into practice. If one works overtime, one should get paid for overtime, and overtime shouldn’t be the norm. There is a reason our forebearers fought, bled, and died striking for the eight hour day. Work should be part of our lives. A big part of our lives. But not our whole lives. And hourly workers should not be working two or three jobs to make ends meet or need food assistance while working full time.  

Until we address the scarcity, or even just the feeling of scarcity, of time, and re-learn how to deal with a diverse range of personalities, I posit that our civil society and government will continue to ail.