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Developing civil society – A Ukrainian government responsibility?

January 27, 2012

Whose responsibility is it to develop civil society/NGOs?

Yes once more I am banging the civil society/NGO drum.  For those of you who read this blog regularly,  it is becoming something of a secondary theme to all things Ukrainian.  If you are not a regular reader, just put NGO in the search facility of this blog  to discover my issues with NGOs, particularly in relation to those operating in Ukraine.

Anyway, returning to the question, whose responsibility is it to develop civil society/NGOs in Ukraine?  It appears that the President has signed a decree (32/2012) creating “The Coordinating Council for the Development of Civil Society” to be headed by Maryna Stavniychuk, who sits within the Presidential Administration.

The role of this new governmental entity is to coordinate interaction between civil society/NGOs and the organs of government (one assumes national, regional and local government), and also implement the president’s public policies to make civil society/NGO operations easier.  This is being done under requirements Part 2 of Article 102, paragraph 28 of Part 1 of Article 106 of the Constitution of Ukraine and to give momentum to Ukraine in reaching European standards for the protection of human rights and civil liberties.

Without exhausting all the issues that become immediately apparent, otherwise I will end up writing a doctoral thesis, let’s look at a few basic points.

Firstly why civil society/NGOs exist in the first place.  Cutting right down to the basics, whether the NGOs are foreign or domestic, government or privately funded, they come into existence when a number of people have a shared grievance or issue that joins them together and that issue then moves from a private moan to a public cause.  When that happens the issue moves from public to political whether it is local, regional, national or global.

I will not bore you with the perspectives of Hegel, Locke, Paine or Tocqueville.  As intelligent adults you will have your own ideas about civil society/NGOs.  For the record I tend to fall in the Hegel camp.  In fact if the President is trying to achieve European standards he is better to concentrate on reading Locke and Hegel.  For a US mindset, Paine and Tocqueville.

Inherently NGOs and civil society began as grass roots issues over grass roots causes and depending upon finance and weight of numbers sympathetic to that cause either grew or remained small.  Depending upon their cause, the public globally, whether the issue was on their doorstep or not, if they were like-minded, could rally to the flag and/or donate to the cause.

In effect, civil society/NGOs fill a space between society and the State as a rallying and focal point for issues that remain to be addressed by the State.  Should the State meet those demands, the NGOs continue to exist to monitor the situation in many cases.

One can say that civil society/NGOs have possibly taken the traditional place of the church and even part of trade union responsibilities and remit.  Certainly they overlap in several areas.

However, as those of you who have read my ruminations about civil society/NGOs here historically will be aware, such entities seem to have become a profession for their management.  Those who originally championed a cause often sidelined and replaced by an experienced NGO management team more academically sound and socially delicate in order to raise funds, engage with government ministers, and produce reports to show progress to those who donate to the cause.

Immediately one wonders just how much genuine empathy any such imported manager has for the cause they represent and how much damage is done to the grass roots supporters when local championing heroes are sidelined for somebody with previous NGO managerial experience.  There ideally needs to be both public expression and instrumental engagement.  Circumstances can evolve to a point where the NGO/civil society has lost touch with the people and cause it claims to represent.  For foreign NGOs parachuted in behind enemy lines, there is then not only the government to contend with but also the “them” and “us” framing of the public psyche when “foreigners” are interfering in domestic life.  Many see the academia as far removed from reality even if Ukrainian.  A foreign academic?  Well what do they know about the realities of being a Ukrainian? – You know what I am saying here, we default to the classic “self” and “other”.

You also need to consider that any professional NGO management team need to show results to their financial sponsors.  Inevitably that means getting uncomfortably close to the government with which they have an issue with over their cause.  How much of the cause or their soul is sold to produce some glacial movement in a government’s position to justify the sponsors funding?  How much of the core issue is sacrificed for measurable and reportable movement on peripheral issues to justify continued financial support from donors?

It is quite possible that the NGO management will get so close to the government that either they seem to become part of the “governmental establishment”, or in order to advance part of their cause, will turn against another NGO publicly that is more of a thorn in the side of the government than they are.

Given the roots of any NGO, the perception of independence is what gives it legitimacy in the eyes of the public.  That perception is not doing very well of late, in a recent global poll just under 50% of the global populous had faith in civil society/NGOs.

With the rise of social media, one wonders for the long term future of NGOs.  The biggest protest in Ukraine since the protests of 2004 occurred over the Tax Code attracting 10,000+ people, it was A-political, and organised via social media.  Occupy Wall Street and the global spin-off Occupy movements were hardly NGO/civil society orchestrated either.

Enough of that – What exactly should the government be doing as part of their responsibility to build a useful and vibrant civil society, and what shouldn’t be their responsibility but that of society itself?

Firstly. every nation has rules within which civil society/NGOs must operate.  If not there would be no requirement in every nation for NGOs to register with their hosting nation.  Those rules must be clear and transparent to civil society.  They must also be respected by both civil society and government alike.

Secondly there must necessarily be freedom of expression.  The whole point to civil society is to air the grievances and causes of society at large to which the government does not choose to listen.

With that comes freedom of assembly.  We are not only talking about mass rallies and demonstrations but also simple meetings with internal and external actors such as foreign embassies, financial donors and other like-minded groups and individuals .

Lastly, civil society must be seen to be engaged with when it comes to policy input.  That is not to say a government must acquiesce to all demands of NGOs and civil society but that they should be included in any policy debate.  After all what would be the point of an elected government if it simply caves in to unelected NGOs every time they raise their voice?

That is really about as far as any domestic government can be expected to go in accommodating a functioning platform for civil society operating within its national boundaries.  The question therefore, is whether the new  “The Coordinating Council for the Development of Civil Society” created by Presidential Decree (and now in force) will become and additional gatekeeper adding an additional barrier to civil society/NGOs, or a door opener to doors that were always shut to them before.

As with all new policies and initiatives, time will tell.  The question that always remains unanswered is how much time is needed to make a decision on whether a policy or initiative has been successful?

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One comment

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