[In this article, we take a look at civil society as a whole, elaborate a bit on how different approaches form different kinds of actors and take a short glimpse at sustainable strategies for organizations.]
Looking at recent developments all over the globe, be it in Ukraine, Turkey, or Venezuela, there seem to be a number of structural lessons and questions that can be taken away from them in regards to a societal or civil society point of view.
The first of them is one of those old lessons that every law student learns in his or her first session of legal theory: laws can be seen as man-made and ultimately what the people, not just scholars and lawyers, believe them to be. As long as broader parts of society believe that whatever the ruling parties are telling them is true, change on a wider scale seems unlikely. Claiming ownership, or not, of existing behavioural rules or laws of any kind would seem to be a crucial aspect in any attempt to actively change society since staking or accepting such claims is linked to the basic questions of societal change and activism. [This scene from HBO’s Game of Thrones illuminates that idea quite nicely.]
Taking some sort of non state-driven change in a society as a smallest common denominator from the various definitions of civil society, one core question at the beginning of any approach towards action or analysis has to be consequently to define the purpose of a civil society and, in doing so, answering the question whether civil society actors want to improve society or form it after their own ideals. In other words: do we accept the existing laws and rules or do we want to implement new ones? Here, age-old quarrels are to be had, time and time again.
Following more evolutionary over revolutionary approaches would most likely lead to actions that try to solve problems inch by an inch, building one school after the other and thus strengthening society from the ground up. In reality, these approaches tend to be more open towards cooperation with ‘uneasy allies’ such as sub-structures of authoritative states, companies and competing opinion leaders on a case by case basis, trying to make the best of the situation at hand and seeing the betterment of society as the core goal of civil society activism.
In the light of this, more revolutionary approaches would – while probably still maintaining local activism as one mainstay of their overall activities – put a stronger emphasis on thinking about the bigger picture of social developments. Here, there is a larger focus on the society’s wants, perceived needs and how to get there. Any step or means taken needs to further the development of society towards the intended end result. In practice, actors following this approach tend to be more political, at least in thinking, with a lesser inclination towards cooperating with actors that do not follow their own ideas and interpretations of what should be. These two approaches are of course not mutually exclusive; just because an actor cooperates with a government on a small scale, it does not mean that they are in political agreement, nor does a strong philosophical underpinning by default mean that the actor in question has an absolutist aim to its implementation. It is however probably a good idea to remember those basic questions about the purpose of civil society and the strategies derived from that once in a while and answer it honestly.
As important as these questions and strategies are though, it is important to ask them time and time again and see if and how the answers to them change. Regardless of where or what we work on, rejuvenation is an important part of any development, be it in a public institution, struggling Gen-Y tech firm or NGO following the ideas of the Baby Boomer generation. While there is good reason that ‘rising through the ranks’ or having ‘a career’ usually takes time and experiences are what make people, it would certainly be foolish to equate a lack of experience with a lack of ideas or talent to bring to the table. In the same way that we cannot expect to be taken seriously ourselves when we don’t grant the same to others, we cannot by default expect the solutions that have worked in the past to work in the 21st century. Of course, this cannot imply a general genius of younger generations, but rather stress the point of cooperation between the generations and the transfer of knowledge among them. For what it is worth, there is as much a point to be made why the generation 65+ should be consulted on the design of user interfaces for digital devices as there is to ask the generation below 30 about philosophies of strategy. Obvious or boring as it may seem to reiterate those questions of what, why and who, especially in social sciences and civil society where everyone wants to save or understand the world and has a claim to the one whole truth, it might help to remember where we come from, through philosophy, culture, generation, etc., in order to not take ourselves any more seriously than we take others. Societal and social changes are dependent not just on activism and loud voices, but also an understanding of what is being said and done in the broader public.
In trying to achieve that, it helps to know what we are saying and even more so to know how to explain our perception of reality in understandable terms. In the end, any kind of activism and civil society activities are just an offer to the larger society to join in, no more, no less. Asking some age-old questions once in a while though might just help us with that all-important sales pitch.
Author’s note: this essay started out as a ‘lessons learned’ of a conference on the state, perspectives and strategies of civil society in Belarus, written from an outsider’s point of view, but ended up being about some more structural points in civil society and social change. It was originally written for the Belarusian organization EuroBelarus.
Moritz Borchardt is graduate student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, GER. Being a native German from Lower Saxony, Moritz spent his pre-MPP years at the universities of Erfurt, Vilnius and Jena, graduating with a degree in Governmental Studies in 2011. Having a weakness for old school hats and civil society, he is interested in those areas where personal development is positively or negatively affected on a larger scale (i.e. Impacts/challenges of digital media, suppression of civil society) and structural shifts in societies writ large. He is currently writing his master’s thesis on the self-perception of contemporary Belarusian civil society actors.
*Cover image by Wonderlane