It’s no coincident that in 2004 the NRK chose “volunteer” as its national word; voluntarism and organizational life are profoundly rooted in our identity. The missions movement and the workers’ movement are two pillars of Norway’s history which have strongly influenced a culture of commitment to ideals and voluntarism. In our partner countries, social movements and civil society are also important agents of change and builders of community.
Civil society has become a third actor, along with the state and the market, and is no less important than these two, acting as a crucial complement and corrective that allows democratic development.
Nevertheless, this past fall, all of this nearly came to an end. With one struck of a pen, the government wanted to cut two thirds of its support for the development cooperation efforts of Norwegian civil society organizations. Thanks to the intense efforts of the civil society community, cooperation partners, and of the government, in the end the cuts were completely reversed. We “won” the political thriller this fall, but I think that unfortunately this was a signal that those with political power are looking to downsize the work done through civil society channels.
Now Norwegian civil society finds itself immersed in a necessary and difficult debate: What does it really mean to strengthen civil society in the South, and how can we contribute to that development?
By inspecting results and products, we have contributed to strengthening civil society, but not necessarily in the correct way. Professional aid organizations usually work for project periods that last from three to five years. This means that we find ourselves obliged to align our project designs in way that is primarily oriented to please donors. When the overall goal is to strengthen civil society in the South, this can rarely be measured in three-year periods.
The key feature of a great civil society is not, after all, that it can write good grant applications and reports.
That’s why if we want a strong civil society, we must first and foremost help to strengthen organizations that are responsible to their countries’ citizens, organizations that identify their problems, find solutions, and understand their needs. Under the current system, we’re in danger of reducing civil society to executors of other countries’ development policies.
Thus, we must appreciate civil society as a necessary third actor, not as actors that must at any price be corralled into our results framework and comply with our policies. This change of mindset may well have a cost in many and in status, but it’s strictly necessary.
When a government from one year to the next can propose to largely eradicate and conclude much of the work carried out by partners in the South, it means that we have done a poor job of communicating the value of an active, strong civil society.
But even more grave is that we are slowly but surely becoming so concerned with adapting ourselves to financing channels and to political regulation that on the way we have lost sight of our own reason for being.
This phenomenon is well known to both donors and civil society actors—and we are trapped in a system that is obediently maintained by both parties. It’s time to wake up and have a new and more honest debate about development aid. Instead of fighting for our existence, we should ask ourselves how we can better strengthen civil society in the South. Instead of chasing after money to fund aid projects, we must ask ourselves what type of civil society we want to build.
Now the bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, and the academy must work together. Perhaps it’s time to think about professional volunteering, to see how together we can develop a vision for the role of civil society in the work of aiding development.