September 26, 2010

The Push of Politics

Posted in A Bigger Picture at 4:37 am by Sue Hine

I must have been looking out the window during my sociology lectures on Social Capital and Civil Society.  These ideas have been around for two or three centuries, and I thought I knew what they meant without resorting to academic analysis.  I could also add Third Sector to my lexicon without wondering why, and absorb various acronyms like NFP, NPI, NGO as just new facts of life. 

In recent months however, ‘Civil Society’ has been invading my brain-space and I’ve had to do some serious reading.  Not surprisingly, conceptual words like ‘civil’ and ‘society’ produce several different meanings.  I have latched on to the interpretations of Michael Edwards, a writer much admired when I was studying development (the 3rd world kind) a couple of years ago: 

  • Civil society as part of society – in the form of associations, groups of people operating within society at large (producing Social Capital that drives positive social norms for the ‘good’ society);
  • Civil society as a kind of society – value-based, creating “good” (as opposed to ‘uncivilised’); and
  • Civil society as the public sphere – the arena for public debate and argument, a public space in which differences in community, cultural identity, and public policy are debated (and also the sphere of community development, empowerment and self-determination).

Ultimately the discourses of civil society are about the relationships between culture, market and the state.  And where volunteering and the community sector fits.  Lester Salamon (2010) argues that the Civil Society sector needs to be put on “the economic map of the world”: New Zealand statistics on NFP organisations is a start.  Bos and Meijs (2008) make a good case for using volunteer centres to build Civil Society, and I think it’s fair to say Volunteer Centres in New Zealand do well in generating an infrastructure for volunteering.  But that’s not the whole picture.    

What bothers me is that ‘social capital’ – community organisations and volunteers – sounds like an economic entity alongside human and physical capital, another resource commodity to be exploited for economic gain. 

The economy used to be a duopoly of state and private sectors.  Now we have the Third Sector as a significant player – NGOs and community organisations are the new service providers.  Funny isn’t it, that we are placed third, though we are ever the grist for the mill of politics and the economy.  Funny isn’t it, how the private sector has muscled into volunteer services under the guise of corporate responsibility.  Of course others will see Third Sector as a counterbalance to political and economic power, and be pleased we have a voice, even if we are not always heard.

I am bothered, because in a worst-case scenario I see a takeover.  I see the ideas of Civil Society conflated into government policies and programmes, perverting the voice of community, of the volunteers and their managers, in favour of the power-broker views of Civil Society.  The Oracle Bones from the UK, from Australia and from Aotearoa New Zealand are telling me so.

In the UK the new Conservative government intends to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a Big Society that will roll back big government, bureaucracy and Whitehall power, undertaken by community organisers.  Political and social change of this scale has not happened since the heyday of monetarist economic policies.  Go back to the 1960s and people like me recall the opprobrium dished out to ‘community organisers’ because they stirred up so much citizen protest and action for change. 

It is not surprising that in a matter of days the next pronouncement of the UK government is a massive cut in funding to the community sector.  Who gets what in terms of community services will be determined by government, not by the sector that knows what happens on the ground.

In Australia it is same-same, different words.  The new Labour-led Government wants the non-profit sector to deliver smarter regulation (the meaning of this is unclear), reduce red tape and improve transparency and accountability of the sector.  The previous government had started the ball rolling with intentions to build a National Volunteer Strategy.  A consultation document earlier this year roused a welter of concerns: how can you have a strategy on volunteering if you do not include the issues of managing the volunteers? 

Government in Aotearoa New Zealand has been less direct in showing its hand than either Australia or the UK.  And much slower.  Well, it all started back in 1999 when with a Ministerial Portfolio for the Community and Voluntary Sector, and after a couple of years’ deliberation, the Statement of Good Intentions for an Improved Community-Government Relationship (SOGI).  A new National Government got prodded by ANGOA’s report Good Intentions (2009), and suddenly there is consultation on Kia Tutahi – Standing Together, a relationship agreement between “the communities of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Government of New Zealand”.  Ummm…nnnggh??   Many people were saying “SOGI – never heard of it!”; “Relationship?  Only if you increase our funding”.  Debate and discussion at the consultation meeting I attended and subsequent discussion boards indicate a readiness and willingness to challenge Government assumptions. 

I am not usually prone to conspiracy theories, but I am mightily suspicious of the trends outlined here.  The voluntary sector has always been the creative and innovative driver for community and community services, for filling gaps in public services and being free to respond to the needs and interests of groups and communities.  An invitation to enter the government den is of course a tremendous opportunity for the sector to influence public policy.  But what of the  costs?  What do we stand to lose?   

The Resources Page includes references for this post and a selection of further reading.

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1 Comment »

  1. Good points, thank you Sue (I’m happy to have been part of your reading list!). I share your concerns and am so worried about these trends that I’ve written a new book about them called “Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World” (Berrett-Koehler). Let me know what you think.

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