November 10, 2015
A couple of months ago I spent a few days in Iran, a country of different culture and politics from my own. I was wowed by the friendliness and hospitality of the locals, always interested in where I had come from, wanting to know what I enjoyed about Iran and where I was heading to. Visitors to New Zealand get similar questions.
Which has given me pause to think about the similarities and differences in our community and voluntary sectors, and to look at New Zealand through the other end of the telescope.
Iran has been out of international favour for three decades now. Its nuclear programme brought sanctions from USA in 1979, and later from UN and EU. The country has been ‘demonised by the West’ says one commentator, with devastating effect on Iran’s internal economy. This troubled history does not tell us much about their civil society. We have heard little of the pressure of women’s groups, a major voice of dissent and a thorn in the Islamic regime’s side. Widespread protests in 2009 against presidential election results brought a government response in which hundreds were killed and thousands imprisoned. These events did not register on my radar at the time.
The number of non-profit organisations in Iran and the informal support at community level is comparable to what we would expect in Western civil societies, though rights and restrictions on charities and non-government organisations have fluctuated over time according to presidential decree. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, declared on election that he would prepare a “civil rights charter” and restore the economy, yet the struggle for a more robust civil society is stifled by hardliners in the Iranian parliament. The population becomes more submissive and cautious, and fearful about the chaos across its borders and government repression of protest.
The high rates of drug addiction and prostitution, and the highest rate in the world for internet pornography are not statistics Iranians want to proclaim. On the other hand the recent détente of sorts with the US is a significant achievement. Iranians I met were excited about the potential to free up trade and improve the economy.
So where are the connections with New Zealand in this scenario? On one hand we enjoy a history of social and community achievements, votes for women and introduction of old age pensions in the late 19th century, and for Welfare State provisions from 1935. The community and voluntary sector has been active right from colonial times, and just keeps on growing and adapting to changing conditions.
On the other hand, New Zealand has had its moments of insurrection and protest. Think Land Wars of the 1860s, Te Kooti’s rampage in 1868, the invasion of Parihaka in 1881, and the police raid on Rua Kenana’s settlement at Maungapohatu in 1916. Yes, there has been armed opposition from government (Massey’s Cossacks in 1913), shootings and injuries (Waihi Miners’ Strike), and plenty of arrests. Political and civil rights were suspended in 1951, in the course of crushing the strike by the Waterside Workers Union. In modern times we have had the Land March (1975), and the long occupation of Bastion Point (1977). We have protested loudly against nuclear warships, the Vietnam War, changes in employment law and latterly the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty and Inequality. The Tour (1981) still represents a benchmark for real civil unrest. Serious enough for our small islands, though nothing like the wholesale deaths and arrests and ongoing repression which occurs in Iran.
But serious enough for me to consider what is presently at risk for Civil Society in New Zealand.
Protest by community and voluntary sector organisations has taken a muted tone in recent times. When organisations rely on government funding contracts which include gagging clauses there’s a full stop, period. When contract requirements are so onerous (though recent changes negotiated with the sector are welcome) there is no time or energy for protest. There is little consideration for the impact on communities when organisations are forced to close because government priorities have changed.
We are weary from the effort of presenting submissions on relevant legislation or regulation and then finding the interests of the community are ignored. Words like ‘democratic deficit’ or ‘disconnect’ get spoken and written about, and low voter turnout at both government and local body elections means democratic apathy is all around.
The thing is, I have always thought civil society as ‘the third leg of the stool’, up there with the public and private sectors in creating the sort of society and communities we want to enjoy. Civil Society – all those organisations that deliver services, run the sporting sector, create healthy and resilient communities, foster neighbourhood groups – represents a different perspective from the economic and the political. Which is not to assume civil society should be apolitical – Courts are deciding that yes, charities do have an advocacy role to play, as this quote argues:
An ‘effective’ (often known as ‘vibrant’) civil society is fundamental to any society’s capability to provide for its members’ needs and meet their aspirations, guide and hold its political and economic leaders and power-holders to account, and to embody the complex web of interactions between and among people and peoples, and between people and the state, which is such an essential feature of resilience in the face of political, environmental, social or economic shocks.
In today’s reality civil society has been drawn into the public and private sector practices. Community and voluntary organisations are marketised, and volunteers used to deliver services, for government purposes. Corporate sponsorship, even with the best intentions and some welcome funding, can turn into a re-branding exercise for an organisation. A flow-on effect for civil society organisations is falling confidence in their accountability, level of trust and ethical practice (Dominion Post, November 4), and consequently less donor support.
None of these views are new, and for a really good global summary see State of Civil Society 2015, which includes the following statement:
The power of civil society is recognised through a back-handed compliment, when elites try to suppress civil society’s essential role of speaking truth to power. In many contexts, civil society is attacked when it seeks to uphold human rights, advocate for policy change or exercise accountability over political and economic elites.
Or take in the introduction to the State of the World Volunteering Report 2015, where our former Prime Minister Helen Clark says:
The report suggests that the ability of volunteers to support development progress depends on the willingness of national governments to ensure that the space and supportive environments which encourage their participation and initiatives are available. (Emphasis added)
So there we have it. We may not suffer the extremes of repression experienced by civil society groups in Iran, but in New Zealand we too are burdened by elements of control.