Civil spaces and democratic vitality is a knowledge issue

 

Floriant Covelli

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I’m very much concerned with developing a better knowledge of the not for profit sector’s contribution to democracy. Having heard about the European Foundation Centre Grantmakers East Forum’s (GEF) dynamism and authority on the on those topics, I was very keen on seeing how GEF would approach ‘common actions for social change’. To prepare, I interviewed French researchers who work on the links between non-profit organisations and democratic vitality in France and I was asked to relay a list of questions. Among them, were the two conceptual questions below.

Why change the narrative from ‘shrinking space’ to ‘civil space’?
This is a fundamental question for French research as it hasn’t yet achieved the first conceptual step of ‘shrinking space’.

Attending the conference and my discussions with several participants made me understand that this concept has been challenged for a long time in the GEF conferences, and that finally ‘shrinking space’ was no longer judged as a performative concept. It’s too large to represent various situations in different countries, it focuses on the problems and induces tensions with public actors, instead of showing the way to solutions. Eventually, it involves a linear historical approach, when experience shows that we should adopt a historical circular point of view. I also heard that it was judged more efficient to mobilize people on concrete issues with immediate effects on their daily needs, and more efficient to speak about justice, freedom, equality, rather than debate on the changes of democratic institutions.

I’ve come back to France with the idea that the ‘shrinking space’, and perhaps using the more global concept of ‘changing space’, would be a more sufficient concept – if we don’t qualify and describe the nature of the changes. If I still think it’s useful for our knowledge process to name the phenomenon of changing space, the GEF conference definitely convinced me that naming at the same time hints at a solution and working on civic spaces would be the most performative approach.

What does a post-NGO civil society mean?
Activism, grassroots organisations, new technologies, community foundations, pool funding and crowdfunding: those new forms of commitment are undoubtedly contributing to the vitality of democracy. They are more horizontal, spontaneous, and enable people to make decisions and act together.

They not only complete NGOs activities, they also disrupt and challenge NGOs’ traditional model. NGOs can be perceived as institutional structures, while people expect more informal spaces. Following their own guidelines, they can also be criticized for their top-down approach, when people want to invent their own solutions. When they’re financed by international funds, they have to justify that they are as legitimate as if they were receiving local funds. Hence, we can speak of a new era where social change is not lead exclusively by NGOs anymore.

However, the NGO model keeps its whole legitimacy and relevancy to weight on public policies through consultation, negotiation or even advocacy. As a trusted third party, NGOs are complementary to representative democracy, establishing institutional links between citizens and public power. As official organisations, they can be controlled and be transparent about their resources and results.

If the phrase ‘post-NGO’ points out an evolution which challenges the actual NGO model, it doesn’t really account for the fact that the vitality of democracy needs both institutional and informal forms. It neither helps us to analyse this polarization in the context of a global representation crisis that is perhaps affecting NGOs.

It would be very interesting to work further on articulations between NGOs and those new civil spaces. As democracy also needs confidence, it would also be useful to consider how those articulations could contribute to reinforcing and promoting the role of intermediate bodies -among which are NGOs- in society.

Thanks for the great organisation of this conference that has succeeded in making us learn, reflect and expand our network!

Floriant Covelli is Managing Director of the French Institute for Non-Profit Organisations
Twitter: @FloriantCovelli


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