Civil spaces and democratic vitality is a knowledge issue


Floriant Covelli


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 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’.

The conference and my discussions with several attendees made me understand that this concept has been challenged for a long time in the GEF conferences, and that ‘shrinking space’ was no longer judged as a performative concept. First of all, it is too large to represent various situations in different countries. Furthermore, 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 cyclical view of history. I also heard that it was deemed more efficient to mobilize people on concrete issues with immediate effects on their daily needs and to speak about justice, freedom, equality, rather than debate on the changes of democratic institutions.

I came back to France with the idea that the concept of ‘shrinking space’, and perhaps using the more global concept of ‘changing space’, would be more appropriate– if we don’t qualify and describe the nature of the changes. Although I still think it is useful for our knowledge process to name the phenomenon of changing space, the GEF conference convinced me that naming hints at a solution while 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 undoubtedly contribute 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 organizations, 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 are 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 no longer led exclusively by NGOs.

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

If the phrase ‘post-NGO’ points out an evolution which challenges the current NGO model, it does not really account for the fact that democratic vitality requires both institutional and informal forms. It does not help us either analyze this polarization in the context of a global representation crisis that is perhaps affecting NGOs.

It would be very interesting to work further on the 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.

Thank you 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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