The infrastructure of civil society – Hitchhiker’s Guide[1]

Jenny Hyatt

‘There is a theory which states that if ever for any reason anyone discovers what exactly the Universe is for and why it is here it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.’

Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The muddled history of the Galaxy[2]

‘Fifteen to twenty years ago, funders didn’t come to Central and Eastern Europe with clear concepts of civil society – the term wasn’t that well debated in the US,’ echoed Stephen Heintz. Rather, donors were drawn to the region by issues such as peace and stability, environmental concerns, and the potential for democratization. The term ‘civil society’ was a widely used post-hoc encapsulation of a number of existing and new funding programmes.

Subsequently, its meaning was assumed to be clear and rarely debated in the donor community. This is not to say that certain donors did not have conceptual understanding. For Mott, for example, it was all about trying to make sure people have the ability to exercise their freedoms – to assemble, to organize, to speak and so on – a concept of civil society ‘as values and norms’ as defined by Alison Van Rooy.[3]

Yet for many civil society was equated with the non-profit sector and often simply with NGOs (and more rarely CSOs). Whether this was for reasons of pragmatism (ability to engage within budgetary, time and logistical constraints), conceptual paucity or difficulty in grappling with complex, uncertain situations is unclear. Possibly, it was a combination of all three. However, its implications for funding the development of infrastructure to support a strong civil society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have been profound.

Logic has drawbacks

If civil society is viewed as a sector or organizational type, then the focus of infrastructure development tends to be, say, building institutions, systems and resources. The very words – infrastructure, architecture – suggest concrete, glass and ‘tangibility’. By contrast, if civil society is viewed more as certain types of processes, relationships and cultural norms, then the focus is more on, say, building confidence, relationships, trust and values (let us call these ‘connectivity’). This is not a case of either/or: civil society and its supporting infrastructure are to do with ‘tangibility’ and ‘connectivity’. But it is a case of balance and emphasis.

Civil societies have emerged where few of the tangible elements are in place (and may even be hostile to civil activity) yet there is strong connectivity. Examples are the parallel civil society that flourished in Kosovo during Serb rule or, less extremely, the Slovak non-profit sector (rather than civil society) during Meciar’s time. Yet in Central and Eastern Europe funding has focused far more on ‘tangibility’ than on ‘connectivity’.

Excitingly fashionable chaos and complexity

The funders I talked with in preparation for this article were justly proud of many of the infrastructure institutions, systems and resources they have helped develop in Central and Eastern Europe. These include beneficial shifts in the legal and fiscal frameworks for NGOs; stimulation of local philanthropy through indigenized foundations; and the development of representative and advocacy functions through umbrella organizations.

They were also aware of the early need to build relational and cultural norms. Stephen Heintz noted that ‘there had been a severance of horizontal links in society; people had been robbed of their capacity to act’. Mott and Rockefeller Brothers Fund tended to address such issues through identifying ‘good leaders’ (whom it was assumed had the relevant relationships and values) ‘whom we stayed with and helped to build their institutions’.

Yet the donors’ examples of what they would retrospectively change in their practice centred on questions of connectivity. Shannon Lawder, for example, commented that more attention to how some resource centres defined and involved their constituencies might have increased their impact in the non-profit sector if not society as a whole. Similarly, Diederik Slot suggested that public awareness of NGOs and attitudes to volunteering may need to be approached in new ways. In essence, two main points seem to have come out of the discussion.

A whole Galaxy of stuff out there

First, donors assumed that local organizations (or at least their leaders) would address, and were best placed to address, issues of connectivity in society. However, as I wrote in the mid-1990s, too much emphasis has been placed on NGOs ‘as institutions per se and not as vehicles for meeting sets of needs and interests’[4] when it is unclear whether they are well connected to those needs and interests. Many of the examples that the donors quoted as clear contributors to infrastructure are organizations that are well connected in this way. These include Environmental Partnership Foundations in the Visegrad countries; indigenous donors such as VIA in the Czech Republic, the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund in Serbia and the Carpathian Foundation; and organizations that develop local non-profit sectors such as SPLOT in Poland.

Second is the issue of cultural resonance of donors’ funding programmes. This has a couple of dimensions. One is the extent to which donors relied on what I previously called ‘adoption of the adapted’[5] (Western) frameworks. For example, as Shannon Lawder commented, ‘using Western models of volunteering in post-Communist countries rather than looking for, say, “good neighbours” or other forms of less Western conceptualized volunteerism’. The other is the extent to which particular approaches unwittingly replicated aspects of ‘Communist’ culture, for example placing a great deal of authority in individual leaders. These dimensions are nicely illustrated in this exchange between Shannon Lawder and Stephen Heintz.

Shannon: ‘Perhaps it was a mistake, for example looking at resource centres, to be too reliant on promoting a certain model. We got into this idea that an organization in every country providing training, information, networking, advocacy – a one-stop shop – made a lot of sense and in some respects made our job more manageable. In most cases, this had value. Yet perhaps we could have focused more on the functions that were needed but did not necessarily have to be housed under one roof – done more investigation of different organizations that may already have been doing some of these things’

Stephen: ‘In hind(Heintz)sight the logic is irrefutable but contradictory as one notion we were trying to overcome was centralized power. Yet in some cases, that is what we inadvertently supported.’

This suggests that infrastructure is as much about culture as it is about concrete institutions or systems. Whatever institutions and frameworks you create, for example to ensure that people have rights to assemble, to speak freely and so on, if people don’t appreciate their importance, they won’t be strong enough to withstand threats and they may eventually be lost.

Hitchhiker’s Guide

Stephen Heintz clearly believes that donors can do much to reinforce connectivity through their own approach. ‘The Task Force on the Future of Yugoslavia was a marvellous example of temporary infrastructure building,’ he said. ‘It helped change the dynamic in an extreme situation and put in place a network that later developed its own infrastructure. Through our support we gave legitimacy to their work but we also gave people confidence in what they were doing. It is not just about money – it is equally the transfer of knowledge and confidence.’

Listening to these donors talking about how to help build the infrastructure for a strong civil society, it struck me that they need the qualities of a hitchhiker. They need to have some sense of where they want to go (but not a predetermined route); they do not have vehicles but must be prepared to ask challenging questions of those that do; they have to be ready to take a longer time to get where they expect to arrive or arrive somewhere else; they need to keep the driver awake and build good relationships with those who are in the vehicle. Finally, they can choose to get out and find alternative transport but they must never try to teach the person at the wheel how to drive.

‘(Arthur) felt the need of some guidance and advice. He consulted The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He looked up “guidance” and it said “See under ADVICE”. He looked up “advice”’ and it said “See under GUIDANCE”.’

1 This article draws on recent discussions with Shannon Lawder of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Stephen Heintz from Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Diederik Slot from the Cooperating Netherlands Foundations. However, apart from direct quotations, the views expressed within it are those of the author.

2 All subtitles are drawn from Douglas Adams’ books and sayings.

3 Alison Van Rooy (1998) Civil Society and the Aid Industry Earthscan, pp7-27.

4 Jenny Hyatt (2000) The Quest for Sustainability: A work in search of process The Development School.

5 Jenny Hyatt with Libby Cooper and Barry Knight (1996) From Transition to Development Charities Evaluation Services.

Jenny Hyatt is director of The Development School. She can be contacted at

Grantmakers East Group support Innovative Donors Learning Programme

For the first time, the GEG Steering Group sponsored a two-day donors’ learning programme following their October 2003 Conference in Bratislava. Led by The Development School, this focused on working with change and development in complex environments. The programme allowed donors to explore issues such as how to read their working environments; what sorts of processes and relationships ‘make a difference’; and how to work with change and development through grantmaking. Participants commented: ‘We have learned a lot about our working environment; we questioned our approaches and recognized grantmakers are making similar mistakes. This programme helped define some of the crucial principles for successful grantmaking in local communities.’ The Development School now plans a longer-term learning programme, ‘Donors and Development’.

For further details
contact Jenny Hyatt at The Development School at

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