Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future

Toward a Global Role for the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the UK (1997).

The following piece ‘from the archive’ is excerpted from my masters dissertation of April 1997 to the the Institute of Development Policy and Management of the University of Manchester, for the degree of MA (Econ) Development Administration and Management. You can download the full dissertation Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future (60 pages) in pdf. This has also been published by ICA:UK.

“The good life can only be lived in civil society…  The picture here is of people freely associating and communicating with one another, forming and reforming groups of all sorts, not for the sake of any particular formation – family, tribe, nation, religion, commune, brotherhood or sisterhood, interest group or ideological movement – but for the sake of sociability itself.  For we are by nature social, before we are political or economic beings” (Walzer 1992, 97).

1.1  Context

The idea of ‘civil society’ is experiencing a renaissance in debates on development and democracy, as ‘third sector’ organizations and grassroots movements demand, and are often granted, greater space in which to contribute to the development and democratization of our societies at local, national and global levels.

As we approach the turn of the millennium, and the end of a century that has witnessed radical and often devastating socio-economic and environmental change, the need has never been greater, nor the time riper, for humankind to plan and act strategically in search of radical solutions to address the great global crises of our times – Korten (1990) has identified these as the crises of poverty, environment and social integration.  There are innumerable indications of positive change in many spheres, perhaps evidence of an emerging paradigmatic shift to a dawning ‘solar age’ (Henderson 1993).  Yet, the challenge remains for us all to participate effectively in the shaping of a more humane and sustainable future for all.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) is a global network of private, not-for-profit organizations and networks concerned ‘with the human factor in world development’, and working actively to foster such participation by facilitating personal, organizational and social transformation in a variety of contexts.  ICA:UK is a network of families and individuals sharing these concerns, most of whom have participated as volunteers in grassroots community development work overseas, and who now live and work in a diverse range of settings in Britain.  ICA adopted ‘Participating in the Rise of Civil Society’ as the theme of its recent quadrennial global conference, held in Cairo in September 1996, and is now publishing an edited volume on the same theme (Beyond Prince and Merchant, Burbidge forthcoming).

1.2  Aim and structure of work

By drawing on relevant literature and documentary sources, as well as on the author’s personal experience of working with ICA over 11 years in India, Egypt and the UK, this study explores the evolving idea of civil society and the debates surrounding it, with reference to the Institute of Cultural Affairs and ICA:UK.

The aims of the study are two-fold.  Firstly, for those enthused by the idea of civil society and the sector’s role in democracy and development, it aims to highlight some of the important dimensions of that role, in theory and in practice, and the practical approach of ICA that is not only working in building and strengthening civil society for such a role, but that is also uniquely appropriate to address to the great crises of our times as viewed from a civil society perspective.  Secondly, for those involved with ICA or familiar with its approach, it aims to highlight the relevance and utility of the idea of civil society as an insightful (and newly fashionable) conceptual framework by which to understand and appreciate the work in which ICA has been engaged for over 25 years.

Chapter 2 introduces the idea of civil society in its historical context, and reviews its re-emergence and current place in contemporary debates on democracy and development.

Chapter 3 explores how such a civil society perspective may offer insight into the dangers and opportunities of the global crises demanding our attention in the late-1990s, and into their implications for the role of civil society, and for all those concerned with acting, and catalyzing action, for positive change.

Chapter 4 demonstrates the particular relevance of the idea of civil society to the Institute of Cultural Affairs and ICA:UK and, conversely, of ICA and its practical approach to the rising civil society and the challenges it faces.

The study concludes, in Chapter 5, by reaffirming the high level of ‘fit’ apparent from a civil society perspective between ICA, its practical approach and the challenges of the contemporary global crisis of governance; and by calling for a dynamic learning approach to a renewal of civic engagement from all those who share ICA’s ‘concern with the human factor in world development’.

5.   Conclusion – a call for participation

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;  indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” (Margaret Mead)

This study has explored, in chapter 2, the philosophical roots and some of the contemporary interpretations of the idea of civil society that has in the 1990s emerged with such resonance in current discourse on democracy and development.  Adopting the popular contemporary notion of civil society as one of a trinity of social sectors, and adopting norms of community co-operation, structures of voluntary association and networks of public communication as its three defining characteristics, the study has reviewed in chapter 3 how the idea of civil society has been applied to explain, and to seek ways to address, the great crisis of governance facing our global society as we approach the turn of the millennium. For local and global systems of governance to be effective, it concluded, civil society must be afforded a central role – and its restitution to such a role must be central to any strategy for creating a more humane and sustainable future for us all.  It showed, moreover, that civil society is already on the rise worldwide, offering insight and strength to all those ready to take their responsibility as citizens to act for positive social change.   As Darcy de Oliveira and Tandon have written,

“Citizens are at the centre of the global drama unfolding today.  They are the lead actresses and actors in building global democratic governance and human development.  The state and the market, and their related institutions, must serve the citizens, not the other way rounds. The security of our common future lies in the hands of a informed, inspired, committed and engaged citizenry” (Darcy de Oliveira and Tandon 1994, 16)

Adopting the same analytical framework, the study has in chapter 4 examined the case of the Institute of Cultural Affairs and ICA:UK, and found them to have for over 25 years embodied the principles of the contemporary idea of civil society, and intentionally contributed to the building and strengthening of the sector.  It concluded that the idea of civil society is not only of particular relevance and utility to ICA and its work, but that ICA in general, and ICA:UK in particular, may be seen from a civil society perspective to display a particularly high degree of ‘fit’ between their organization, their programmatic work and the urgent challenges facing global society.  They may therefore be considered particularly well placed and well qualified to contribute effectively to further efforts to restore the social balance, toward meeting the challenges of the contemporary crisis of governance.

Ward has observed: “The most important change that people can make is to change their way of looking at the world.  We can change studies, jobs, neighbourhoods, even countries and continents and still remain much as we were.  But change our fundamental angle of vision and everything changes – our priorities, our values, our judgments, our pursuits…  a turning of the heart, a ‘metanoia’, by which men [sic] see with new eyes and understand with new minds and turn their energies to new ways of living” (Ward 1971 cited in Commission for Global Governance 1995, 47).

Of course the idea of civil society, while increasingly found to be insightful at this point in history, is only one lens through which to look at the world and ask, ‘what is to be done?’ and ‘what shall we do?’.  Perhaps less important than the lens used is that we do look, and that we do ask – and, most of all, that we do.  Moreover, the world is increasingly understood to be ‘more like a river than a rock’  (Uphoff 1992), such that no one static perspective, however insightful, may substitute for a constant and dynamic search for new insights and new approaches.

Far from being distinguished only by its affinity with the civil society perspective, as explored in this study, the Institute of Cultural Affairs has been described as being uniquely characterized by its stance of constant searching and questioning.  In an influential address to ICA’s Global Order Council of 1986, the then Programme Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, Van Arendonk, remarked:

“If you say you are going to develop man, then you have to know what he is or what he stands for…  That is, I think, where you can make a enormous contribution.  I have simply not seen any other organization, and I know many, who can make that contribution because of one reason…  You are a question mark.  You are saying ‘we really don’t know’…  You are searching.  You are looking for what it is that we are here for.  That is the essence of development” (Van Arendonk 1986, 10).

ICA has shown the courage to raise the most fundamental of questions in development, and has demonstrated the capacity and potential to serve effectively to empower individuals, organizations and communities to address these questions in actively creating their own futures.  The Institute of Cultural Affairs, and ICA:UK in particular, represent both a powerful resource and an important avenue for the active participation of citizens in building civil society for a more humane and sustainable future, in the UK and globally.

In the light of the high degree of ‘fit’ revealed in this study, and in the light of ICA’s defining culture of participation, it behoves ICA:UK, it’s members and all those who share its concerns, to take advantage of their unique position and potential, to embrace their critical role as citizens of the rising global civil society, and to participate together to create and implement a new strategic agenda for action as we approach the turn of the millennium.

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