The Ploughshares Monitor September 1999 Volume 20 Issue 3
This article was adapted from the “Introduction” written by Lowell Ewert and contained in Civil Society: A Foundation for Sustainable Economic Development, edited by Melissa Rose and Lowell Ewert, published by Mercy Corps International and the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities, 1998. Lowell Ewert is Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, Ontario. Previously he headed up the civil society program of Mercy Corps International, based in Portland, Oregon. This article is written in his individual capacity and reflects his personal views.
A strong civil society that crosses societal divisions is vital to future efforts to build peace in Kosovo. Civil society alone cannot save Kosovo, but it will provide the best opportunity to find good peaceful solutions to the recurring problems of the territory.
Late this past June – early July, I visited Kosovo at the invitation of Mercy Corps International, which since 1993 has been one of the leading relief and development agencies working in this troubled region. While other relief and development agencies were still focussing their efforts on providing humanitarian assistance, Mercy Corps was beginning to develop a strategy that would enable them to promote civil society while pursuing humanitarian redevelopment efforts.
Why the pre-occupation with “civil society”? In the last 5 to 10 years, relief and development agencies have begun to better understand the value of civil society and the link that it has with international development. Authors such as Alan AtKisson have boldly proclaimed that “civil society will save the world,” unapologetically stating that civil society has “saved the world time and time again” in the past, and that it continues to do so in the present. He proposes that civil society is “humanity’s conscience, its early warning system” – a laboratory that allows the “best traits” of the citizenry to be used to make this world a better place (AtKisson 1997). While skeptics may disagree with this optimistic view of civil society, the correlation between weak civil society and some of the greatest problems faced by the world community is irrefutable. The evidence in Kosovo certainly suggests that this outlook towards civil society merits further serious consideration.
Harvard economist Amartya Sen and the NGO Human Rights Watch have shown that countries that respect human rights, thereby allowing civil society to flourish, are far less likely to suffer a famine than those countries that routinely trample on the basic rights of their citizens. Medical researchers have shown that respect for human rights, and its companion, civil society, can be as important as modern technology in combatting the spread of disease. Environmental degradation is often more severe, and less correctable, in countries that restrict a free and independent civil society. Examples from the former Soviet Union, in which centrally controlled command planning replaced the common sense of the citizenry, bear sad testimony to the truth of this correlation.
War is frequently caused by nations that disregard the inalienable rights of their citizens, and most of the world’s refugees are people who have fled the persecution that often accompanies weak civil societies. The conflict in Kosovo is certainly one example of how armed conflict can emerge from massive violations of human rights. The absence of accountability in the construction and regulatory industries in Turkey has also recently prompted widespread speculation that greater damage from earthquakes is one sad result of a weak civil society. Finally, while firm economic evidence is still inconclusive, there is a growing sense that the hallmarks of a civil society – transparency and open access to the citizenry, allowing them to freely participate in the economic and political systems – stimulate both faster economic growth and a more equitable distribution of that growth.
What is this civil society that some think offers such great hope for the world? Civil society can be viewed in a number of different ways. For some scholars, civil society is nothing more than a set of nongovernmental institutions and processes that have the ability to act in a way that limits the power of the government or private market sector. It functions as a corrective to the actions of the government or market and gives voice and expression to the perspectives of the citizenry as it relates to these other sectors. The health of civil society can be measured by the “number and type” of civil society organizations, associations, and agencies that exist. It was clear from my time in Kosovo that Serbian authorities feared citizen action groups and made it very difficult for NGOs to operate with significant autonomy. However, the problem with this perspective is that it ignores the evidence coming out of Rwanda demonstrating that, based on pure numerical calculations, pre-genocide Rwanda was a good example of a growing civil society (Uvin 1998). The net result in Rwanda was simply a more effective and efficient genocide. Civil society is something more than just the presence of NGOs.
Others view civil society as more of a “process” that describes how the government, market and citizen action sectors work together to achieve the common good. According to this perspective, what is important is not necessarily how many civil society organizations exist, but rather how effective these civil society institutions are in promoting their agenda and in influencing the government or market sector. The strength of the relationship of the third sector to the government or market becomes the defining characteristic of civil society. The health of civil society is thus measured by how well the mediating processes between the three sectors work, and a true civil society remains an ideal that will never be fully achieved. It will always be “in process.”
A third perspective defines civil society as an end in and of itself, or as a “state of being.” Civil society is considered to be something that can and will be fully achieved when the different sectors of society relate to each other in a manner that is respectful, tolerant, and affirming of differences, and that allows its citizens access to decision making. Civil society is thus vaguely defined to be something that is “civil.” Some Kosovars with whom I spoke suggested that Yugoslavia under Tito had a strong civil society because during his reign there was no open conflict. However, the problem with this view is that when the “power” that held the fragmented Yugoslav society together evaporated, societal divisions became susceptible to manipulation by governmental leaders who promoted ethnic nationalism for their own political ends.
So what does the above mean for Kosovo? In my view, the challenge facing those who want to rebuild Kosovo is to build a society which is held together by “connections” that cross traditional tribal, ethnic, or societal divisions. A strong civil society in this context can then be measured not by the number of associations that exist, or the fact that open conflict has been stifled, but rather by the strength of the associations that cross-societal divisions. A society that nourishes and supports strong cross societal ties will be able to resist the destructive calls for nationalistic mobilization that have characterized the Balkans since the late 1980s.
This goal can be accomplished by building a society that is based on the common attributes of “participation,” “accountability,” and “peaceable change.” Participation refers to the ability of the citizenry to participate in the life of the state and to provide valuable input into decisions that affect their lives. The essence of the definition of accountability is the ability of the citizenry to hold those in power over them responsible for the decisions that are made. A final, but equally crucial, component of a civil society is its ability to peaceably change and make mid-course corrections without resorting to mass violence. These principles must apply to every aspect of daily life. Police officers need to understand them and live by them. So too must government officials, NGO leaders, community and civic leaders, as well as those who are working to heal the broken and damaged human spirits. So too must we foreigners who bring assistance to Kosovo.
So, back to the opening paragraph of this discussion. Will civil society save the world? Can it alone save Kosovo and eliminate human suffering and solve its challenging problems? Of course not. Civil society cannot be the saviour of Kosovo, and those who expect it to be will be greatly disappointed. However, civil society empowers stakeholders who often hold the key to good development and gives them the best opportunity to find good peaceful solutions. It will make Kosovo’s problems far more solvable and will likely lead to the development of more durable and sustainable solutions. Civil society thus becomes the ally of the development worker and of those who seek to promote values changes within individuals as a strategy to improve the human condition. While civil society alone cannot save Kosovo, without a strong and vigorous civil society, I fear that Kosovo will fall into the recurring nightmare of continued conflict and poverty that we have seen too often in the Balkans during this decade.
AtKisson, Alan 1997, “Why Civil Society Will Save the World,” Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society, ed. John Burbidge, Pact Publ., New York, pp. 285-292.
Uvin, Peter 1998, “And Where was Civil Society?” in Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda, Kumarian Press.