Pogledaj Full Version : What Civil Society Needs

Željko Zidarić
28th-May-2012, 12:28 AM
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By Bruce Sievers
Stanford Social Innovation Review
Fall 2010

Headline-grabbing problems like global warming and extreme poverty garner most of philanthropy’s money and energy, while less visible but no less important problems like the decline of the news media—one of the foundations of civil society—are often ignored. without a healthy civil society, however, it becomes difficult if not impossible to solve the other, more readily apparent problems.

When asked to list humanity’s most pressing challenges in the 21st century, most people would mention issues like global warming, overpopulation, extreme poverty, and nuclear proliferation—social problems that dominate the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Very few people, however, would mention the erosion of civil society and its institutions as an urgent issue that needs our immediate attention.

Philanthropists, much like the general public, focus most of their attention and money on solving headline-grabbing problems in education, health care, economic development, and the environment. Billions of philanthropic dollars, for example, are spent every year trying to alleviate global warming, yet relatively few dollars are directed toward improving the public decision-making process, an essential function in a democratic civil society and one that plays a critical role in determining the future of the environment.

Only a tiny fraction—at most a few percent—of philanthropic dollars go to support civil society’s institutional structures and to promote the values and norms of a flourishing civil society. This neglect represents a fundamental gap in philanthropy—one that can undermine philanthropy’s ability to pursue its other problem-solving goals. For without a healthy civil society and what comes along with it—such as an informed and engaged public—it is difficult if not impossible to solve the other pressing problems.

The reason that it is urgent for philanthropists and others to address this issue now is that there is an accelerating decline in the health of U.S. civil society. Evidence of this decline is all around us. The growing dominance of commercial forces in the news media, the erosion of the public’s trust in Congress, the declining membership in civic organizations, and the steady deterioration of civility in political discourse—all testify to the weakening bands that connect and support civil society.

If civil society is so important, why, one might ask, do philanthropists pay so little attention to its well-being? The reason is that most philanthropists use an instrumentalist approach to solving social problems, one based on applied science and business investing that can produce measurable and concrete results. Although some discrete and easy-to-measure problems—such as building affordable housing or providing job training—can be solved using this approach, many other problems cannot. And it is those types of intangible and hard-to-measure problems—such as increasing civic engagement or enhancing social trust—that characterize civil society.

Foundations of Civil Society

Before delving further into why philanthropists have ignored civil society and what can be done to reverse course, it is important to first understand what civil society is. Although the idea of civil society has ancient roots, it first appeared in its contemporary form between the 16th and 18th centuries in Europe. This was the period of the growth of individualism and attention to individual rights, especially of the rights of belief and free expression, and of increasing demarcation between the realms of civil society and the state. Enlightenment thinkers such as Hugo Grotius, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Ferguson articulated elements of these early visions of civil society. Following this burst of interest, there was a long period of relative neglect of the concept. Recently, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in civil society.

Some contemporary observers have a narrow definition of civil society that equates it to the nonprofit sector or nongovernmental organizations. I draw upon a more expansive definition of civil society that includes these private associations, along with the institutions of the rule of law, philanthropy, a system of free expression, and the norms of individual rights, the common good, and tolerance.

My definition is similar to the succinct one offered by University of California at Los Angeles professor Helmut Anheier: “Civil society is the arena outside family, government, and market where people voluntarily associate to advance common interests based on civility.”

An important element of Anheier’s definition is its emphasis on civil society’s aim to “advance common interests.” Another way of stating this is to say that civil society (and philanthropy as a part of it) is a medium that coordinates individual efforts to provide public goods and diminish public bads. Indeed, practitioners of philanthropy view themselves as involved in the creation or preservation of public goods—such as public education, clean air and water, and cultural expression—and the reduction of public bads— such as global climate change, international violence, and poverty.

One of the reasons it is difficult for philanthropists and others to fulfill those noble goals is that there is a continual tension within civil society between individuals’ desire to pursue particular interests and the desire to pursue the common good. This tension poses two fundamental challenges: the problem of collective action and the problem of value pluralism. The first has to do with the difficulty of achieving collective ends, even when there is common agreement as to what those ends are, in the face of individuals’ self-interested behavior. An example of this is the “tragedy of the commons,” a term originally used to explain why groups of individuals, each using the same commonly held field to graze cows, often end up overgrazing the land. The term is now used to explain why resources held in common by humanity, such as the air and the oceans, are universally abused, causing global warming and ocean pollution.

The second problem, value pluralism, has to do with the achievement of common purposes in a world of competing and often incompatible understandings of what those purposes are. For example, some would characterize a good society as one in which any rational person can choose the time and manner of his death, and even have a physician aid him in the process. Others would see such a society as a violation of fundamental religious or ethical principles. Such fundamental value conflicts are famously described in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s classic summation, “the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with one another.”

Resolving the tension among the competing interests, goals, and value systems of individuals in civil society, in a way that increases public goods and reduces public bads, is a complex task, much more complicated than the challenges one faces in business, where profit is a clear and single test of success, or in natural science, where variables can be limited and controlled.