Civil Society: Challenging Western Models

Edited volumes seems to have a shorter shelf life than books, similar to academic articles. I recently picked up the somewhat dated (1996) edited volume of "Civil Society: Challenging Western Models", edited by Chris Hann and Elizabeth Dunn, to see what it might offer. It was written at a time when literature on civil society was just emerging, and in that regard it might be easy to criticize. However, my biggest disappointment with the book is that its aim of challenging western models was quite narrow. They write: "There is something inherently unsatisfactory about the international propagation of by western scholars of an ideal of social organization that seems to bear little relation to the current realities of their own countries" (p. 1). Yet, the contributing authors are all based in Europe or North America; the voices of the Global South were rather mute. There are chapters on Russia, Turkey, Jordan and Syria, Indonesia, Japan and China - so there is some global coverage - but challenging western models somewhat implies one ought to include non-western voices.

This edited volume has a gem of a chapter than I highly recommend students of development studies read: Chapter 6, written by Steven Sampson, called "The Social Life of Projects: Importing Civil Society to Albania" (p 121-142). Quotes from that chapter include:

"Behind the apparent rationality of projects and the discourse of 'institutional development' and 'capacity building', there also lies a considerable amount of magic or mystical thinking. Concepts such as 'human rights' or 'civil society' originate in a superlocal space (European Union (EU) in Brussels, European Parliament in Strasbourg, World Bank in Washington, the UNDP in New York, ILO in Geneva, etc.). These concepts then become programmes and projects, and the whole apparatus of fund-raising, the often unfathomable application forms, and even the currency used all have their own mystique." (p. 124)

"Many skills are also unequally distributed, and so too is access to information and symbolic resources: information about money, and information about dominant concepts. It is here that the magic of transition appears. The ability to master the symbolic resources of transition, to gain access to knowledge and to manipulate it, determine whether an enterprising young individual in Eastern Europe becomes a party politician, an NGO leader, an employee of a western agency or firm, a local entrepreneur, or a mafioso." (p. 124)

Failures are then explained in terms of 'legacies' from the past, 'socialist mentality' or 'resistance' by those being affected. In fact, many 'systems-export' schemes fail because systems or units are exported without their western context... The well-functioning NGOs and interest organisations of Danish civil society exist in an environment of effective public administration, an open press, and a political system which knows how to react to public pressure. In addition, Danish NGOs are in close contact with their funding sources; many are subsidised by state funds. Danish NGOs are thus well embedded in society, and they do what they do well. In Eastern Europe, where states are weak and finance nearly non-existent, where social problems are acute and confidence in social organisations is low, where kin, network and ethnic groups resolve problems which associations resolve in the west, the entire context of civil society differs. In this situation, the export of Scandinavian interest organisations is bound to be problematic. It is a case of what the Romanians call 'form without foundation'. (p. 125-126)

And from Susanne Spulbeck: "As Hannah Arendt points out, under conditions of totalitarian rule, friendship and any other type of social relationship arouse suspicion. The basis for an ideologically legitimised totalitarian order and its 'loyalty' (the recognition of its validity by all) can only be provided by completely isolated individuals, whose ties to family and friends have failed to secure them a place in the world. It is this isolation which prevents participation in the public sphere. From the perspective of isolation, which makes the public sphere appear to be a threat and declares the quiescence to be local history, the development of a collective civil consciousness is not only difficult but dangerous." (p. 75)

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