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Legitimate demands

by Hans Dembowski

In depth

Protesting against corrupt politicians in Nairobi

Protesting against corrupt politicians in Nairobi

I’ll never forget a Syrian ambassador saying: “We are trying to build a civil society we can trust.” He was speaking at a conference in Berlin that dealt with human development in the Arab world some years ago. A young Egyptian responded immediately: “That is impossible, civil society must be free.” She was right of course, and Syria’s ongoing tragedy proves the Assad regime’s utter failure to win popular trust. By Hans Dembowski

Like the Syrian ambassador back then, China’s Communist Party understands the worth of civil society. It too is keen on civic activism, provided it does not challenge the government. Having the secret services keep an eye on people and hounding dissidents, however, is not a convincing way of fostering non-governmental organisations.

Unfortunately, powerful people in many places argue that NGOs are something western and alien to their nations. Self-contentedly they like to warn of some “foreign hand’s” evil influence. Such rhetoric is normally vastly out of proportion. While there certainly are some bogus NGOs, it is very hard for any organisation to have an impact on social life unless it taps into people’s real aspirations and needs.

The truth is that civil society results from people pursuing their interests by peaceful means and independently of the state. Inklings of civil society exist even in totalitarian states, since people always network someway or another. For civil society to really thrive, however, the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association are necessary. All individual persons cannot have a bearing on public life, but organisations do.

Democratic societies benefit from vibrant civil society life in two distinct, but interrelated ways:
– Non-governmental organisations take care of their constituents’ interests. To a considerable extent, they are self-help groups that contribute to members’ wellbeing. That is true of faith-based congregations as well as sports clubs. Members’ attitudes and behaviour is often shaped by such organisations.
– At the same time, non-governmental organisations express their constituents’ interests and are thus important contributors to political life. To be heard in public and be able to check government institutions, citizens must organise. Even the most marginalised people gain voice if they do so (note Nowadays column in this edition about prostitution in India).

If and when people form their own organisations, they decide for themselves what kind of activities those organisations will pursue. And they decide for themselves to what extent they personally commit to the organisations’ goals and principles. Independent agencies can be strong forces for self-improvement and behavioural change. To some extent, moreover, free entrepreneurship and civil society are two sides of the same coin. They are rooted in people taking their fate into their own hands. But while the private sector is about maximising personal benefits, civil society debate tends to revolve around the public good. Both is indispensable.

Governments that want to know what is on their people’s minds should let civil society organise freely. It does not make sense to try to control it, though it may feel comfortable not to be exposed to criticism. In the long run, however, social stability hinges on open debate, not repression of people’s legitimate demands. Syria is currently learning that lesson the hard and most painful way.