Juliana Hoxha, director Partners Albania.
In addressing this topic I will focus on the challenges of civil society interaction with the political process to bring about deep social change. It is based on my personal experience as a civil society practitioner mainly in Albania and Balkans and not necessarily academic research. I realize from the very start that some of the issues raised, findings and conclusions or lack of conclusions might not be relevant to or fully compatible with other socio – economic – political environments.
When addressing the role of civil society in the social transformation, there are four questions that come into my mind:
1. Can civil society organizations take the lead in formulating perspectives on what a social sustainable future might be?
2. If yes, how that can take place?
3. How, when and to what extent the political process can be recruited into such initiatives?
4. If all is possible, what is a reasonable timeframe we’re talking about?
In the manifesto circulated, the authors believe that the socially sustainable future will come neither from the political system nor from the economy, but from the civil society highly networked taking advantage of ICT developments as well. This belief is based on two features of civil society: 1. it primarily serves the public good; and 2. civil society organizations are volunteer association of individuals that freely join and leave.
From the theoretical point of view this is very well analyzed in the manifesto and I will not get there. I do agree that civil society has the potential to take the lead in formulating perspective on what a social sustainable future can be, but the question is can it do it now? Can it do it on its own? How civil society formulation capacity relate to implementation capacity of politics?
Today we have a civil society that is still struggling to find its identity and has not yet won the public trust. The first civil society organizations in Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe were born after the fall of iron curtain. The civil society organizations were more a western transplant into our societies, without going through a natural process of conception based on local demand, growth and citizenship. In terms of civil society, at this time the East was seen as “the market” and “the lab” for the West to invest in democratizing the political system and keeping newly democratically elected governments accountable, but also as a new market for the international development done through western civil society organizations.
In Albania the first organizations were created in the frame of international effort to administrate the foreign aid in the country. These organizations were considered as a flexible and efficient mechanism to that, which contributed in the creation of a distorted understanding of their role, by them and the general public.
Total dependence from the financial foreign aid, abundance of funds compare to their number and absorption capacity, and the deficiencies in democratic governance, stimulated an antagonist relationship of civil society with the politics in general and government in particular.
The natural role of civil society organizations during the transition was in advocacy, also driven and nurtured by international donors (mainly bilateral governments). In the first decade when Eastern Europe went through deep political, economic and social changes including new states emerging and ethnic conflicts, advocacy for and development of new legal frameworks was a pre-requisite for functioning democracies. This is where indeed civil society organizations have played an important role and many achievements in this direction are linked to their contribution, such as constitutional reforms, protection of human rights laws, access to information, abortion, gay rights, family planning, political participation of women, etc.
But, still nowadays after 20 years of changes in the political system, annual evaluations like the USAID/NGO Sustainability Index talk about low level of public trust and
membership not more than a handful of members. The weak ties at the grassroots level and with members negatively impact their legitimacy towards public and political processes and amputate their policy impact effort. A fragmented civil society at local and regional level, limit its capacity to affect change at a macro level.
In these conditions their leadership “advantage” in the society is truly limited. The public trust on the willingness and capacity of these organizations to tackle important policy reform issues is still little.
That’s why for these organizations to play the role they are believed to exist for – serving the public benefit – is crucial to transform from closed and “elite” groups into organizations of the public and for the public. This is a complex process that goes hand in hand with responsible citizenship behavior, increased voluntarism and solidarity, in other words emancipation of the society as a whole.
BUT, what is required for this to happen? As we are talking about innovation, one of the pre-conditions for any kind of innovation to happen including social innovation is a conducive environment. It is the same in our case and this is where the political system comes into play.
In the conditions of unclear, not transparent and democratic rules on how the political system works – rotation of government and a system of checks and balances – it is hard almost impossible to expect civil society alone to bring change. I believe that more
democratic a political system is more developed and well organized the civil society in the country will be. More democratic and participatory the governance is more civil society organizations get into their natural shoes of representing the public interest and shaping public policies.
But, democratization of domestic politics, liberalization of economy and state control over it, are not anymore part only of the national agendas. They are integrated into regional and global ones, like in our case the EU integration agenda. It has become the driving force of reforms and changes in the region (Balkans), but not only.
The EU integration process in itself brought to the surface many controversies with regard to the democratic stability of political process and role of civil society in influencing them. Presumably closer you get to EU full integration, higher the country marks in standards of democracy, free market and associative life in the country. The experience so far does not sustain it. To illustrate we have the case of Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary which failed with respect to independence of institutions, human rights, corruption, etc.
I think this is a case where civil society can play an important role in influencing the process and addressing its bottlenecks in a networked way with other civil society organizations in the Balkan region and EU. Civil society in its representative role of public interest should push the national governments to comply with EU standards and
agenda but without undermining a qualitative participatory process that ensure the citizens interest.
What we see nowadays in the Balkans and EU is that geopolitics and regional agendas prevail to citizens’ interest and local movements. In the Balkans the measure used by politics regarding democracy, economy and life standards is the EU agenda and EU directives, which not necessarily always resonate with local demands.
We have governments that the only concern they have is to please Brussels as this is tide to money in the form of grants or loans without which the governments cannot live without. It seems like the accountability line has shifted towards Brussels instead of citizens.
In EU we have the example of Italy and Greece where governments were overthrown and new once were appointed not through the institution of vote, the only democratic recognized institution of how the power rotates, but primarily through Brussels directives and consent.
In Albania where elections have never been recognized as fully transparent and the 2011 elections were a “stray vote”, the EU was silent for an EU inspiring country bridging the democratic standards.
In these conditions, any effort from civil society targeting the system is condemned as political or bias, any opposition is suffocated through the pressure of cutting funding or tax audit. All these stimulate inactivity of civil society organizations and force them to rally on one side or the other side of the politics.
Although the public has lost trust in the political system, still the change is expected by them. This is also due to heavy politicized public life, heavy emphasis on the political system by the referee such as EU and not well organized civil society.
It takes two to tango. Saying that, on one side you need a civil society that is well organized and strongly rooted in its constituency which will give it the social galvanizing capacity and representation eligibility towards the political system and power. On the other side you need a political system that is democratic in its representation, legitimate in the way it comes to power, democratic in its practice and functioning. This will provide the necessary ground for the interaction to happen in a meaningful way and increase the potential of political processes be recruited into civil society social perspective initiatives.
I believe this is a gradual process that varies from one society to another depending on a series of factors. Local actors are crucial to the process but external influential ones can accelerate the process.
I hope this presentation has contributed more than reaching some conclusions or recommendations to fuel up such a controversial discussion as the one on civil society and political process interaction.