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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Minsk

29th May 2015

Needed – civil society

Last week I (briefly) took part in the “Eastern Partnership Civil Society Conference” in Riga.  This is part of the European Union’s efforts to reach out to the peoples of the surrounding nations.

I wrote about civil society nearly two years ago, when I mused about what the term meant.  I concluded that civil society constituted every part of society that wasn’t from the state or its organs.  But as I heard in Riga, there is still a lot of discussion about what constitutes civil society and why it’s so important.

One participant in Riga – Oleh Rybachuk, former Deputy Prime minister of Ukraine – described how when he first discussed the term “civil society, it included employers, trades unions and “others”.  But it was only the “others” who were active in the life of the country, whereas businesses and trades unions focussed on their own interests.

CivSoc blog collage

I think he’s right:  the function of business is economic, as they use capital and labour to trade in goods and services, usually for profit.  Trade unions organise labour so that workers secure a fair wage and working conditions.

So I’m still looking for a good definition of civil society.  In Britain, we often use the term the “third sector” to describe people and organisations which aren’t part of government or involved in business.  This “third sector” is the main element of “civil society”

Why is civil society important?  I’ve been researching and reflecting on these questions, and come up with the following answers.

Between individuals and the state

Civil society is sometimes described as “mediating between the individual and the state”.  Government programmes often don’t work well if the state agency concerned has to interact with individual citizens.  It is inefficient and time consuming to have a relationship with millions of individuals over provision of health care.  Similarly, an individual who seeks to secure a service provided by the state may not get the service they want.

But if an organisation can represent the interests of lots of individuals, then there is advantage to both.  A civil society organisation can help an individual derive more benefit from government services as part of a larger cohesive unit.  And a state agency can have far more impact if it deals with organised groups who represent the interests of, and pass on the benefits to, members of the group.

Communities of interest

A good example of this is in the case of particular diseases.  I have written separately about the death of the British writer Terry Pratchett, who supported groups that lobbied for improved research and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.  I’ve also written about the complications of dealing with children with autism.  Sufferers of these afflictions, or their carers, can feel very isolated.  But if they join a group that deals with their problems, they can gain great benefit from sharing experiences, and swapping idea for how to improve their situation.

It’s not just dealing with diseases or other types of adversity.  There are any number of human activities that bring joy and fulfilment to individuals.  How much more joy and fulfilment there is, if you can share your interests and activities with like-minded people!  (After I wrote my recent blog about local history, several people who have a similar interest contacted me and directed me to sources about Britons who had left records of their visits to the territory of what is today Belarus.)

Linking up the grassroots – bottom up

We often talk about civil society as being the “grassroots” of society.  A local group or community that shares a common interest can be a useful building block of society, or one that is built “from the bottom up”.  Where a state is weak, a strong civil society or civil society organisations can give support and protection to individuals.

There is some debate about whether kin groups – people who are related to a wider group – are part of civil society or not.  Kin groups tend to be more important in agrarian or more settled societies.  But kin groups can play a role in large cities, where new arrivals from rural areas may at first be overwhelmed.

Keeping a powerful hierarchy in check

Some governments consider civil society as a threat to the state.  But it’s usually the other way round – agents of the state are often more powerful and can threaten ordinary citizens.  If a state official uses their power arbitrarily over others, then the only way for those subject to such arbitrary acts to protect themselves may be to join a civil society group.

This is probably the most contentious aspect of civil society.  Some governments don’t see the need to reach out to civil society because they have a monopoly of power and decision-making.  But governments are made up of humans, who can (and do) take decisions that may adversely affect others in the rest of society.  Civil society helps improve the quality of decision-making and can act as a channel of recourse for individuals or groups.

Making states more resilient  

Some governments consider independent civil society organisations such a threat that they sponsor organisations to take on the role of representing society.  They have an acronym in English – GONGOs or “government organised non-governmental organisations”.

A vigorous civil society need not be competition.  Even where a state is strong, and might apparently have little need for civil society organisations, collaboration with civil society groups can help the state be more dynamic and effective in reaching all members of society.  Civil society groups can also relieve the weight of demands on state services.

In the final recourse, where a state or government is under threat or attack from another state or group within a state – a strong civil society provides resilience.  In a country where the bonds between people are strong, they will provide a stronger defence to their communities.

A strong civil society should be a stabilizer for a state, as well as helping provide good and fair government for all.

About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.