Being a citizen: not a profession, but a commitment

Author: Anna Krasteva

Launching a campaign to support vulnerable groups is more difficult than conducting a survey on their needs - but the risks of merging civil society too much with social science are poor scientific quality and a society without action, Anna Krasteva claims


The Narratives

Harry Potter was born as the greatest ever magician, the only one able to perform the perfect magic. Civil society was born as the magic of the transition, the essence of a longing for change. It was given the power to identify and articulate that change, as classical institutional or representative mechanisms were overlooked. A representative of a small Serbian NGO commented:
“In January 2000 [before the fall of Milosevic] I was invited to Sweden for a meeting with a minister... Later in the same year, in November [after the fall of Milosevic] the same minister had a meeting with President Koštunica. So I was his contact in January and who was I at the time? Someone working for an NGO, which had five employees and some projects and computers. But to him, I was Serbia!”
Paradoxically, the less representative and marginal an NGO was at the onset of the change, the more legitimate they seemed to the West, due to their non-alignment with existing institutions.
Conflict resolution, democratisation, NATO, the EU, human rights – everybody, including the state and the mushrooming political parties, were aware of the key narratives of post-communism. There was no conflict over these narratives and even forces, linked to and attached to, the ancien regime were unable to generate an alternative discourse.
The problem lies not in the content or authorship of these narratives, which were imitative rather than innovative, but it lies in the speaker. Civil society was given the power to articulate the ideals of democratisation most authentically.
What comes after the grand narratives? What comes next for civil society after these goals have already been attained, at least to some extent in the new EU member states, if not yet in the Western Balkans? What discourse does the civic sector offer now? Does it succeed in enriching the public sphere with alternatives, topics, priorities and visions which are different from those provided by the state and political parties?
Civil society accomplished its purpose of being the bearer of the ideas of the transition, but what should its purpose be after the transition? I’ll outline my reflections on these questions, articulating four points of tension and three directions for change.
The Dilemmas
Professionalization - Commitment
A perfect command of English, communication and teamwork skills, the ability to manage projects and fundraise effectively: there are no visible differences between the requirements of the civil sector and that of private business. Competent, dynamic and efficient - this is the profile of a successful NGO activist. 
This new professional is so self-confident that he creates his own arena in which to excel, with a language he masters (project speak) and an ambitious aim (building democracy) that he is equipped to achieve.
The declared objective of this arena is to show solidarity with the weak and the vulnerable, with the most visible result being the emergence of strong citizens. On one level, the theme of justice prevails – less discrimination, more equality and the empowerment of the disadvantaged. On a more practical level, the most substantial achievement of civil society is to establish economically independent, self-confident citizens, who view the state critically as long as their income is not dependent on it. Civil society is an alternative to the state in terms of its ideas, but even more so, in terms of the ethos of this more autonomous, free, open and cosmopolitan social group.
Paradoxically, this result has never been defined either as an aim or a possible outcome. Reinforcing the position of the middle class through the income generated in the NGO sector is undoubtedly a positive result. What is less clear-cut is the professionalisation of democracy. At the beginning of the transition, one Bulgarian politician in his address to an art forum, formulated a remarkable distinction when he said “We, the democrats and you, the sculptors”. He had been persuaded that democracy also needed sculptors, not only democrats, yet he was unable to imagine sculptor-democrats.
If the civil sector is a place characterised by efficient managers and professional democracy, is there room for the citizens themselves (the amateurs) to act, search, propose new ideas, experiment and make mistakes, to innovate?
The Governmental-Nongovernmental Sector
I work with a French NGO. Its experienced lawyers search for even the slightest, almost indiscernible hints of a discriminative discourse in all thedecrees and instructions, which the ministries or any other public institution send out to the administration. They are highly critical of any abuse of human rights. So who is funding this vigilant and critical eye, which is unforgiving of any examples of state negligence whatsoever? It is the state itself.
Here, the governmental and nongovernmental sectors are closely linked. Yet, instead of financing a civil society which will act as a counterweight, curbing its excesses, the state often protects itself behind “crony NGOs”. Many state and party gurus have NGOs of their own which play a double role: They absorb funds intended for so-called civil society, giving their approval of the degree of democracy evident in every decision, strategy or programme. These are NGOs which are almost never seen “in the field”, which are however, on the lists of partners, proudly demonstrated by public institutions to show their “openness” and “ability for dialogue”.
NGOs as the hidden face of power is a lesser evil. The bigger one is that these NGOs are often characterised by nepotism, the diversion of funds, and corruption.
Independence Issues
A great problem of civil society, among others, is that it’sself-referential. It is what it has chosen to be. It is proud to be independent of the state and the market, but how should we deal with that independence when it proves to be dislikeable or even distasteful? How do we handle nationalists and extremists? The problem lies in what stand civil society should take. Should it befriend the environmentalist and forsake the nationalist? Or should it put definitions aside and create a public space, where the environmentalist could debate on national identity and the nationalist could rally against an illegal building set to be built in the local park?
Civic Participation - Scientific Research
NGOs were the great hope for the social sciences in the early 1990s. The economic crisis ousted science from financial priorities. This was even more apparent in the social sciences, which were reforming much faster than the state. The non-governmental sector proved to be the only option for researchers to attend international forums for the first time, for new ideas to be studied, for critical reflection to be developed. We consider the early development of entire fields to be related predominantly to NGOs. This is true of minority, ethnic and gender studies, anticorruption analyses and human rights.
Today two distinct profiles could be outlined. Firstly, there are researchers, making use of their leading positions in the non-governmental sector to fund their own studies. Secondly, there are NGO activists, who are making use of science as a watertight alibi for absorbing funds. It is much more labour-intensive and budget-consuming to launch a humanitarian campaign to support vulnerable groups than it is to conduct a “survey” on their needs. There is a moral issue here and a question of how funds should be absorbed.
The normal functioning of science is not just a matter of financing, rather it is an academic environment of results, publishing serious policy suggestions and peer-reviewed publications. All these checks traditionally used by science to protect scientific integrity are easily neglected when projects guarantee funds for publishing.Printingreplacesediting and self-evaluation replaces peerreviews.
Blurring the borders between science and civic participation is not entirely healthy for either. It makes science less professional and diverts resources from civic initiatives.
The Change
The year 2008 proved that ideas such as “yes, we can”, “change” and “hope” can energize and mobilize millions. It is fascinating that there is no rulebook to follow and that we have to create our own path for development. My personal reflections on a radical rethinking of the civil sector involve three key areas:
·         Autonomy. A real civil society will begin when NGOs shake off their dependency on donors. They will be able to do this not only by diversifying their financial resources, but also generating and stimulating civic energy without monetary coverage. Financing ought to be channelled into activities, rather than into structures and into initiatives, rather than into wages.
·         Deinstitutionalisation. This should apply to NGOs as well as other institutions. There is no reason for NGOs to stop existing and there is no reason for NGOs to continue to be identified with civil society. NGOs are a specific post-communist interpretation of civil society. In developed democracies, civil society is seen in terms of the diversity of structures such as churches, universities, trade unions and cooperatives. NGOs should not engulf civil society to the point where these organisations are unable to develop civil initiatives, clubs, ad hoc groups and networks in a number of different and flexible forms. The focus will no longer be on structures to be supported or maintained, but rather on citizens who unite around specific goals and activities.
·         De-professionalisation. Being a citizen ought not to become a profession and efficiency should not replace creativity and activity. A radical transformation of the main players operating in civil society is needed, as well as discovering the volunteer. It took decades to shift from the vote censitaire to universal suffrage. Post-communist NGOs should not be turned into a “democratic census”, civil society has to be open to the educated and cognisant, as well as to everyone else. A civil society is built through the empathy and activity of everyone, from farmers to teachers, to immigrants and intellectuals, to owners and civil servants, to students and representatives of minorities.
It was Ralf Dahrendorf, who mapped out the agenda of the post-communist change: 6 months for institutions of representative democracy; 6 years for a market economy; 6 decades for a civil society. In the first two decades there has been a lot of society and politics in civil society. Now the time for the citizen to play a role has come. The grand objectives have been achieved, so now developing civic imagination has become a must.

Anna Krasteva is editor-in-chief of the journal Southeastern Europe, published by Brill. She is director of the Department of Political Sciences and of CERMES (the Centre for Refugees, Migration and Ethnic Studies) at the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is a member of the editorial board of the journal Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, a member of the international scientific board of the network Maisons des sciences de l’homme in France, as well as of the international scientific board of the Institute for Central, Eastern and Balkan Europe at the University of Bologna. She has been awarded the international scientific honor of « Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques ». She teaches courses on ethnic and migration issues at the European master in Sarajevo Democracy and human rights and  regularly gives lectures at European universities and institutes of political sciences. 
Her recent publications include:
‘Post-communist discovery of immigration: the case of Bulgaria’ inIrregular labor and community: a challenge for Europe ed. Berggren E., B. Likic-Brboric, G. Toksoz, N. Trimikliotis. (Maastricht, Shaker Publishing, 2007, p.104-117.)
Democratisation in postcommunist transition processes in the 90s: lights and shadowsed. Krasteva A. and F. Privitera, (Ravenna, Longo editore, 2006).
Figures of refugees. ed. Krasteva, A. (Sofia, NBU, 2006.)
She is currently working on the next volume of Southeastern Europe, entitled “How(not) to export civil society”, forthcoming in 2009.

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.



Comments by readers

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Monday, December 22 2008 @ 04:38PM

yasno, Anna :( i think that making mistakes is one of the most important opportunities that we should be able to defend, as citizens or even civil society activists... unfortunately, many of us, professional activists, committed to attain democratic ideals, refuse the right to make mistakes :( we refuse it to ourselves, to our colleagues, to our representatives in local or central government :( and i remember JS Mill's considerations on tolerance and infallibility, and i get sad :( and that's not good before the winter holidays :( i wish we won't need 4 decades to get where we dream--but Santa may bring us a time machine :) vessela koleda! --Codru

Posted by: tihomira

On: Tuesday, January 27 2009 @ 07:17PM

What appears to me to be the true challenge for civil society, at least in out home country (Bulgaria) is that it still cannot find the ways to empower itself for productive actions. Therefore, it is on the path of making a change, but not quite there. The magic is still to be discovered.

Posted by: Vanya

On: Sunday, February 01 2009 @ 02:01PM

I generally agree with the theses, outlined in the article. I would like to add, that the civil society is not yet ready to start supporting the "non-professional" entities for a simple reason - it does not yet understand the importance of having an independent civil society entities. In order to overcome this civil illiteracy of the society, it is a very important step to promote civic education from the earliest possible age. This is the base to form the civil society in the first place, as well as turn the individuals from unmotivated vote donors into shareholders in their country enterprise.

Posted by: Toni Mickiewicz

On: Tuesday, February 03 2009 @ 08:08PM

A very good article. Lateral action by civil society organizations and professional civic activists needs to be stimulated. Why do NGOs never (rarely, very rarely) have "meet the public days?"


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