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The following article was sparked off by reading a couple of texts written by Steve Cisler. I'd like to thank Steve for pointing me to his texts. This article was also influenced by a number of European Union documents published by the SOCRATES programme, including "Learning for Active Citizenship"

The role of civil society organisations

In a report on the First Global Congress on Community Networking held in Barcelona, Steve Cisler writes "Sites all over the world that were started by ad hoc groups of citizens and activists are facing competition not only from dot com enterprises but also local governments who are staking their own claim to the provision of services to citizens." This competition extends beyond Internet-based services to associations and other citizen-based organisations, which are being continually weakened by commercial or would-be commercial actors muscling in on their territory.

Until recently, there has been relatively little recognition not only on the part of public authorities, but also of citizens themselves, of the importance of associations and less formal groupings of citizens, in particular as far as social cohesion is concerned. In official texts of the European Union, however, there has been an awakening to the importance of civil society organisations like associations. See, for example, the EU Memorandum on Education and Lifelong Learning dated October 2000.

One of the main reasons for this increased interest on the part of the European Union is the need to enhance social cohesion in the construction of a multicultural Europe. Civil society organisations - that is to say those created by and for citizens - are seen as best placed to favour sustainable cohesion in a multicultural context. In addition, the much-vaunted move to a so-called knowledge society has shifted attention to non-formal ways of learning; in particular based on personal experience. Here again, it is those informal organisations closest to citizens that are seen as best placed to be the places where non-formal learning can take place in an on-going way.

To come back to the question of competition, it is not surprising that commercial forces invade non-commercial civil society activities as the former are constantly on the look out for new areas to make money. The major question then becomes, are there not areas or activities in which commercial logic is inappropriate or undesirable. To be able to answer this question, we first have to accept that not all of life is a market place which is not so easy given the conquering and all-embracing logic of pure liberalism.

A major issue, it seems to me, is that of the role of civil society organisations. In resuming the relationship between Internet development and community networks, Steve Cisler, in a second text entitled "Will the Internet Serve Citizens", points to an evolution in the role of services provided by Community Networks. The first role involved providing Internet access and subsequently training. However, providing access has become a large-scale commercial activity and training has become less necessary as Internet use is simplified and more and more people get to use it. In parenthesis, this evolution leaves by the wayside all those who didn't have the wherewithal to access the Internet. As far as training is concerned, it might be useful to question the predominantly technology centred approach so as to also consider the "social" competencies required in the use of the Internet.

The second role of community networks concerns providing local information. Here too, other actors, in particular local authorities, but also commercial actors, dedicate considerable means to providing local information that local community networks couldn't afford. More generally, the predominant perspective that information is provided by experts means that little attention and effort is granted to the idea that civil society might create information and, more importantly, knowledge itself. In a nutshell, much depends on whether civil society is seen as a pool of consumers of information, or as a rich source of creators of knowledge.

The third role of community networks consists of favouring political debate and exchange with local authorities and politicians. One of the questions indirectly raised in Cisler's report on the Barcelona meeting is that of the uneasy interface between representative governments and "non-representative" civil society organisations. Trade unions, political parties, the media and local authorities have all invested time and money is such activities. Unfortunately, the interest of civil society for such debates and exchange is waning. It is possible that this decrease in interest has its roots both in the dispossession of the individual citizen as actor in political debates (watching a television programme about a particular issue doesn't necessarily make the person an "actor") and in the ever increasing demand on the individual's time by an enormous panoply of activities most of which are based on consumption rather than active participation.

Of course, it shouldn't be forgotten that the main role of civil society organisations is to give form to civil society activities. As such, civil society organisations structure civil society. Although this fact is self-evident for those taking part in an association or club, it is apparently less evident in the broader context, where the important role of such organisations as well as their needs are generally neglected. One of the reasons for this neglect could well be the fact that emphasis has predominantly been put on the importance of commercial activities. Community Networks are a specific form of civil society organisation whose task, as their name implies, is to encourage networking within the community using technologies to do so, or, by a curious deviation, to encourage the use of networking technologies within the community. However, as the use of technologies by and between civil society organisations becomes more commonplace, one wonders what the future tasks of community organisations centred specifically on the networking aspects will be.

A number of seemingly new roles of civil society organisations are being pointed to as essential to society at large. One such role is that of favouring social cohesion. Taking part in civil society organisations can serve as an ongoing apprenticeship for an open attitude towards diversity and at the same time, contributes to favouring local culture and identity. Such a role, however, is not necessarily in the forefront of the aims and preoccupations of most local organisations.

Another role is that of lifelong learning. As a response to ever increasing speed of change and the complexity of the modern world as well as the cut throat competitiveness that drives many activities forward, politicians and educationalists have come up with the idea of lifelong learning. Although this lifelong learning effort is still essentially seen from the perspective of institutionalised, formal education and training, there is a growing awareness of the importance of tacit knowledge based on personal experience. In seeking ways and means of enhancing such non-formal learning, public authorities are turning to civil society bodies as potential relays. The theory is that associations, being closest to the everyday life of citizens, are best placed to encourage a "learning attitude" and to create a suitable context in which such learning can take place. Now, although there has been a tradition of training and the development of competencies in certain civil society organisations, there is less of an overt tradition of exchange of experience with a view to learning, except possibly in organisations catering for a particular professional sector.

The dilemma on the part of public authorities is how to favour such roles without intervening directly in the life and activity of civil society organisations. The underlying concern is that direct intervention on the part of authorities or their mandated organisations could well be counter-productive in developing tacit knowledge or an active attitude to social cohesion. The generally accepted solution is to create a favourable context in which such civil society activities can flourish. This might entail modifying existing legislation, providing financial assistance, organising general training schemes,... But is also requires an openness and a willingness to allow and to encourage groups of citizens to take an increasingly active part in the life and decision-making of the community.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: January 4th, 2001 - Last up-dated: January 4th, 2001