Q&A: Demystifying Civil Society

May 5, 2006

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    Ukumo Jafo led a conflict-resolution training for 30 of his fellow law-enforcement officials in southern Ethiopia. Spreading seeds of peace is integral to Mercy Corps' efforts to build strong civil societies. Photo: Dan Sadowsky/Mercy Corps Photo:

Michael Szporluk admits it: his career in international aid and development started by accident.

In the early ‘90s, he was teaching English in Prague. Even while the Czech capital became a world-renowned destination for free-spirited young people, war ripped apart the nearby republics of the former Yugoslavia. Through a friend, Szporluk started working with Bosnian refugees in camps in Croatia. He soon found himself hooked.

"I could have gone back to Prague," he says now, "but I realized it would be disrespectful not to stay involved in that part of the world. It had become a part of me."

After years of work in the Balkans and elsewhere, Szporluk joined Mercy Corps in February 2005. His immediate responsibility: to support a pair of programs aimed at strengthening non-governmental organizations in Guatemala and Mongolia. His wider task: to help Mercy Corps bolster "civil society."

And what exactly is "civil society"? We sat down with Szporluk to find out about this vital but - to a layman - vague-sounding concept.

Q: Okay, "civil society." Huh?

Michael Szporluk: Part of the problem with understanding civil society is that there are numerous different definitions of what civil society means. In our view, civil society essentially consists of groups and individuals in the non-governmental, non-business sectors of a community - these could be organizations, associations, trade unions or youth groups - that join together to express their interests and promote their common goals and values.

Where does the concept fit into what Mercy Corps does?

Civil society has been a cornerstone of Mercy Corps' programming for a long time. We started a Human Rights Desk back in 1989. Over the years our conception of civil society has evolved into a larger framework. The core principles are participation, accountability and peaceful change. The precise working definition has undergone several iterations - it's being revised again right now - but the primary emphasis has been on respect for rights, building relationships and ensuring that the work we do is sustainable.

You're involved in projects in both Mongolia and Guatemala - can you give us an example of what aspects of civil society you're talking about in those places?

Sure. The objectives of the Training Advocacy and Networking program, in both countries, are to increase civic participation, strengthen organizations and foster better relations with government. Now, even though the objectives are the same, given the two very different contexts, the programs are on two different tracks.

Yes, it would seem, at first glance, like those two countries have very little in common. What are some of the distinctive characteristics the projects encounter?

In Mongolia, the level of engagement in public affairs is very low. So we look at the needs in particular neighborhoods and do outreach to try to engage people to identify their concerns and think of ways in which those concerns can be heard by the appropriate public institutions.

And what has that process led to?

The neighborhood meetings in both regions we work in were extremely popular. In one of the two regions, Dundgobi, we had contracted a local organization, the Free Youth Association, to be responsible for leading this process. The neighborhood identified the need to have a community center. FYA then organized meetings with the local elected leaders to gain their support. Their efforts paid off - as the local governor's office has supplied architects and financial support to renovate a space to be used as community center.

So besides neighborhood meetings and new community centers, how do you measure something that sounds as nebulous as "civil society"?

There are all kinds of proxy indicators. How many people vote? Do they do anything beyond voting to participate in political processes? There are ways to measure attitudes in a community - how much trust do people have in the elected officials? Is government transparent and accountable? Do people have access to information through media outlets? Are there forums for discussion, public debate and dissent? Who is excluded and who is included in the social, economic and political arenas? Are people able to manage change through peaceful means?

And what about places where there hasn't been, as you say, a democratic transition? How would a civil society approach work there?

Even in places where conditions are challenging, you can work on discrete projects to improve specific services. It might be language instruction, or it might be working on relationships between different institutions. You might build a new school or make an old school wheelchair accessible.

The impact of that kind of project is measurable - does school attendance increase? Do people have different attitudes about people with disabilities? Are the disabled themselves able to articulate their needs and advocate for themselves? At the end of the day, when Mercy Corps leaves, it's important that people feel like our work and those relationships have had some tangible results.

This all sounds more relationship-driven and, in some ways, intangible than what I would think of as conventional aid, like providing food or equipment.

It is. In Mongolia, for example, we're trying to encourage more social entrepreneurship - to get more people starting initiatives on their own for the benefit of the wider community. That sort of thing is far more important than any kind of physical aid or money we could simply give. In fact, the latter can sometimes be counter-productive. I don't know how many times I've heard people say, ‘Oh, if we only had a computer. If we only had a truck, then we could get work done.'

But in many instances what's really helpful is not a new computer or a truck, it's the organizational skills to put them to use for the community. If you just give physical things, it continues a pattern of paternalism and dependency. There are plenty of things that can be done with a minimum of technical support.

What are the big challenges you face in this line of work?

One of the big ones is, what happens after your two-year or five-year program is over? What's the best way to insure stability after you're gone? It happens all the time - an organization will develop, say, a teacher-training program, then the funding runs dry. The community just reverts back to what it had before. In the grand scheme of things, the period of time you're working there is very short.

You can make a big difference during the project, but then what happens next? What that challenge tells me is that you need to have local involvement. Every agency will say that in their promotional materials, but in reality it is a very difficult transition to manage.