Civil society organisations across Europe are seeing their independence come under threat

Civil society organisations across Europe are seeing their independence come under threat
Civil Society


Voluntary organisations across Europe are coming under pressure from governments not to campaign on issues, warns Heidi Sandberg.


In recent years public authorities around the world have increasingly turned to civil society to assist in finding solutions to present and future problems.


But in what ways are they asked to help?


In most of Europe the welfare state is under pressure and organisations are frequently asked to deliver services of different kinds. But in many countries when they enter into contracts with the state they are also requested to forget their independence and ability to gather public opinion around issues. 


This is something we observe with worry in Sweden; most civil society organisations want to safeguard against it. We see this growing trend as a clear sign that politicians and public servants see civil society mainly as a potential resource of volunteers or an actor that should be mastered to perform whatever is needed. 


We all know that we are facing challenges when it comes to society, state and democracy. And at the Forum, my organisation, we believe that civil society organisations are important actors in meeting these challenges. But important in what way? As delivery agents of welfare or as co-creators of a fairer society? What our politicians and public servants aim for is important, as it will influence what kind of solutions and methods we develop. How do we shape a system in which civil society can become an ally in reshaping and improving society?


Some ideas and suggestions have already been introduced from different countries around Europe. But we look upon many of these with worry, as most do not take into account what civil society is, and what it is not. Designs that actually build on the strengths of civil society are few and far between. And yet, those kind of proposals are exactly what we need to face the future challenges. 


One thing seems clear: we need to analyse the possible effects of all propositions from different viewpoints, so that their likely outcomes will bring us closer to our goal. This may seem fairly easy, but in reality it is quite complex. Especially as it is necessary to include a broad political discussion about the end aim – what role do we want civil society to have? And once we have decided upon a common goal, we need to understand the effects of proposals on volunteers, organisations and society. 


Most volunteers are motivated by the goal of achieving long-term development and change. If you are engaged in volunteer work the need to contribute to individuals, to bring your knowledge and solidarity is important, but if you cannot see that your work will make a positive change and development for society, you will lose heart and dedication eventually. This also means that we have to realise that volunteering is a collective activity – you may get engaged as an individual but most of us know that we need the collective to achieve real change. We need the independent organisations.


Civil society organisations are based on the notion that they are independent actors working towards their own common goal. The idea that collectively we can influence things – our own lives, our local societies, the global environment, national health, or something else – is part of the organisations’ structure. It is against this backdrop that civil society can be expected to provide better quality to services, be an actor for improved democracy and bring about local engagement and empowerment. Organisations are self-governing actors – of the people for the people – and certainly not objects that can be steered towards what others deem important. We need the independent organisations.


Political thinking must also take into account that society is greater than the state. As civil society organisations are a major part of this greater society, the state will benefit much more from involving the organisations in the development of society and welfare service, than in pushing us into becoming executors of what the state needs. We all know that civil society organisations have been a major force in shaping and creating our common welfare and state, and we can continue to assist in reconfiguring them. Civil society organisations have frequently been instrumental in pointing out new needs and areas where joint efforts are needed. They are also often necessary in finding new solutions to these problems. And the organisations are often imperative in determining whether these new methods should be made general rights or not. We need the independent organisations. 


In times of need it is important to find common goals and common allies.  Our society is facing challenges and the welfare state is under pressure. We need new ways in which different actors can contribute to common solutions. Civil society can be a strong and creative ally to politicians and public servants, provided that our independence is guarded and respected. Civil society is neither a resource of volunteers that can be sent in to do what our welfare state can no longer afford, nor a group of actors that should be managed and manoeuvred into delivering, at the lowest possible price, the service public officials decide are most worth paying for.


It is time for all of us, across Europe, to realise that we have a lot of work to do to develop our society, build a stronger democracy and reshape our state. Let us create an environment in which all of us can contribute to this!