Whenever there is a gap between what people need and what people believe a government can or should provide – there is ‘Civil society’. It is a general and seemingly very vague term which shouldn’t simply be a negative notion about how to bridge perceived failings of institutions. Rather, it should be part of a vibrant democratic system. Regardless of the fact that we all define it differently, the need for a strong civil society – that is, an active cooperation of organisations, media and citizens working together with local offices, schools and institutions-has never been greater.
However, support for these vital groups is flagging despite an obvious need for their work. Whether a government agrees with the actual scope or focus of an individual group or not, the notion of supporting civil society is essential in a functioning democracy, not only to raise voices or protect rights, but also to be a basis for citizen responsibility and participation in one’s country. Without civil society, residents can easily assume that daily life and political interaction starts and ends with expecting that the government can and should provide everything, and that one’s duty is simply to vote every 4 years. This leads not only to a high potential for manipulation of power by those in office, but also a passivity and complacency among citizens.
Looking to the developing world, some of the most practical, feasible and long-term solutions to problems (from a lack of transport, lack of agricultural information, lack of access to political systems, health issues etc.) have come from civil society, not from government. Often these ideas were born out of sheer necessity, and produced high-tech, sophisticated solutions that have a very simple application and use. Rather than waiting for a desperate need to spark a solution in Southeast Europe, we need to support civil society initiatives now. The key is not just to talk about it, but to put systems in place that offer pragmatic ways to make it easier to access funds and tangible resources. A variety of issues are involved in this, but one of the most obvious and straightforward ways to remedy this, is for donors to change their mindset – from one in which they set the rigid criteria and descriptions of what they think is required, to one in which they are open to any good idea that can be proven to be needed and that has a pragmatic application and set of results.
The problems we face in the Western Balkans are complex, but civil society is not only capable of suggesting solutions, it is also capable of providing them, and citizens are capable of utilising them. We should expect more from our governments, but we should also expect more from our societies and in order to reach our potential, we need to demand better practical support for civil society, in all its forms.