Monday, 3 May 2010

"The problem is we live in an economy, not a society"

Slí Eile: This was the observation of a contributor to the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. The full report of the Commission may be downloaded here.
Some of the key themes identified in regard to the role of civil society in the financial economy were:

increasing transparency and accountability of financial institutions through various forms of mandatory reporting;
Enhancing pluralism in the financial sector through greater civil society involvement; and
Growing civil society’s power and influence in relation to the financial industry.

The concept and term of civil society has enjoyed a popular revival in recent years especially as some have sought a type of 'third way' in which not-for-profit associations complement and work with various State and Market institutions. However, to having currency and meaningful impact it it necessary to define more clearly the nature and types of various civil society organisations and movements and how they play a role in providing ideas, products and services. It is all too easy - as was evident in the last 10-15 years - for politicians to sponsor 'civil society' and 'social capital' and yet avoid the lack of effective commitment to social equality and a properly funded and resourced public service. Moreover, calls for more responsible moral behaviour and better articulation of 'civic norms' must go hand in hand with initiatives to transform and democratise political institutions as well as curb the recklessness of unregulated markets and accumulation of economic and political capital by a few.
However, the work of this Commission is a useful contribution to a debate on the role of civil society here. Of note is the message that Government is not comfortable with an active, critical and engaged civil society as witnessed by the way in which some agencies and associations have had the funding cut or withdrawn - even prior to the advent of recession in 2008-09. Much was invested in terms of effort and time in a 'national conversation on active citizenship' by the Taskforce on Active Citizenship in 2006-07 only to be largely undone by the lack of follow-up and implementation and the de-facto disbanding of the Office of Active Citizenship in 2009 (along with the merger of Combat Poverty into the civil service and the effective clipping of the Equality Authority). A re-charged civil society may prove vital to a renewal of democracy in Ireland and the beginnings of a movement to harness new economic resources and recovery.

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