Civil Society and Our Faith in Democracy

by Kyle Shrivastava   September 13, 2019

What if I told you our global faith in democratic ideals hinged on the existence of choral societies? In reality, this isn’t far from the truth. As we arrive at the 2019 International Day of Democracy, let’s take a moment to unpack what drives democracy, discuss democratic ideals, and explore the role that a vibrant global civil society sector plays in promoting peace and stability.

The Pew Research Center recently concluded that more than half of people worldwide are not happy with how democracy is working in their nation based on a study spanning 27 countries. Even in the U.S., a 2018 survey of 5,400 people showed that only 40% of Americans were satisfied with American democracy.

The causes of this loss in democratic faith are not difficult to imagine. Pressing issues ranging from income inequality, to authoritarianism, to partisanship, to corruption fill our news feeds and keep us awake at night. However, we only allow these issues to erode our faith when we begin to believe that democracy is to blame. Democracy isn’t the cause of our problems; the increasingly difficult context in which it functions is. Losing faith in democracy is losing faith not in the cause of our political turmoil, but rather in the solution.

So if democracy isn’t to blame, where can we point our fingers? As with any maze, navigating the labyrinth of political change consistently seems to leave us in the same state — lost and afraid. Perhaps at first, we perceive the need as justice sector reform. Then we realize that it’s actually changing the divisiveness of political discourse. Then later, we believe poverty is the ultimate underlying factor. And down the rabbit hole we go.

In searching for this underlying problem, we often find its symptoms. Then, in attempting to solve for them, we fail to see the broader systemic reality. We pass a bill only to see it overturned by a new administration, we provide a subsidy only to see it exploited, we establish a committee only to see it drown in bureaucracy. To make our attempts at addressing symptoms sustainable and effective, we must step back — out of the day-to-day news cycle — to determine what ultimately affects society and politics at the systemic level. We need to determine which critical factors build resilient and participative political systems. This brings us back to 1993, when political scientist Robert Putnam told us the recipe for a healthy democracy in two simple words — choral societies.

In his classic work, Making Democracy Work, Putnam observed how three identical democratic systems evolved differently in three different regions of Italy. He found that politically healthy and economically prosperous regions correlated directly with those that had choral societies, football associations, and other civil society organizations. Those which did not fell to corruption and bureaucratic paralysis. Surprisingly, Putnam determined that the existence of a healthy civil society in these regions predated their political and economic success.

In other words, civil society was the contextual key to making democracy successful. Capitalizing on the capacity of civic actors to promote participation in the public realm builds the critical faith that seems to now be lagging.

Societies with robust civil society organizations (which may range from non-profits, to community associations, to activist groups) are engaged in public issues, active in politics, and most importantly trusting of one another. From these observations we learn that defending our democratic principles may require us to go beyond hyper-focused attempts at small-scale change. It will require us to build vibrant, engaged, and trusting political systems, and most importantly — a healthy and resilient civil society.

As one may imagine, our decreasing faith in democracy is currently accompanied by a global closure in civic space making the successful operation of civil society more difficult each day. When open, civic space ensures that the interests, needs, and concerns of civil society at large are heard and protected. It creates a free enabling environment that supports local organizations, holds government accountable, advocates for positive change, and delivers critical services to the population. Unfortunately, only three percent of the world’s population lives in fully open civic space. Restrictions to civic space have become a norm rather than an exception, which must be considered as we observe the state of democracy globally.

Luckily, many organizations still dedicate themselves to social cohesion, bridging differences and interfacing with government decision-makers to voice the interests of every day citizens. Since these organizations are so important to a flourishing democracy, we must make sure they thrive even when their local context is challenging and their governments fail to welcome the role they play in channeling citizens’ needs. It’s hard work to keep going in the face of these challenges — so they need accompaniment to stay resilient!

Recognizing this need — PartnersGlobal, in partnership with CIVICUS, has developed the Resiliency+ (R+) Framework. R+ is aimed at building the resiliency of civil society, strengthening its position as a cornerstone of modern democracy. Drawn from interviews with over 45 civic leaders, donor representatives, and academic experts, the R+ Framework identifies key elements that make organizations strong within the context of difficult political environments.

The Resiliency+ framework identifies common internal vulnerabilities that put organizations facing closing civic space challenges at risk. By categorizing vulnerabilities into seven resiliency factors, the framework gives organizations a practical guide towards thriving in uncertainty. Among other factors, the framework looks at how organizations are connected to one another, allowing them to network and access critical shared knowledge and resources. It observes how the concept of adaptivity is institutionalized into organizational policies, allowing them to react quickly when major changes occur. And it assesses how intentionally and creatively organizations create, maintain, and communicate their stories to the public. By systematically considering these factors, organizations can succeed in their work of promoting engaged, active, and trusting societies in which democracy flourishes.

Our thoughts may take us in several directions on this International Day of Democracy. Perhaps we’re celebrating the monumental progress advocates of democracy have made over the years, perhaps we’re apprehensive of threats looming on the horizon, perhaps we’re fighting on the front lines as democracy emerges in our home country, or observing it as it backslides. Wherever we may be, let us remember to stay true to our values. Let us band together, locally and globally to build faith in democracy. And let us appreciate that we all have the potential to remain resilient advocates for democratic change!