Friday, 28 September 2012

Where is civil society?

The Korber Foundation is housed in a splendid building in the heart of the redeveloped Port area in Hamburg; a brilliant conference space which they use to promote debate and discussion about the role of civil society. 

One of the special aspects of this German Foundation is an interest in developments in civil society in the Anglo- Saxon world and its relevance in Germany. They run an annual conference and I'm going to be speaking here later. 

And the theme;  " Where is Civil Society; On the path to a new political understanding"

So we explore the role of third sector organisations in promoting a stronger "citizen society" (rather like that - so much stronger than civil society, especially when I like to think we shouldn't be civil when there is such injustice and incompetence around). Looking at getting more political in a culture where large charities are seen as more complicit with the State and largely uncritical of it. 

So the Foundation believes in encouraging more "political" action by civil society and one of the early discussions was about community organising!

A pretty stunning range of speakers; Prof Sievers from Stanford , Prof Leo Pinta one of the world experts on community organising and the great third sector guru, Prof Anheier of  Heidelberg University; a world centre of research on civil society. (And I should just mention Prof Anheier is speaking at our Acevo Annual Conference on Nov 29th. Book now!) As a mere Knight not a Prof I felt outgunned!

What was particularly interesting was the debate around the "independence" of the sector as opposed to its role in delivery , advocacy and development of government policy and action.

Prof Anheier was particularly provocative about the role of Foundations who he described as working in " non explosive " areas and not seeking challenge. He thought they needed to be involved in politically explosive areas! I thought this was rather pertinent to the UK.  How could we encourage our Foundations to be more explosive as opposed to project driven? Less safe?

Of course the role of the independence of the sector from  Government is an area of debate in the UK but the issue can be overplayed. The trick is to both work with Government and be critical of it. As Ed Miliband was fond of saying," bite the hand that feeds you ".

Its something Acevo has tried to exemplify even though that can be a tricky ride. I suspect the next 2 years of coalition government will get more problematic for our sector. So the debate in Germany about encouraging a more politically active sector is a crucial one , given their role in EU leadership.

Stephen Bubb

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