Why do we need civil society?

What is civil society? My children always ask me that. Think of what makes a good school. A good school has good teachers, a good curriculum, a good principal, and good buildings and classrooms. It also has extracurricular activities, including student government and clubs where kids can pursue their interests, voice their views and connect with other kids whom they might not meet otherwise.

Civil society is similar to those extracurricular activities. Usually, a country’s government takes care of the basics, such as defense, education and health care. But it doesn’t provide citizens with a way to organize themselves to do what is important to them or express their views. That’s where civil society comes into play. It is the groups that people form to advocate for the things they believe in and to solve problems in their communities. Societies that do not allow people to connect with one another to solve problems or monitor their governments are less effective, less democratic and less resilient than those that do.

In very poor schools, kids often stop believing they can succeed. They no longer try to start clubs. Similarly, in societies that have been torn apart by war or authoritarian rule, people often lose faith in their ability to improve their situation. The goal of our work is reigniting that confidence and reactivating people’s capacity to solve their own problems. One key is finding change agents — organizations or individuals who can help rebuild people’s confidence. We try to identify change agents, train them and help them organize to improve schools, the government, the environment or whatever their communities need.

Another key to supporting a robust civil society is learning from local informal and traditional social organizations and building on existing philanthropic traditions. By building on what people are already familiar with, we help them take ownership of the process of improving their communities.

We also try to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table. We support organizations that promote open debate, tolerance and citizen involvement. And we go beyond the big cities to reach out to rural areas, where there tend to be fewer resources and opportunities for people — particularly young people — to organize and address concerns.

There’s the saying that if you teach a person to fish, you feed the person for a lifetime. But you also have to make sure that the lake isn’t polluted and that the fishing rod can be repaired. Otherwise, teaching people to fish is no more effective than just giving them a fish. Similarly, it’s not enough to simply create or strengthen civil society organizations. You must make sure they have an environment in which they can thrive. This environment includes regulations, tax laws, linkages between civil society organizations and the government, and even people’s attitudes about philanthropy. Any program that seeks to strengthen civil society on a national scale has to address legal and regulatory issues and create a culture that is willing to support its own civil society organizations.

Civil society thrives when organizations can work together and learn from one another. FHI 360 creates networks that connect local and national groups so that the sum of our programs’ parts is greater than the whole. For example, if you create a local debate club, that’s good for the youth in one community. But if you create a national debating league, you have a program that can affect a society’s ability to participate in political debate. The networks remain even after the program ends. This helps organizations sustain the progress they make and can lead to lasting change.

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