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.