Recently the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sought people's views about life in the 21st century and asked them to identify which 'social evils' pose the greatest threat (see www.jrf.org.uk/socialevils). The resulting findings paint a picture of a society ill at ease with itself and, arguably, one that is ill-prepared to face the challenges ahead.
But it also shows that people would like the world to be a better place. A thriving civil society helps to create that better place. It can provide a catalyst for collective action, independently of the state or the market; generate and mobilise social capital, replacing self-interest with solidarity; and it can strengthen democracy by bringing together different voices and interests.
As many of the contributors to this debate have argued, these social evils arise in large part from a retreat into individualism and 'the absence of society' (Zygmunt Bauman in Contemporary Social Evils, JRF/Policy Press, 2009). We now live in a world where private consumption and lifestyle choices have become the main vehicle for personal expression and connectedness to others. A world of greater social and economic diversity (and inequality), as well as geographical mobility, where individuals have cross-cutting identities and allegiances. This makes it more difficult to call on a single notion of the common interest, but perhaps more important that we find ways of creating and supporting new forms of collective agency and solidarity.
The wisdom of the late 20th century was that a free market will deliver economic stability and a strong society; that the self-interest of individuals will maximise the common good. The economic crisis has profoundly challenged that view, while the JRF study has highlighted its social costs and consequences. Therefore we need a new vision for this century. As Neal Lawson rightly points out, neither the state nor the market can provide the solutions we need; solidarity and agency 'is only to be found by acting in concert and co-operation with others' (Neal Lawson in Contemporary Social Evils, JRF/Policy Press, 2009). If we are to combat contemporary social evils and meet the challenges ahead, we need to rebalance the relationship between the state, the market and civil society and increase the space for independent voluntary action.
Civil society is shaped by people themselves; by their needs, concerns, interests and passions; their desire to make a positive difference to their lives and the lives of others. That is what makes it distinctive. Some may be motivated by their sense of social justice or fair play, others may simply be looking for fun and friendship. But whether it is joining a trade union or a community choir, volunteering for a local hospice or campaigning against global poverty, civil society associations bring people together and help to strengthen community life. In this way they can help to overcome people's sense of isolation, promote solidarity and mutual support, and create opportunities to develop collective solutions to shared problems.
London Citizens, for example, works with communities at the grassroots to help them identify issues that will make a real difference to their lives, such as being paid a living wage, and campaign for change. And because it represents a wide range of organisations it also plays a key role in building connections within and between communities. Action at the local level such as this makes communities stronger, more cohesive and more resilient.
Transforming people's lives
Civil society organisations also help to build a fairer society through the practical support they provide. This can be seen, for example, in the work of credit unions, helping the poorest communities in the UK to raise income and build up assets, thereby gaining a degree of security and self-respect. Or organisations such as Kids Company, reaching out to young people, making them feel safe, turning their lives around.
Reconnecting people and politics
As campaigners and advocates, civil society organisations seek to influence public and political opinion, generate support for their cause, and achieve real changes that will make a positive difference to the communities they work with, whether at home or abroad. Campaigning across a broad spectrum of issues, from environmentalism to disability rights, they have often energised and provoked public debate in a way that has sometimes left traditional politics in their slipstream.
The continued public support for campaigning organisations suggests that people are willing to collectively engage in, and mobilise around issues of concern, if not in formal political processes. By inspiring people to get involved in debates about social problems and solutions, and to consider what the good society might look like, these organisations strengthen democracy. Only by harnessing the idealism, passion and commitment to collective action that is at the heart of voluntary action can we begin to reconnect people and politics.
Civil society cannot achieve the change that is required on its own. We also need healthy democratic institutions, such as a local council with the legitimacy to take decisions in the wider public interest and to safeguard our rights and freedoms. And we need a functioning market system to generate economic wealth, to create jobs and to generate the surpluses needed to meet human needs and achieve social goals. However, a strong and vibrant civil society is necessary to strengthen solidarity, foster social values such as equality, fairness and respect for others, and create space for debate about how the world is and how it should be. In other words, a thriving civil society is an essential precondition for confronting today's social evils and thinking about the kind of world we want to live in.
Stuart Etherington was appointed Chief Executive of NCVO in 1994. Previously he was Chief Executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. He is also Pro-Chancellor of Greenwich University, Chair of Guidestar UK, and a council member of the Institute of Employment Studies. He has been a trustee of Business in the Community, chair of the BBC Appeals Advisory Committee, and a member of the community and social affairs committee of Barclays Bank.