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Civil Society: Competition of Ideas and Interests

On June 19th Charles Buxton, manager of regional programmes in Central Asia and post-Soviet countries of the International NGO Training & Research Centre — INTRAC, spoke at the HSE on ‘Civil Society at a Crossroads: View from the Development Sector’ at a seminar organized by the HSE Center for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector (CSCSNS).

In his presentation Charles Buxton reviewed the specifics and problems of organizations working in the sphere of civil society support as part of international development programmes and spoke about his conclusions and ideas on this topic, which were discussed during the INTRAC conference in December 2011. Charles Buxton’s findings were based on his experience of working in various post-Soviet countries.

Lev Yakobson, First Vice Rector and Academic Supervisor of the HSE Center for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector, introduced the speaker and said that Charles Buxton, a renowned expert in non-commercial and non-governmental organizations who has long worked in post-Soviet states, has been invited by the HSE to work at the Summer School on Civil Society.

Charles Buxton started by defining the most pressing problems of the civil society. According to INTRAC, the definition of civil society is the following: ‘...associations that exist outside of the state or market which maintain a degree of autonomy and independence and have the potential to provide alternative views, policies and actions to those promoted by the state and market.’ With this approach, according to Charles Buxton, civil society always acts as an innovator in the social sphere as compared with the state, and moreover, is very different from business in its initial ideas. The civil society, according to the expert, is a space for discussion, with variety of of ideas and interests.

In terms of rating certain institutions as civil society, there are two positions. The first one is exclusionary: the civil society includes only those organizations which actively support democratic processes. According to the inclusionary position, shared by INTRAC, civil society is made up of a huge scope of various associations and different groups which often come into conflict with each other. But there are many organizations which are ready for partnership with other sectors, for example, related to improving services for the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

Lev Yakobson
Lev Yakobson
Generally, in Central Asian countries, where Charles Buxton still works, NGOs actively started to be launched in 1990s, when the state discontinued many of its social responsibilities. A specific feature of  countries in this region was that many NGOs followed pre-soviet traditions in their work (such as volunteering), using them in a new format and with interactive methods of work.

The civil society assists in solving a complex of tasks in the process of social development. Particularly, it promotes economic growth through focusing on unprotected strata and providing services which the state is unable to provide. Civil society promotes democracy through supervising the government’s actions and including the population in the active political process. At the same time, Charles Buxton emphasized that socio-economic NGOs are quite different from political NGOs which promote democratization.

The discussion which took place after the presentation, focused on three topics: the role of NGOs in democratization, the role of international NGOs in civil society development, and the civil society and NGOs in Central Asia.

Lev Yakobson summed up the seminar: ‘The discussion has showed that many questions have no answers. Even 18 or 20 years ago, the situation with the civil society seemed to be clearer. Today there are more questions than answers, and this is probably because the process has turned out to be nonlinear. We have started to understand that democracy is a complex science, and NGOs are very different. But all that only means that the problems of the civil society and nonprofit sector are more interesting to study and it is unlikely that anything similar could be found in any other sphere’.

Andrey Shcherbakov, HSE News Service

Photos by Nikita Benzoruk

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