At arm’s length (Financial Times)


Edward Mortimer is a regular columnist for the Financial Times. He argues that it is crucial that non-profit groups must retain their independence by not being “sponsored”, or incorporated, by the government, lest they become institutionalised as quangos.

While there is much merit in this value, it begs the question of the financial viability of non-profit groups. Are only wealthy or otherwise financially self-sustaining non-profit groups worthy of playing the role of civil society? Then again, not all voluntary activity involves money. Think of Mortimer’s cited “fishing clubs, football teams, trade unions”.

Mortimer particularly objects to any “forum of civil society”. Considering his arguments, I expect that he would not support any Civic Forum, as mooted for Northern Ireland. What I find intriguing is the lack of any serious campaign from within the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland for a formal forum. Perhaps Mortimer is wise when he argues that it is better for civil society to be separate from the formal apparatus of governments.

At arm’s length: Non-profit groups should not be beholden to governments
Edward Mortimer (Financial Times)
22 March 1995


I seem to have put myself on the side of Vaclav Klaus, the Thatcherite prime minister of the Czech Republic, against the universally revered philosopher-president, Vaclav Havel. Those two dignitaries have an endearing habit of airing their differences in public. Last May they had a televised debate, precisely on the issue of non-profit organisations.

Havel favours these because they “fill the space between the state and the citizen and their existence motivates citizens to take an interest in public affairs”. Klaus is suspicious of them, because “the defenders of non-profit organisations think they know best what is good for public welfare and they want to imporse their views on us”. He sees no further need for “civil society”, now that the Czech republic has free political parties and free elections. In his view the only basic element of a democratic society is the citizen, and “everything that is above the citizen is derived from him”.

Well, yes. But the state and political parties are not the only things that derive from the citizen. Countries where virtually all voluntary activities — fishing clubs, football teams, trade unions, newspapers, TV channels — are run by political parties are not generally considered the most healthily democratic, even when there is more than one party. In fact that is precisely the regime — called “partitocarzia” (rule by parties) — that the Italians have had to get rid of because it was so stifling and corrupt. According to Havel, this was also what was wrong with the first Czechoslovak republic (1918-38), “when our life was horribly influenced by partisanship, when everything was in the hands of political parties, when every solution was marked by party viewpoints”.

Havel is right to say that parties should be “merely the extreme tip of a colourful social life”, and draw their energy and inspriation “from the fertile soil and multi-layered environment of civil society”. The sort of society envisaged by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which there is nothing between the individual citizen and the state, would be bleak to live in and probably democratic only in name. Like Havel, I prefer the vision of the liberal thinkers Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. They relished a society full of untidy, overlapping non-governmental associations that have grown up over time and are rooted in local culture.

Governments often find such untidy growths inconvenient and are tempted to cut through them. That must be resisted. But can civil society look to the state for positive help? Can the state establish legal and social conditions that would promote the development of civil society?

Up to a point, yes, but one needs to be very careful. If civil society becomes state-sponsored, it ceases to be civil, and NGOs become quangos; in other words they cease to be genuinely autonomous.

The same thought makes me suspicious of the section on “global civil society” in the recent report* of the Commission on Global Governance, the group of eminent persons looking at the reform of the UN. I like their idea that non-state bodies should have a right of petition to the UN Security Council when the “security of people” is threatened by action or inaction on the part of governments. But their proposal for an annual “forum of civil society”, meeting in the hall of the General Assembly, makes me wince. Drawing NGOs into the UN system would make them more bureaucratic and less independent — more governmental, in fact.

No. Civil society by definition must be separate from political power. The NGOs place is on the outside. It is not their job to make life easy for government.

*”Our Global Neighbourhood” (Oxford, £25hb, £6.99pb)

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