The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up

Image of The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up
Release Date: 
October 19, 2018
Encounter Books
Reviewed by: 

Encounter Books, February 2008As we witness the incredible surge of international donations and support directed toward Haiti following the January 12 earthquake, we must recognize the fact that the momentum of support and influx of supplies, materials, money, and ultimately, the level of international interest, will wane over the ensuing weeks as the afflicted country will shift from our collective focus to the periphery of our attention and moral recall. This is a natural dynamic that is exasperated by the perpetual bombardment of footage from the area by the media. Very soon we will experience disaster fatigue and the perceived goodwill drawn from the many individual and collective efforts to aid Haiti will metamorphose from inspiring to prosaic.Even people who are working on the ground to aid victims and help restore order there are aware of this. Torree Nelson, of Habitat for Humanity International, observed, “We need to have staff for five to 10 years doing this work. And so we need to have staff that is committed, but we also need a support structure, and we need the public and others —donors and institutions that we work with—to recognize and stay committed for the long term and find ways for us to make that sustainable.”[1] Nelson’s remark is an astute one that is lost in the cacophony of chaos and good intentions. As the international effort and good will in Haiti attenuates there must be collaboration with the local populace to ensure that the work being performed now will continue long after volunteers, NGOs and military personnel have departed. Even now some locals are expressing frustration concerning the authenticity of the international aid. During an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Jean-Max Bellerive, the Haitian prime minister, commented, “I believe it’s a more pragmatic responsibility. I don’t believe people are following moral responsibilities to help. They are going to help Haiti because it’s cost effective.”[2]In his book The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up, Don Eberly asks, “What can all actors in the developed world, public and private, do to partner more effectively with indigenous civil society in order to build upon the problem-solving capacity that exists in every locality?”[3] The answer, it appears, is to promote and integrate in our collective conscience the concept of civil society. The large number of NGOs and other voluntary organizations sometimes dilutes the effectiveness of disaster relief, community building and other activities. What is needed, Eberly maintains, is a fresh approach involving collaboration between the business, government, and social sectors. He argues that less government participation will facilitate focused efforts to construct civil society based on a more significant role for the business and social sectors. According to the author, this collaboration will combine resources more effectively than the NGOs can to address and alleviate some of the more pressing issues in the world. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti immediately qualifies to be a beneficiary of this type of venture.Eberly stresses the importance of including the “Fifth Estate,” private international volunteer associations, in the approaches to combating poverty and effectively constructing civil societies abroad. These organizations have had some success in creating and supporting communities abroad but a more farreaching strategy is needed.  One need only look at the profession of international education to realize that it embodies the characteristics that typify organizations associated with this descriptor. International education should, in my view, be aimed not only at engendering an understanding of “the other.” It also should strive to create active ways of expressing respect for other cultures and to inculcate in our students a sense of an engaged global citizenship in which volunteerism is a core value. Equally important, it should also define itself as a counter to the disaster fatigue and indifference that too often follow catastrophes (man-made and natural).Long-term solutions are not possible if the people providing the aid and support do not have the proper approach to their work, or more importantly, to the people they are working with in the local communities. Charitable efforts are all but useless if the attitude of local empowerment is not reciprocally instilled in the people and organizations that claim to have the interests of the affected communities at heart. In fact, NGOs and other organizations may run the risk of prolonging existing obstacles to civil society such as poverty and democracy deficits.  Noted development expert William Easterly once commented that, “Rich world activists prolong the true nightmare of poverty.” The implication is clear: Good intentions without a sense of moral imagination, a solid understanding of the culture of the local community and a commitment to extend efforts beyond the period covered by the media, can cause more harm than good. More than good intentions is needed in order to truly rebuild a nation or establish an invigorated ethic of citizenship.Eberly uses the example of Rwanda to make his case. “The Rwandan experiment in nation building would not be possible without a rebirth of ethics. A major focus of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission is civic education, including workshops on how to foster citizenship and an attitude of service. Kagame (President of Rwanda) believes that although international friendship and assistance are needed, the reconstruction of a painfully torn nation must be carried out by Rwandans. He is skeptical in particular toward many outside NGOs. In many cases, he thinks they lack sufficient understanding of the history and culture of the country, and thus bring unrealistic expectations to the table. To all outsiders, he offers a stern caution: A variety of activities carried out in a humanitarian spirit are simply not adequate. What counts is the ‘quality’ of those actions—meaning whether they materially advance the work of building a nation with a new ethic of citizenship.”[4] Out of the decimation of the earthquake Haiti can reconstruct itself in new fashion, but in order to do so it must be done in a collaborative spirit with those providing aid within a reasonable time frame and most likely, outside the purview of television cameras and audio recorders.[5]This niche can be filled by international educators. Ever since the field came under scrutiny following the revelation that one of the perpetrators involved in the attacks of 9/11 entered the United States on a student visa, the discipline of international education has sought to demonstrate that it purpose falls in line with the expectations and regulations of the United States government.  Reacting to the events and scrutiny at the time, the discipline emphasized its role in contributing to U.S. national security by educating students about the world through the abroad experiences. The profession has also adopted the mantra of “creating global citizens” in the hope of distancing the study/volunteer abroad experience from the perception that it (the student’s abroad experience) is merely another form of extra-curricular activity in which students participate in order to “get away” from the campus or to touch up their resumes.This effort is understandable but it lacks a concept of what the profession can give back to the communities which host U.S. students. By working with NGOs and helping prepare their workers for international and cross-cultural experiences, international education can begin to make a more substantial contribution to civil society in many locations around the world. By emphasizing its role as a member of the Fifth Estate, in Eberly’s terms, international education can ground its mission on the values that are important to making civil society successful. This is entirely plausible as NAFSA (the National Association of International Educators) seeks to expand opportunities to study abroad to disciplines beyond the foreign languages and the Humanities. In fact, by articulating its role as a contributor to the Fifth Estate and providing students with the tools to become better informed and acquainted with other countries and cultures, NAFSA would now have a theme that connects the students specifically to the different ‘forms’ of the abroad experience, i.e., study, volunteer, internships, service learning, ESL, etc.Such diversification of international education is a good thing in itself but tying it additionally to civil society would make the benefits of participation in abroad programs much more tangible and ultimately, make NAFSA more credible and visible in the social sector and beyond. Eberly brings this point home when he writes that, “Civil society . .  . takes isolated individuals and weaves them into the larger social fabric, linking them to purposes beyond narrow private or parochial interests.”[6] This is what we as international educators should aspire to. It is important to stress that international education and other components of the social sector can make inroads where NGO’s have encountered an impasse. Eberly is well aware of the reason for this impasse. “Trading in narrow group identity for the more universal identity of citizen often proves too difficult for either local government authorities or outside NGOs to manage.”[7]By emphasizing its links to civil society, stressing the exchange component of international education, making it intentional and inclusive of members of the host countries and illustrating the long-term local benefits of it, international education can separate itself from being seen as merely a pawn of “the American Way,” a stereotype that has beleaguered many NGOs. It can provide NGO workers with the tools necessary to be successful in their work abroad.  More importantly, it can instill in students the “Obligation to keep informed about distant atrocities.”[8]The idea of civil society is nebulous in and of itself and the roots of its ambiguity lie quite deep.  Its notion is not new, but it has taken on so many forms and interpretations through the years that its chances of achieving acceptance outside the inner circle of its strongest advocates are weakened. The political scientist John Ehrenberg noted that, “Because its antecedents have not been adequately explored, civil society is often deployed in a thin, undertheorized, and confusing fashion.”[9] In some ways this gap in the emergent concept to civil society resembles the gap in the emergent concept of international education itself.  The latter has struggled with the perception that it was solely a commodity for a select group of students and lacked any perceivable theoretical framework or clearly defined disciplinary vision to address the increasingly diverse population of students desiring to study abroad. Much work has been done in recent years to address this, however. The very ethos of international education, and its philosophical essence, should be to foment solidarity and to develop concepts of mutual aid between students and host countries.  It is apparent that there is more than just a casual resonance between the conceptual travail of civil society and international education.[10] The gaps in the concept of civil society may present international educators with the opportunity to fill in those gaps by articulating the concept as a core value of the profession. No longer would civil society be seen as a means to limit state power, but rather as a vehicle to allow people to move beyond their state’s borders to interact and engage with people in other countries. International education comes close to reaching that goal in its promotion of its initiative, the ‘global workforce development.’[11]Eberly clearly sees a need for the type of knowledge international educators might provide in the effort to look for ways to make a concerted contribution to civil society. He writes, “The most effective strategies for human development in the twenty-first century will emphasize ideas, knowledge, and expertise, to assist the poor in better using their existing capital for productive investment.”[12]Some scholars have related that people who rush to provide aid to stricken areas encounter people so wounded in spirit that communicating with them is akin to engaging a different language and culture.[13] Without the necessary skill set to empathize with victims and negotiate with them as partners to rebuild local structures and civil society, then the role of disaster responders reverts from heroic figures of transformation to propagators of the old regime. Essayist Rebecca Solnit warns us that, “Even if there is a shining moment of equalization, the values and discriminations of the old society reappear in the aftermath. Who gets shelter, supplies, aid, and sympathy is a political and cultural decision in which old biases surface. Stories of relief administrators with a bias as to who is deserving are common.”[14] International education is uniquely positioned to challenge these biases by arming NGOs and aid workers with the necessary cross-cultural tools to assist victims in the least intrusive yet respectful way possible. By doing so and by emphasizing that the local population has an important part to play in the reconstruction of the affected area, can old values be challenged and replaced with new beliefs intertwined with the core mission of civil society.The tragedy in Haiti will make us think how the discipline of international education can work to make civil society a reality in other parts of the world while at the same time making it a core value for our students who study abroad and make “disaster fatigue” a thing of the past.Reviewer Thomas V. Millington is the author of Crossroads of Basque Identity: The Dichotomy Between Basque Ethos and Basque Self.[1] Quoted in Rafael Romo. “Responding to a crisis: The harsh realities for aid workers in Haiti.” Accessed 30 January 2010.[3] Don Eberly. The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up. New York: Encounter Books. 2008. p. 291[5] Economist Paul Collier makes this point quite clear: “Donors should be committed for the decade, not just the first couple of high-glamour years.” See Paul Collier. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 152. He also cites an interesting statistic: the time it takes a failed state to achieve decisive change is 59 years. (Collier, p.72).[7] Ibid. p. 249.[9] John Ehrenberg. Civil Society: the Critical History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press. 1999. p. x. For another definition of civil society, see Jeffey J. Segall. “A First Step for Peaceful Cosmopolitan Democracy.” Peace Review, vol. 9, n. 3 (1997)[11] See Ron Moffat. “NAFSA’s Role in Developing Global-Ready Graduates.” Accessed 06 February 2010.[13] Kai Erickson. A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1995. p.13<div endnotetext"="">[14] Rebecca Solnit. A Paradise Built in Hell. New York: Viking Press. 2009. p. 112.