Democracy on the ground: apathy, community and civil society

Keith Brown
25 May 2009

Since the mid-1990s, the United States Agency for International Development has funded community-level initiatives in the Balkans to build civil society. These initiatives have included the formation of institutions: community-development councils and groups , and community-improvement councils; the funding of Community Action Plans; and major multi-year projects in Serbia and Montenegro under the rubric of Community Revitalisation through Democratic Action (CRDA).

Keith Brown is a socio-cultural anthropologist specialising in the study of 20th-century Macedonia. He is associate professor (research) at the Watson Institute for International Studies. His books include (as editor)Transacting Transition: The Micropolitics of Democracy Assistance in the Former Yugoslavia (Kumarian Press, 2006) and (as sole author)The Past in Question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation (Princeton University Press, 2003)In 2008, I set out to track the progress of just one of these initiatives, implemented by the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) in Macedonia between 1995 and 2004. Working with a former country director, I set out to map one particular component of the democracy-promotion "aid chain" that links the capitals (in various senses of that word) of donor nations to diverse recipient communities in the post-colonial and post-socialist worlds (see Transacting Transition: The Micropolitics of Democracy Assistance in the Former Yugoslavia [Kumarian Press, 2006]).

We started in January 2008 by tracking down and talking with ISC's local staff from my colleague's time as country director from 2000-02, several of whom now work for other international employers, including Habitat (in Budapest), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the British embassy. Others, now possessed of credentials as development professionals (including masters' degrees from European or north American universities), helped establish and now lead a legacy organisation to ISC, the Center for Institutional Development (CIRa) in Skopje; this continued to work in the same vein, building the capacity of Macedonia's "third sector".

A Macedonian encounter

In July 2008, we extended our research to other ISC-funded community-oriented civil-society organisations, including two in the southwestern city of Prilep. The first was the Center for Civic Initiative (CCI), ISC's and CIRa's long-term partner organisation. What we heard there took the familiar form of "success story" that is so much a part of self-presentation in the civil-society field. Our questions prompted a narrative which began from the organisation's pioneering role in setting up citizen-information centres to increase the transparency and accountability of local government; and concluded with a brief account of their now-enlarged portfolio of projects, all implemented with assistance from a range of international donors.

The conversation took place in an air-conditioned conference room surrounded by the trappings of institutional stability and longevity - binder-folders of training materials, certificates of participation in multiple trainings and accreditation from national and international authorities. The conversation was mostly in English: the tone was relaxed, and the register for the most part quite technical. We were fellow professionals, talking over the course of the recent past.

After two hours we left to visit the neighbourhood of Trizla, where Prilep's substantial Roma community live, and where the younger, Roma NGO that ISC, CIRa and CCI had all reportedly helped establish was based. Even though Trizla is within the city limits, the sense of distance was palpable; the NGO leader had to walk down to meet us where the asphalt ended, and we bumped up the narrow, dirt road to our destination. Inside, he had assembled a group of citizens, including other NGO leaders (Roma and non-Roma) as well as representatives of a Roma political party, who had been waiting for us for some time. Several neighbourhood children were using the four or five desktop computers in the hot, crowded room, and continued to do so throughout our meeting.

Our conversation here was conducted in Macedonian, and had a very different shape: it was inconclusive and at times considerably charged. Our primary host, together with the other NGO representatives, talked about the need for multi-constituency collaboration, involving governmental and non-governmental actors. He used as his primary example a Community Action Plan produced by Trizla's citizens in 2003, with considerable input from Institute for Sustainable Communities staff. He pressed the case for local government - including the political representatives present - to implement the plan, and thereby show that citizens' voices counted.

The party spokesmen, though, disagreed. They made clear their frustration with the NGO-talk, suggesting that talk of "multi-ethnic collaboration" was an unproductive distraction from their Roma constituents' real needs - jobs. They repeatedly stressed the paramount importance of foreign investment in new factories, which would generate reliable employment for less-educated citizens: only the provision of basic financial security to families, they said, would create the conditions for the next generation to stay in school, and thereby at least move toward genuine opportunity and inclusion.

A  failure of imagination

The story of the US's "great society" project under Lyndon B Johnson in the 1960s, the attempt to empower disenfranchised groups through community-action programmes, is - through works like Barbara Cruikshank's The Will to Empower - well known. It is at first glance surprising to find those debates (and even the same terminology) being replayed in western Macedonia half a century later. But elements of the story match up. US agencies have certainly embraced a version of history which casts the former eastern-bloc Europe as home to apathetic subjects of socialism, awaiting transformation into active citizens.

A decade and more of assistance has certainly created a "new class" of professional trainers, mediators and managers, and some critics would certainly consider these individuals and organisations as successors to earlier "welfare pimps" who speak and act on behalf of supposed beneficiaries. It is no surprise, then, that some see "civil society" as a fiction that holds marginalised communities back, and hold that the only recourse is political mobilisation along self-serving, apparently primordial lines.

I do not mean to suggest that United States government agencies are doomed to repeat history. But I do suggest that contemporary policy-making is lacking two essential attributes: local knowledge (the lived realities of power, socio-economic inequality, and human security) of a sort that doesn't make it up the aid-chain to Washington, and historical perspective (on past experience in well-intentioned and well-resourced social engineering). Both the professionalisation of evaluation within the democracy-promotion industry, and the distaste of many scholars for so-called "applied" work, drive a contemporary, culturally over-determined failure of imagination in US democracy-promotion.


Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

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