Michael Edwards, one of the most respected organic intellectuals of the global civil society movement has brought out a third edition of his influential book Civil Society. In this third edition, he notes, “civil society organisations are increasingly divorced from the forces that drive deeper social change”. Licenio C Lima of the Institute of Education at the University of Minho in Portugal, speaking on June 27 2014 in Lisbon provided an historical overview of the Portuguese local adult education associations created 40 years ago in the aftermath of the April Revolution as structures for democratic learning and social change. These civil society organisations, he maintains have over the years become more and more influenced by the practices of the ‘new public administration’ with an emphasis on centralised control from Lisbon, quality assurance practices, loss of local autonomy, increased emphasis on entrepreneurial vision, efficiency, use of centralized IT systems resulting broadly speaking less democratic. Local associations can be loosely typologised into those still linked to a social movement base, those that are market and skills oriented and those that are simply extensions of the managerial state. Has professionalism poured cold water on the sparks of social change?
For those of us who have worked in the heart of, on behalf of and in support of an autonomous civil society sector that serves as a source of democratic alternatives, a watchdog on the state and an alternative to the market as a way of organising our lives, the reflections of Michael Edwards and Licenio Lima, are a wake-up call. Have we lost our way or is this the time for taking a more critical look at who we are and what we have become as a necessary precondition for a serious shake up?
As we consider the implications of messages such as these from progressive colleagues, we might want to give some more time to thinking about the role of knowledge in the life of civil society organisations. Whose knowledge counts in the ‘professional’ CSOs? Are we systematizing the knowledge of those who are excluded locally an globally? Have we become too dependent on varieties of colonized ‘development’ thinking to be able to be sources of deeper social change that we once aspired to? Do the forms of knowledge; the epistemologies we draw on reflect the extraordinary diversity of both content and representational forms that exist in the world? How do we understand knowledge as an essential element in radical transformative change? Can there be social justice without cognitive justice?
We welcome your reflections, disagreements and questions