CIVICUS Civil Society Index

An international action-research project by and for civil society

Small states: why assessing civil society matters

Posted by civilsocietyindex on October 6, 2010

– By Mark Nowottny, CSI Project Coordinator –

In 2003-2006, the Civil Society Index was implemented in Cyprus, just one of the world’s 45 small states (World Bank). In the 2008-2010 phase, the Index is now being implemented in three: Bahrain, Cyprus, Malta. According to the World Bank and the Commonwealth, who have led much of the world’s international development work in small states, it is difficult to precisely define ‘small states’, although a threshold of 1.5 million people has become the usual benchmark. No single criteria, however, whether in geography, population, or economy, can necessarily definitively capture the nature of ‘smallness’, and others are often interchangeably included in work on small states (for example, the Commonwealth includes Jamaica, Lesotho, Namibia and Papua New Guinea in some groupings).

Development, we are often told, is about people. No wonder then that international development discourses – and the money of international NGOs and bilateral agencies – have tended to align themselves with the problems of countries where the millions reside. The 20 million people of the 45 small states represent just 0.4% of the population of developing countries worldwide (World Bank).

In recent years, the discourses of international development have started to be kinder to small states, particularly because a large number of them are also islands. The spectre of climate change threatens to overwhelm low-lying states in the Caribbean and Pacific, and the self-pronounced threat of Maldives’ obliteration has turned from irrational fear to international cause celebre.

Nevertheless, few other interventions have sought to confront the more negative afflictions of ‘smallness’. In the Pacific, thousands migrate to New Zealand, only to find themselves without job, without social inclusion, and without family. Left behind are island societies gutted of their best talent, drained of their brain. In the Caribbean, American television, music, films and values are broadcast across the few miles of sea that lies between, while local artists and cultural producers struggle to create a space for the young and restless to look at the here and to look at the now, and to make peace with the idea of remaining in – and building – their small island.

These themes – these challenges – that confront the millions of citizens in small states are timeless, and precede the trends and language of international development. Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey and Aime Cesaire knew of them when they wrote of the face of post-colonial smallness which was more akin to mental slavery. Earl Lovelace, perhaps more sympathetically, explored the way it made those in his beloved Trinidad and Tobago think and act. In Belize, thinkers like Assad Shoman and Evan Hyde understood that the newly independent country had to take possession of its own history and reflect on its own unique problems, not look at them in the light of other countries’ very different experiences.

In these small states, it might be initially hard to see why assessing civil society matters. Certainly, the numbers do not demand it. From a research perspective, what use anyway is an accurate empirical picture of civil society in a country where there are few donors ready to change the way they spend their few pennies?

An example of active citizenship in Cyprus: the Volunteer Network Project [Management Centre]

For the CSI, it matters because the project can offer a space for reflection, and for looking inward on the state of active citizenship. In focus groups, in surveys, and in the National Workshops, the Civil Society Index offers one small space – not enough by itself, but a start – for civil society to come together to reflect on what it is doing, what it looks like, where the challenges lie, and also where the opportunities and commonalities are. These spaces for national conversations exist more rarely than one might think. Just as a picture, a song, a film, or a dance can open a window for citizens into their own realities and world, so can a forum for reflection give space for citizens to look at their actions, the effect of these actions, and where they must go in the future.

Across the Caribbean, the Pacific and the small states of the world, citizens must play an active part in confronting their own unique challenges: climate change, small-scale import economies, crime and lack of social cohesion, brain drain and, finally, cultural anomie in the face of the potential for local cultural production. The solutions might just be there: making the most of a voice on the global diplomatic stage, concerning new technologies and the creative economy, and cultural policies.

Governments and international development actors will not step up to these challenges, and will certainly not do so alone. But citizens in small states – perhaps more than anywhere else – are capable of changing the domestic paradigms of development and the national discourses of social justice to suit their own realities better. To do so, they may just need to make more use of forums offering the space for internal reflection and the opportunity to move towards being at ease with oneself. Tools such as the Civil Society Index, led by and for civil society, can perhaps be one such weapon in their arsenal.

– Mark Nowottny –


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