CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion

Democracy's new associations

Quintin Oliver

Social inclusion is, of course, a key concern of the voluntary sector, rooted as it is in disadvantaged communities and groups. But the community and voluntary sector may also offer a broader vision of the signposts to an inclusive society.

It may do so in two ways. In recent years, numerous claims - more often asserted than demonstrated - have been made for the desirability of generalising the behaviour of privnte enterprises throughout public service and society. Yet there may actually be a demonstrable case that the ethos and practices of the voluntary sector are of wider applicability.

Secondly, in the sphere of ideas, notions such as 'civil society', 'associational democracy', 'subsidiarity' and 'partnership' have a particular pertinence for the voluntary sector. And these point to how a vague desire for 'bottom-up' approaches can be translated into a stakeholder society from which no voice is left out.

So what is the voluntary sector about? Its leaders can often be heard talking about its unique 'vibrancy' and 'flexibility, - its ability to respond quickly to needs in a way government cannot (because it is 'cumbersome' and 'bureaucratic') and the private sector won't (because there is 'no profit in it'). Yet, over the last 15 years, the boundaries between the sectors have become blurred and overlaps more pronounced - as health trusts, co-operatives, enterprise centres, Action for Community Employment schemes, church social welfare projects and so on indicate.

The business guru Peter Drucker admits that management of voluntary sector organisations is a distinct (and much more difficult) task. For example, in a private-sector enterprise the shareholders are clearly the focus, whereas in the voluntary sector there is a complex set of stakeholders. These include users, staff, volunteers, committee members (who may also be customers) and trade unions - to name but a few.

The Irish-born management consultant Charles Handy has also turned his mind to voluntary organisations. He concludes that organisationally they are just a different variety of the same thing - but he does see them as innovative examples of experiment and dynamism.

So, where do this radicalism and the potential to prefigure wider change stem from? Events and processes in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years offer some reflections. So, too, do some international comparisons.

In Northern Ireland, it is widely accepted that the political vacuum, especially since direct rule, has been partially filled by 'civil society' - the trade unions, the churches, voluntary and community organisations, and professional or other single-interest groups, operating on a parapolitical stage. The unions have drawn credit for their resistance to further incursions of sectarianism in the workplace. The arts have been credited with providing "the space between the pillars of society", in the words of Declan McGonagle of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. And Sir George Quigley of the Ulster Bank has recently described the key role of 'intermediaries' in filling the gap between the state and the citizen.

Turning to some international examples, activists in central and eastern Europe have described the transition from their anti-governmental role, through the non-governmental phase, to the current challenge of being co-opted as quasi-governmental. The African National Congress struggles with these dilemmas too, its collective role having changed within five years from guerrilla fighter to community activist. In the Philippines, meanwhile, non-governmental organisations have rejected a partnership plan offered by government, fearing absorption and disconnection from disadvantaged communities.

A common thread can be found in these experiences: it is a defence and expansion of the space that is civil society and the establishment of a proper relationship between it and the state. The US non-profit activist Brian O'Connell - who has distilled voluntary action as an 'outlet for outrage' - argues that the development of civil society will supplement rather than challenge representative democracy.

This can happen through more power - and responsibility - being devolved by government on to voluntary organisations. It is a notion which has been developed by Paul Hirst as 'associational democracy':[1]

That supplement would involve a growth in the scope of government through associations … associational government would lessen the tasks of central government to such an extent that greater accountability of both the public power and of the devolved associational agencies would be possible. The main political objective of modern associationalism is to decentralise and devolve as much of the affairs of society as possible to publicly funded but voluntary and self-governing associations. Such associations are widely regarded in modern democratic theory as the social foundation for plural political interests, as the cement of the civil society' that sustains the liberal state. Associationalism, however, treats such self-governing voluntary bodies not as 'secondary organisations' but as the primary means of organising social life. In this doctrine, a self-governing civil society becomes primary and the state becomes a secondary (if vitally necessary) public power that ensures peace between associations, protects the rights of individuals and provides the mechanisms of public finance whereby a substantial part of the activities of associations are funded.
In this way, a bridgehead can be established between the woolly concept of 'voluntary' (as equalling 'amateur') and a political theory designed to secure power for the powerless. The traditional values of the voluntary sector - facing hard problems within a framework of equal opportunities and rights-provide necessary ethical resources. Its emphasis on participation - empowering consumers and clients - is a prerequisite in terms of process. And the organisational flexibility so favoured by voluntary and community groups reflects the adaptability essential for change.

Also germane here is the European Union debate on 'subsidiarity' - the idea of decision-making at the lowest, most appropriate level. Although the S-word is used by some member governments to defend retention of power by the 'nation-state', others argue that it should apply within states to ensure devolution and regionalisation. In the context of Northern Ireland, subsidiarity provides an important keystone above the concepts of civil society and associational democracy.

And, from below, 'partnership' - that latest buzzword-offers a crucial underpinning, drawing as it does on another European idea, that of social partnership. Under the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (the 'Delors package'), partnerships are to be established at district council level, with one-third community representation. Along with the other support from the EU structural funds, under the Single Programming Document for Northern Ireland, this will give an enormous boost to developing 'community infrastructure' at the grassroots. The Northern Ireland Partnership Board, overseeing the partnerships at district level, will bring together the region's social partners - the voluntary and community sector, the trade unions, the farmers and employers - around the table with the political parties, potentially wielding real influence and some power.

There are those who argue that partner ship is a move to co-opt the energy and radicalism of the voluntary sector - that the bureaucracy of committee behaviour and papers, and socialisation with the other partners, can blunt the capacity of representatives to reflect the anger, hurt and passion of those dispossessed over so many years. The test, of course, will be the ability of those charged with representing the value-based community and voluntary sector to deliver pragmatically while not sacrificing principles. This depends on adequate back-up, allied to clear accountability to a strong constituency, with a two-way information flow.

But the inducement to participate in such arrangement is that if the experiment works, over the three (or five) years of the Delors package, it may be extended and the model developed to deliver other services. That is the challenge which can bring civil society, associationalism, subsidiarity and social partnership together to fruition - and begin to herald a more inclusive society.


1 'Associational Democracy', in D Held ed, Prospects for Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp 116-7

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