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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 2, February 2009

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Special Section: Reformist Leaders and Civil Society

Increase Engagement with the New Government
Ingrid Srinath

A Confidence Gap Needs To Be Bridged
Francis N. Pangilinan

There Is a Danger That the Government Starts to Think It Owns the Sector
Liz Atkins

Getting Too Close to New Leadership Can Be Blinding
Boris Strečanský

Be Prepared to Get Your Hands Dirty
David Robinson

Bind Reformist Leaders to Campaign Commitments
Arthur Larok

A Reformist Leader Is No Guarantee
Dragan Golubovic

Article

The Legal Framework for Not-for-Profit Organizations in Central and Eastern Europe
Douglas Rutzen, David Moore, and Michael Durham

The Legal and Regulatory Framework for Civic Organizations in Namibia
Benedict C. Iheme

International Grantmaking
Foundation Center in Cooperation with Council on Foundations

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Download this issue (PDF) | Editorial Board

Getting Too Close to New Leadership Can Be Blinding

Boris Strečanský1

What innovations have worked, and what lessons have been learned, for civil society to enhance its engagement with the government when a reformist leader takes office?

Based on my experience from Central Europe, mostly from Slovakia, I find it hard to formulate lessons, as I think that there is no guarantee that they would be applicable in other contexts. There is also a range of opinion on the period in Slovakia when a reformist leader took office. My view is that the expectations of civil society are high during such a period, and the excitement lasts for a while. Sooner or later, though, the problems that the preceding leadership has left for the new leader require setting up priorities. Some issues will be pushed to the background, some to the forefront. This will create some discomfort in the civil society, which has many different, often competing expectations for the new leadership.

There is one more thing that the civil society ought to be aware of in these situations: getting too close to new leadership can be blinding. Civil society ought to maintain a healthy distance between itself and the government.

In the run-up to the election of a reformist leader, there is often an increase in civic mobilization. What are some innovations and lessons learned about sustaining civic participation over time?

Civic participation over time is a function of deeper qualities than of the pre-election hype. Sustaining it on a higher level is, I think, not realistic, but one can hope to maintain its sensitivity at a level that it responds in case of need. Several elements, in my view, are critical for supporting (I do not dare to say sustaining) civic participation over the long term. These include the following:

  1. Family influence (bringing up children with civic virtues; seeing parents as engaged citizens);
  2. Civic education in schools;
  3. Personal examples by public figures (politicians, intellectuals, artists, scientists, celebrities)—the existence of civic leadership role models gives other people inspiration for emulating such behavior; and
  4. Civil society-friendly laws and legal frameworks that stimulate and encourage civic participation by imposing minimal barriers and simple procedures.

What are some of the challenges that civil society organizations face when a reformist leader is elected?

Supporting a reformer is very tempting and very understandable for civil society to do. On the other hand, the magnitude of issues that need to be dealt with inevitably creates tensions with the civil society agenda. I find it more effective to focus on using the window of opportunity when the new government is willing to listen to civil society to push for changes that will improve the conditions for civic engagement, whatever they might be in a given context. The civil society will then deal in its own way with its various agendas.

The loss of civil society leaders as they move to governmental positions is a natural process and cannot be avoided. In the short term, it creates a negative balance, but it also represents an opportunity for renewal of leadership, which is a healthy thing.

What are some lessons learned relating to the management of high (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations that can accompany the election of a reformist government, and how can civil society help hold governments accountable for pre-election promises?

These situations are often unique and therefore it is hard to follow set rules. Energetic, impassioned people want to express themselves. Managing that process is hard, almost impossible. I think that while passion (like compassion) is a key element of civil society leadership, it is good to be reminded that good management follows certain rules and principles. We must be clear on priorities (assuming we have agreed on them, which is the most difficult thing to do), consistently pursue them, and remember that “one eats an elephant piece by piece.”

How can civil society help hold governments accountable for pre-election promises? I believe it can help foster the society’s memory and raise interest in comparing pre-election promises with the post-election state of affairs. Holding governments accountable for campaign promises requires that there are constituencies sensitive to discrepancies. This is not automatic in some countries. Accordingly, it is not always enough to ensure that watchdog groups monitor the government and raise their voices. A society also needs citizens and media that are interested in their findings and in their conversation with the government over disputed matters.

The current financial crisis has created challenges for governments, governance, and civil society actors. What advice would you like to convey to civil society actors in light of the financial crisis?

I do not feel I can give much advice—civil society leaders have personal compasses that they follow. A time of crisis is a test of civil society. The qualities of solidarity, sharing, support, and belongingness become more essential than ever. If the civil society is strong, it can endure the crisis. It depends on all of us.

Note

1 Boris Strečanský is Executive Director of the Center for Philanthropy in Slovakia. He is a philosophy and history graduate and since the early 1990s has been active in the non-profit sector, philanthropy, and civil society development in the CEE region.

 

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