And we’re back to this again – politics, charities and Tory ministers

Look, Mr Cameron, please can you stop your colleagues banging on about why charities should be behaving like grannies rather than truculent teenagers. I keep telling myself not to return to this theme, and then someone says something that pulls me back in against my better instincts. I’ve got quite enough real work to be getting on with, really.

It’s hard to know where to start with a Minister for Civil Society who thinks civil society should “keep … out of the realms of politics”, before pontificating that “The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”

I’ve written on this twice now, and it’s getting a bit boring. The difference here is that this is actually a minister rather than just an MP seeking to make noise. More than that, it is actually the minister responsible for civil society, Brooks Newmark, who is saying this. Now I’m not saying ministers should be the world experts in their area of responsibility, but surely they should at least be a tiny bit aware of some of the issues.

I won’t rehearse the well-trodden issues with this statement. But perhaps, Mr Newmark, you could look to your own government’s policy elsewhere as a guide to what civil society should, or should not be doing. Why don’t you have a chat with Justine Greening about how DFID is supporting a very political role for NGOs and other civil society organisations in holding government to account in other countries. Or look here (if using a work PC to look things that might be a teeny bit political is OK – I’ve highlighted below the relevant bits):

“We work to support elections and help countries to develop fully functioning democracies including parliaments, civil society, the media and political parties.”

“In every country where we give aid directly to a government, we will spend up to 5% of the allotted aid on accountability. This will be done through projects to help the media to scrutinise the government, or by funding local organisations to feedback directly on government services

That sounds pretty political to me. Unless we’re now advocating a policy of civil society should be political for all those foreign chaps, but it’s not quite British is it.

Look, if you’re going to be the Minister for Civil Society, perhaps you could do some reading. Even a cursory glance at these basic texts should be enough to persuade you that civil society is necessarily political. How about starting with the classics, de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (a very unthreatening book). Then you could move onto Robert Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’, and his other work on this subject. All easy and nothing to scare you. If you don’t mind being challenged a bit, try a bit of Gramsci –not the usual reading of choice for a go-getting Tory, but think how impressed colleagues will be if you can cite every student’s favourite revolutionary. Or try looking at the World Bank website for their understanding of civil society – surely that’s not full of untrustworthy Trots, and can be trusted?

I know you are pressed for time, so you could just look it up in a dictionary if you can’t do anything else. In case your department’s budget doesn’t stretch to one, here’s the Macmillan Dictionary definition:

The part of society that consists of organisations and institutions that help and look after people, their health, and their rights.

Again, looking pretty political to me, and precisely the kind of activity (looking after rights, health, etc) you aren’t very happy for them to be indulging in here in the UK.

But if you really want to know why your statement is nonsensical, and why civil society cannot be anything other than political, then why not come and study one our masters programmes in development studies at SOAS? We have lots of academics here who can explain what civil society is, what it does, and why it is important. We’re probably still accepting applications. If that doesn’t tempt you, why not take up knitting yourself?


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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