OPAAL’s contribution to Re-Thinking Civil Society

We were delighted to be invited to participate in the University of York’s thought-provoking study on Rethinking Civil Society. Our trustee Eileen Rudden produced this excellent piece as our contribution.

Civil is a Latin word meaning communities or associations that are separate from the state and for those living in democracies, oversee activities not ruled by the state. These institutions include religious, cultural, economic and other activities. Importantly, some civil society organisations actively engage with governments and often have reactions that are both negative and positive to them.

Across the world are many challenges for civil society. With the development of social media its greater power can be used by organisations campaigning for issues such as civil liberties, better education, combating climate change and money to fight disease. There is, however, the risk that due to digital poverty or exclusion for older people, they are unable to participate and benefit from these developments in how civil societies operate.

To understand what it means to be a part of a civil society, we need to consider a broad range of definitions. Political theory, philosophy, literature, art history all have important roles in these deliberations. It is also necessary to enquire why there are wide disparities between societies in different cultural, historic, and economic contexts and why they experience quite different social and political solidarity. These differences can become impediments to belonging to a civil society – as can access to and ability to utilise modern technology.

Examples of some of the apparent impediments to being able to participate in a civil society are:

1. The inability to read. (To be illiterate.)

2. To be economically hindered. (Not to have enough money.)

3. The extent that the labour market integrates migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Civil society organisations can act to enhance integration into the labour market. They are also important in providing language support and social, legal, and administrative guidance. They often play a vital part in democratic decision making, both by informing public opinion and giving a platform for challenging state decisions. But how these advantages are currently delivered, through social media and other digitally based platforms, can be seen as only beneficial to the young, and can further alienate and exclude older people.

COVID-19 has highlighted the roles played by the organisations that make up civil societies and which have become essential as providers of support and services to those with complex needs during the pandemic. The impact of the pandemic on older people has been enormous: the requirement to isolate; the reduction in usage of cash; increased reliance on digital technology to access goods and services; the reduction in volunteer services provided by older people; and the difficulty in being “heard” amongst the hierarchy of needs.

This global crisis has emphasised the critical role that civil society organisations play and has brought into focus the strains that many groups of people are suffering as a result of the government’s decisions made before consultation and support from civil society. Perhaps the question should be “who does civil society include?”. It is time for provision to be made so that far more can take part in the debate.

Take a look at some of the other amazing contributions made on this exciting project: https://rethinkingcivilsociety.org/thoughts/.