The Democratic Trinity Doctrine(1)

Mimi Larsson

Department of Ethnography and Social Anthropology, University of Aarhus; Research Fellow, Information Society and Trend Research Institute, Budapest
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002

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Table of contents


Some expectations to NGOs in Hungary
How civil society secures democracy
So what? Two Approaches to democratisation studies: NGOs or Civil Society


The paper deals with the hegemonic discourse on democracy that can be found in the development industry and in established democracies. This discourse demands a societal structure for democracies consisting of three separate spheres (the state, businesses and civil society), which stand in a fixed and predictable relation to each other.

I challenge this assumption both as a measure and a recipe for democracy, drawing on data collected during fieldwork with Hungarian NGOs. Also I will suggest other ways to investigate and measure democratic development.

When studying democracy or democratisation, one works with some definition of democracy, whether it is in an explicit or an implicit, sub-conscious way. We can only study something if we have at least an idea of what that is, or what we expect it to be. Unfortunately, democracy is a difficult concept to grasp, because though most people certainly believe they know what it is, we have an infinite number of interpretations and empirical examples of democracy as governmental system. Many of us have turned to the concept of civil society, either in curiousity or in search of a useful analytic concept for some of the new structures and movements we observe in new and developing democracies. However, we have also all experienced the problems and great frustrations this equally fluid concept brings into our studies. Is it a definable object of study? How so? Is it a useful analytic tool? Can civil society be measured? One thing is sure; studying democratisation almost surely involves consideration of the meaning and use of civil society as a concept.

In the world of support for developing countries (whether it be 'developing' in a traditional sense or in the 'transitional', developing from socialism towards democracy, sense), international donors prefer not to define democracy or democratisation too specifically. However, agendas and mission statements draw up quite a clear picture of their understanding of the democratisation process - how it works and what 'implementations' are needed to make it work.

In my own fieldwork I encountered such a discourse, in which emphasis was on the tripartite society, where the state, the business and the civil sector constitute the cornerstones of a well functioning, equalising democracy. The logic is that the civil sector, made up primarily of NGOs, will monitor the state and provide services that guarantee equality among citizens (i.e. fill in the social 'gaps' left by the state). Also they will foster 'political activity', thereby securing the basis for the representative democracy. Media belong to this sector because of their expected qualities as 'watchdogs' for the public and forums for public debate. The business sector secures the financial ground for the state and the civil sector alike and, through lobbying, business actors guide and limit state power in the common interest of society. The role of the state is to secure a reliable legal framework, some social services (pension, health care, etc), an educational system and infrastructure (whether it be roads, telecommunications or any other kind).

The key component in this model is civil society, because it is seen as a new invention, in former socialist states and other 'new democracies'. Thus, much international support has been directed at "enhancing civil society" in order to "strengthen democracy"(2). This has translated into massive financial support for NGOs, to the extent that 'civil society' in Hungary, for example, is now popularly understood as the sum of NGOs. Likewise, many studies of the change to democratic systems (including my own) have departed from and focused on the establishment and activities of NGOs.

In the following I want to present some of the expectations to Hungarian NGOs that I found during my own fieldwork and question the assumptions thus made. After that I want to suggest two approaches to democratisation studies, which I believe may constitute useful models for further investigation.

Some expectations to NGOs in Hungary

It lies within the definition of an NGO that it should be independent from state bodies. In Hungary NGOs are generally called Non-profits, thereby underlining the understanding that they also cannot be profit-oriented businesses. These divisions are important for the following reasons: In Hungary, as in many other countries, economic activities are considered to take place within three sectors: the state, the private business, and the civil sector. This division, which may work as an economic and legal division, is also used to conceptualise the broader systemic, political structures. As I suggested in the beginning of this paper, there is a strong tendency within political philosophy to conceptualise democracies within this tripartite model. As I have also mentioned, there is a similar tendency for international donors to see NGOs as primary civil society actors.

Because NGOs are seen as civil society actors, they are expected to live up to assumptions about civil society and the relationship between the state, business and civil sector. Thus, for example, NGOs are supposed to be independent and separated from state bodies (because only in this way can they perform effective control of the governing powers). One of my informants worked for an organisation, which I shall call The Foundation, which distributed funds from USAID to small, rural, NGOs. He informed me:

"… we typically pay attention that such associations and foundations, which are established by local municipalities do not receive support, since our basic goal is to support the civil organisations, which were built from below…"(3). It can, however, be a difficult task in a village with less than 1000 inhabitants; often there are simply not enough individuals to choose from. Those, who do tend to get involved with NGOs, are likely to already be involved in the local government. Of course, the people at the Foundation also knew this and would take it into consideration in the case of very small settlements, but according to the logic of the system an NGO established by members of the local municipal council is not eligible for support.

What makes the above-mentioned problem interesting is the simultaneous expectation that NGOs carry out services, which the (local) government cannot afford. I asked the one American representative of the Foundation, why it is so important, that NGOs have a good relationship to governmental bodies:

A: "Because the Hungarian government cannot support all of the activities that it used to in the past […]…"

Q: " So this is why there has to be a relationship between the government and the organizations?"

A: "Well, that's why we think that nonprofits are the key to improving things in Hungary. If we can get them to a point where they are professional organizations that work professionally in a transparent way, providing quality services […]…"(4)

In order for NGOs to do this, they are encouraged (and need) to build partnerships with local governments, as a way of financing their activities. Whether the partnership is based on rent-free use of municipality premises, service contracts or donation of labour (which are all common in rural settlements) these all cause a relation of dependency to emerge between the NGO and the local municipality. For many NGOs, this seriously jeopardises their monitoring potential. Then again, many NGOs do not really care for this role in the first place. This has do, in part, with the fact that many NGOs are just interested in carrying out 'social services', which are services directed at children, elderly, disabled people or other vulnerable groups. Whereas there are some strong interest organisations that advocate such groups, there is a tendency for smaller NGOs to pursue a highly "de-politicised" approach to such problems. This means, that problems are addressed in general terms and there is little confrontation of the local or national government. Instead, problems are solved for the individual (group) on the local level, but the overall structures of inequality remain unchallenged. Of course, this is not merely a problem of dependency, but equally a result of half a century's impossibility of political critique and a resulting culture of solving problems through acts of pragmatic "system circumvention". In any case, many NGOs do not actively provide forums for public discussion or civil control, which are two things commonly associated with civil society. What these NGOs do provide are, often splendid, social services, thereby often efficiently "filling the gaps" left between the promises of the constitution and the insufficiency of the state budget.

The above quote also reveals another common expectation that NGOs are often faced with when they receive international support, namely that they should be 'professional'. Being 'professional' is associated with skills for proper bookkeeping, effective PR and fundraising activities. However, professionalism does not mean that NGOs should (or could) employ professionals for the different positions. On the contrary, there is a general expectancy that volunteer and low paid NGO staff can obtain skills, which professionals in the private business sphere are paid high wages for. (Interestingly, I also found that the term 'professional' translated into a broad ideal for NGO representatives; in this ideal a truly 'professional' person was not expected to be corrupt or nepotistic and thus, many informants used the term as a compliment for other NGO-representatives or as an ideal for their own work. A truly professional NGO leader would not allow herself to be exploited or pressured by the municipality but would rather pursue alternative support through skillful writing of grant proposals and negotiation with businesses and other potential supporters. However, this probably belongs in a different discussion).

Another assumption, which I witnessed during my fieldwork, is that the key to solve NGOs' financial problems and dependency on governmental bodies is to develop ties with the business sector. This model for NGO financing comes from a conception that business donations account for a great part of American and Western European NGOs' financing(5). However, some circumstances about Hungarian society make the model rather unlikely to succeed. First of all, the business sector in Hungary generally does not offer significant support to NGOs. Several reasons can be suggested for this, one being that businesses (especially smaller, rural ones) do not produce very large profits. Another reason, suggested by one informant, could be that those businesses that do make large profits are mostly foreign and do not have an interest in supporting NGOs in Hungary. Also a lack of trust is suspected to influence the situation as NGOs have been used much as covers for tax evasion. Finally, the Hungarian history of NGO-establishment is so different from that of, say, America. To mention one detail, the NGO activists in Hungary cannot be compared with those female members of the upper-middle class in America who started charity organisations for the benefit of the poor app.100 years ago. These women were married to men involved in significant economic activities and thus the tradition for businesses' support of NGOs was established. In Hungary, though most NGO-activists are women, they are not typically married to successful businessmen.

As I have demonstrated, there are several assumptions about the roles and possibilities of Hungarian NGOs, which are based on conditions very different from those they are actually faced with. Accordingly, NGOs have problems living up to expectations. Furthermore, some expectations are directly opposed to eachother to begin with, which may be explained by their base in different concepts of civil society and its relation to democracy and the national economy. Thus we can identify two main trends; in the first, NGOs are seen as the key to better conditions, better social services and faster local development, because they can fill in the gaps left by the state. In the second view, emphasis is on the NGOs' formal independence of state bodies and the power this gives them to control and question state bodies (thus limiting the powers of government).

The main point is, that the way democratic systems are popularly viewed as societies with three independent (though inter-related) spheres; namely, the state, the business and the civil sphere and the simultaneous association of NGOs with the civil sphere and civil society, obscures the actual role that many NGOs play economically and socially, and at the same time ascribes those NGOs with characteristics and effects they do not (intend to) have. NGOs are at one and the same time expected to be 'professional service-providers', working not for profits but for the common good, simply (it seems) because this makes them eligible for donor support and volunteer labour, while, at the same time, NGOs are expected to create the basis for the establishment of a civil society, which will, in turn, secure true democracy.

How civil society secures democracy

I will now shortly turn to some literature, to try and define those characteristics and 'effects' that are ascribed to civil society and which make it instrumental for the consolidation of democracy.

Robert D. Putnam talks about civic communities, which he defines more or less as formal associations and foundations and he acsribes them such important effects for the functioning of Democracy, that we cannot ignore this approach. Basing his arguments on indicators of 'civic-ness'(6) on the one hand and on Tocqeville's and other writings on the other, he concludes, that:

"participation in civic organizations inculcates skills of cooperation as well as a sense of shared responsibility for collective endeavors."(7)

If this is indeed so, I believe it is important that we study this process in detail. I am not convinced, though, that all NGOs have this effect, especially not those, which merely provide services.

This is not to say that all NGOs in Hungary are social service providers, with no broad member or activist basis and no active participation by the community. There are, of course, NGOs that have the qualitites for such 'citizen education'. This was even an explicit goal for some of the people involved in NGOs, that I talked to. The leader of a community center thus explained to me that:

"The democracy has to be taught somewhere. We had a communist regime and now, hopefully, there is democracy, the people have to learn to take advantage of the possibilities, their own possibilities."(8)

Civil society is sometimes (for example in the world of international support) referred to as a section of society, but reading such authors as John Keane and Adam Seligman it seems civil society is a certain kind of society. In this sense the concept is tightly connected to (especially western) European modernisation and the establishment of civil rights, together with institutions, which could secure such rights. One of these 'institutions' is what Habermas calls the public sphere, and this notion is generally (and romantically) traced back to those societies of people, who met in coffee houses in Vienna and other European metropoles in the 19th century to discuss matters of public interest and importance in an open an civilized way. The essence of this idea, is that issues be discussed and decided in a public forum through the use of rational argument, that any member of society can voice her opinion, and that all topics, formerly monopolised by the state (and church) can be discussed(9). This is the ideologic background for the call for civil society from the masses in Eastern Europe (first and foremost from Solidarity in Poland) in the 1980's. It was a cry to create such spaces in society and thus give the right and to selfdetermination and political participation back to the people.

Today, though, the public sphere is not found primarily in the coffee houses and it may not play quite the same role anymore. In the course of time the alleged functions of such societies have been identified in other forums, not least in mass media such as the press. Also NGOs are seen as facilitators for the public sphere, which will make 'civil societies' of those formerly socialist ones. Especially, NGOs are imagined to enhance citizen participation, public debate, political critique, and raise in people that public consciousness, the loyalty and trust, which is needed for a democracy to function(10). Again, it is not my intention too deny that NGOs can indeed be important spaces for public discussion. Many of the ones I worked with publish local news-papers, organise election meetings or discussions of the municipalitity's plans for the community, and some establish 'children municipalities' as a way of teaching children about democratic procedure and encourage them to take responsibility for their own and the community's future. Also, as Putnam points out, just being a member of a sportsclub creates a sense of community and inter-dependency, which should have some socializing effect to the need for respect for other peoples' rigts and needs over one's own (we would be fools, though, to forget that such clubs were ever-present in socialist times as well).

So what? Two Approaches to democratisation studies: NGOs or Civil Society

I believe it is clear that we cannot, as researchers accept a definition of civil society in which this merely means NGOs. 'NGOs' simply constitute too vast a category and attaching it with the concept of civil society is meaningless and only creates confusion, because of the many diverse associations and connotations this term invokes. This does not mean, however, that NGOs are not important sites for democratisation or civil society studies. As I have already pointed out, a great part of the NGOs in Hungary play a central role in the consolidation of the new system, called democracy.

One reason NGOs are important sites for democratisation studies, is that we are witnessing a restructuring of the system for social services provision, into one in which NGOs take on the responsibility to carry out social services and secure equality, partly as contractors for governmental bodies and partly on other funding. When asked how giving assistance to disadvantaged groups of people makes society more democratic, representatives of the NGOs in question would typically deliver an argument according to which democracy means equality: to reach equality the disadvantaged groups must be helped in order for them to reach the same "level" as other citizens and this will secure them the same opportunities. As I have argued elsewhere(11), this system may actually produce greater inequality in the access to social services; Whether or not a disabled child has access to the proper support is highly fortuitous. It depends not only on a given NGO's abilities to write grant applications, donors' desires to support their activities but also on the existence of qualified professionals in the local area who will initiate and participate in such an NGO in the first place. In any case, we have to consider these service-providing NGOs as important economic and social institutions in the consolidation of the Hungarian democratic system. What I am suggesting, is an attempt to consider such organisations apart from other kinds of NGOs.

The problem with studying civil society is that the term is so controversial that it is hard to know, what we are talking about. Therefore, it is tempting to discard the term altogether, since it seems to create more confusion than clarity. However, there are some processes, traditionally placed analytically within civil society, which are important and interesting to look at when studying democratisation. These are the functions that lie in the notion of the 'public sphere', as I described them earlier. Inasmuch as we believe that these activities and skills are either conditions for or effects of democracy (or both), we need to look for their emergence in transition countries.

The tendency to see NGOs as the key to civil society may be explained by the great lobbying power NGOs have had in western countries combined with the idea of New Social Movements' ability to mobilize people in South America. But we need to look for the qualities of the public sphere or civil society in other places as well. Public participation, debate, mobilization, informed critique, alternative political and philosophical views are not created only within the frames of NGOs. So we must look at any such sphere, stage, string of actions, which fulfill this role.

For now, I only want to put forward a couple of careful suggestions as to where we may start looking for it in the Hungarian society: Currently, there is a wave of small Hungarian movie-productions in which important societal questions are commented on, for example, the role and stigmatization of Romas, sexuality and gender roles and the relationship to and ideas about the West and western people(12). Another important space for critique and discussion of societal issues is the radio. There are several shows, which take up current issues for debate, often with the possibility for people to phone in their own comments. Some discussion even takes places in forums on the Internet, though it is still a small minority, who engages in this kind of activity. We may also look at the system of "local self-government" as the municipalities are called and see whether local elections and government are creating more political participation and how.

Definitely, something is changing in Hungary. The electoral turnout for the first round of parliamentary elections in April 2002 was just around 70%, which is the highest since the system change. Also, people are much more open and aware about their political preferences than they were just a couple of years ago(13). This development is part of what we want to be able to explain throuh our studies of democratisation.


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1. I discuss several of the same of the points in the research paper "Civil Society in a New Democracy - a Look at Local Realities" (2001), which will soon be available on Both are based on fieldwork carried out in 2000 and research for the Hungarian Telecottage Association and the Danish research project Demstar in 2001.

2. These are the actual formulations used by the organisation, where I completed the fieldwork, in their presentation material.

3. In Hungarian: " … [the organisation] tipikusan figyel arra, hogy ezek az olyan egyesületek, ésolyan alapítványok melyek az önkormányzat által jöttek létre azok ne kapjanak támogatást, hiszen alapveto célunk az, hogy a civil szervezeteket támogassuk, amik alulról építkeznek …". My translation. Interview was carried out on 26th of June, 2000.

4. The Interview was carried out on June 15th, 2000.

5. Though, in Denmark, for instance, this is certainly not the case.

6. Putnam measures 'civic-ness' by the following four indicators: 1, number of civic associations. 2, Newspaper readership. 3, electoral turnout and 4, the degree of preference voting.

7. Putnam (1993), page 90.

8. In Hungarian: "A demokráciát kell megtanítani valahol. Azt, hogy nálunk kommunista rezsim volt, most remélhetőleg demokrácia van, meg kell tanulniuk az embereknek élni a lehetőségeikkel, a saját lehetőségeikkel".

9. See Calhoun (ed) (1992) for discusions of Habermas' notion of the public sphere.

10. See, for example Seligman (1992) for reflections on the importance of trust for the idea of civil society.

11. Larsson (2001).

12. These themes are treated, for example, in the movies "Kísértések" (in English: "Temptations") and "Valami Amerika" (in English "Some America").

13. A very visual sign of this is the wearing of a rosette in the colours of the Hungarian flag. This is normally worn on a national holiday, but the governing party Fidesz encouraged its supporters to wear it all through the elections and many do.