Laura Adams is an academician-turned-development professional focusing on democracy, civil society and participatory development. She was at Harvard University as Director of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus and has also taught at Princeton, Georgetown, and at universities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. As a development professional, she has worked at USAID, Freedom House, and currently works at Pact, an international development organization at work in nearly 40 countries, as the Director for Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning for the USAID-funded global civil society and media strengthening project CSM-STAND. Nepal Live Today spoke to her during her recent visit to Nepal to discuss issues related to democracy, civil society and freedom. Excerpts:
First of all, what brings you to Nepal?
I was invited to participate in a workshop to design efforts to work with youth, women and marginalized groups in different regions of Nepal, with the aim of doing a civil society and media development program over the next five years.
Why is it important to work on the issues of women, youth and marginalized groups?
There are a couple of different reasons. In Nepal’s case, the constitution has committed inclusion and, I think, a lot of people believe in that. And it’s not always easy to translate commitment into practice, as other priorities come up. If we try to make it a priority, maybe more people will be able to live up to the values that are in the constitution.
But there’s another reason, which is that in the area of economic development, exclusion means you’re hurting your economic development. And numerous studies have shown that countries that exclude women just inherently have a harder time developing economically, because they’re excluding half of the good ideas, half of the entrepreneurship, half of the creative energy.
‘Numerous studies have shown that countries that exclude women just inherently have a harder time developing economically, because they’re excluding half of the good ideas, half of the entrepreneurship, half of the creative energy.’
There are historical reasons for marginalization, and exclusion. But a country that is trying to advance economically needs to bring in talent from wherever they can find it. And then with youth, I think in many countries, it’s a problem with extremely large generations coming up that are the youth bulge, where the economic potential of youth, if properly developed in the future, will really pay off for the country. And sometimes, those things holding youth back are traditional age hierarchies, and sometimes it’s simply the lack of economic opportunity.
You have long been involved in research on issues such as civil society, marginalization and participatory development. In your opinion, what is civil society and is it not?
Well, there are three definitions of civil society, historically. One of them has to do with civility and politeness and people being able to disagree respectfully.
The other two things characterize civil society, historically, in the sort of philosophical traditions. One is associational life, which is the ability of people to come together and solve their own problems. Even in Europe, until the age of Enlightenment, people weren’t coming together because of monarchy and they were organized in traditional hierarchical groups. But with the rise of capitalism and the decline of monarchy in the revolutions in Europe and in America, new ways of connecting with other people were created. So the phenomena of charitable organizations, nonprofit organizations, and non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations is all about people coming together to try and solve their own problems, and not rely on the states to do it.
Finally, the broadest definition is the public sphere. Civil society [movement] is creating a public sphere, where people can bring different opinions, debate and dissent and then move on as a society.
But we see that the notion of the public sphere is being challenged. This idea of a free and open public sphere has, in many societies, never been the reality. There’s always marginalization and exclusion. So one aspect of this is to make the public sphere more pluralistic, and to have more voices and to realize that there are great advantages to having diverse perspectives in the public sphere. The other aspect, of course, is the problem of mass media and disinformation, and the spread of misinformation. And there is polarization of people based on media echo chambers.
In developing economies like Nepal, why do we need a strong civil society? How can a strong civil society ensure the rights of women, marginalized communities and youths?
Our perspective from the US side, at least, is that governments work better when they have partners, both in business and in civil society. There are a number of different institutions that can play a part. A healthy civil society can make the government better, and again, can solve problems that the government can’t solve. A strong civil society can advocate for better laws and policies that can help serve communities in ways that are more attuned to the community’s needs than what the government might propose.
We just believe that pluralism is a much stronger way forward. The more societies embrace pluralism, the easier it will be to promote economic development by inclusion of different groups, and the easier it will be to prevent conflict in the future. Civil society plays a vital role to ensure pluralism by bringing all voices including that of the marginalized.
But what if the civil society groups themselves get influenced by political power? Will it help to achieve the desired changes that we expect from civil society or will it erode the values of civil society?
I think it’s natural that politics and civil society often come together. I also think it’s natural for some civil society organizations to take a watchdog role. Being a partner to the government, naturally, that’s going to be influenced by politics. Even civil society groups who are watchdogs of one political party are with another political party and there’s all sorts of checks on power. If civil society organizations have different political persuasions, then they check on each other.
‘The best civil society organizations have this combination of people who are really good at making connections and building alliances at reaching out.’
I think that’s normal. But I think it’s also normal, at least in the United States, where people feel passionate about advocating for rights. They are going to clash with the government and be constantly pushing the government, or there are people who feel passionate about curtailing corruption. So they are passionate about having a watchdog function. And I think, historically, there are good watchdog functions within the government as well. So in that case, civil society might work together with the government’s watchdog mechanism. I think there are just too many ways to put politics and civil society together. At the same time, government and civil society also clash sometimes. So I don’t think separation is the reality anywhere.
In your view, what are the most important conditions to run a vibrant civil society?
Education and networks are really important. And being able to connect with other people, and having good speaking skills, persuasion skills, and research skills are equally important. If you have the resources and not have human capital, you will be ineffective. You can have all the passion and energy. But if you don’t know how to connect to other people, it’s not going to work. I think the best civil society organizations have this combination of people who are really good at making connections and building alliances at reaching out. Maybe they’re journalists, or lawyers, or human rights advocates, or communication specialists. I think people who know how to make connections and use their technical skills can do better.
How important is it to have global solidarity when it comes to the issue of promoting democracy and civic space?
I’m a believer in internationalism, pluralism and social movements. I’ve studied social movements for many years. Organizations and social movements have shown us how powerful it can be for ideas that go across borders. The Arab Spring, for example, not only triggered democratic movements in many countries, it also triggered authoritarian push back and authoritarian governments trying to prevent an Arab spring from happening in their country.
So I think ideas that can cross borders are very powerful. And as a sociologist, I’ve always done comparative studies and cross national studies. I think that civil society organizations and governments and social movements all have a lot to learn from each other. They should come together as the platforms are global, the technology is global. For instance, when indigenous people’s movements come together across borders, and share their experiences, it’s really powerful. I think this kind of solidarity is really important.
Any further words to our readers?
I look forward to seeing how this program goes. I look forward to coming back in three or four years to Nepal when we have a learning event to reflect on all of this.