For the times that are in it...

"The damage done by fifteen years of being kicked in the teeth cannot be overcome by a kick in the arse" - Mike Allen (1998) The Bitter Word, p. 302 

My first... conference paper!

Annual PSAI conference in Dublin on 20 October... well, it was not a big crowd, which maybe was just as well as I was a bit nervous going into it.

The paper was on the democratic case for CSO advocacy, and went something like this: lots of problems with democracy, one of the answers is more participation, but different ideas of what participation is, CSOs have important role in participation in general (picture),  but also specifically in contributing to decision making through their advocacy work (direct). Hence (participatory) democracy needs CSO advocacy.  I ended up by talking about criticisms of CSO advocacy and (hopefully) presenting the case for why they are wrong with reference to the '7 is too young' campaign. Here's the slides.

What was I nervous about? Two things I guess: (1) that my argument about why participatory democracy is 'better' than deliberative democracy, may not wash with the deliberative democracy people; and (2) that maybe I was just stating the obvious, and that this line of argument is all a bit unnecessary.

An interesting moment happend when another speaker got a question about whether the NGOs she was talking about (in rural India) did not in fact come with their own 'agendas'. After she answered the question (yes, sometimes they do but that not a universal problem), I came back with "actually I think this language of 'agendas' can be pretty unhelpful".  Yes, of course, there is a problem when people in NGOs are more concerned about their own power, the survival of the organisation or the maintenance of salary levels, than the issue that they are there to address, but that in fact often NGO 'agendas' are a good thing.  They are a good thing if they respond to need, are based on a core set of values, and are developed with communities. But sometimes they may well be imposing something from the outside, and while that needs to be done very carefully, it is not necessarily a bad thing for an organisation to bring agendas like environmentalism, equality, rights etc.  I referred to the example of the antislavery movement being in some cases 'outsider' driven... enlightened outsiders imposing agendas on an unsuspecting community.

Well, that was contested.  The response was that 'interests' coming in and imposing their agendas distorts participatory democracy, so I guess that takes care of point (2), or at least suggests a discussion worth exploring.

On the first point, my argument about the difference between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy was not picked up in the discussion, will have to find another place to see how that one goes down.

So despite the relatively small group I would say that overall I am happy I did it.  Good disciple in whittling down the two chapters into one short paper, certainly helped focus my thinking, and met some interesting people... that, and oh, an opportunity to do a snazzy circle diagram!

Just saying...

I felt the need to put the following statement from Irish Aid's policy on civil society, beside a sample service level agreement which the HSE signs with those organisations it funds.
"In the past, civil society organisations often established parallel service delivery functions and tried to replace the role of the state in service delivery. The limitations of this approach are now widely recognised and civil society organisations now tend to seek a complementary role in service delivery, combining service delivery with advocacy  for improved responses from the state" (Irish Aid, 2006: 8) 
"The organization must not use the grant for...(b) campaigns whose primary purpose is to obtain changes in the law or related government policies, or campaigns whose primary purpose is to persuade people to adopt a particular point of view on a question of public policy..." (Section 2.8, Standard Service Level Agreement between the HSE and civil society organisations)

That last post was not too positive.  I am in better form now!

On the edges...

The experience of being a working mother, Phd student and activist is one of being half there.  Involved but not really at the heart of things.

The obvious exemption is being a mother (there is no half way on that one).

I am director of The Advocacy initiative, but in 2.5 days a week I know I am not at every event I should be, don't read everything, and certainly am not as 'in the know' as someone working full time.  I am a PhD student but I can never throw myself into it completely, it is not possible to wallow in interesting side tracks or attend interesting but not really related conferences.  As an activist I do as much as I can, but it is never enough, I am not as involved as I would like to be.  As a primary school parent I go to the odd drinks evening, volunteer to work at the summer fair, and try to make the playground meet ups, but I am not one of the 'in-crowd'.

On many levels it does not sit well with me, I like being involved - I take on 'ownership', but I am having to accept that actually being a part of something is good, being involved is enough.

Its not about settling for being good enough (though sometimes of course it is!), it is about doing my best but finding the confidence to realise that my best does not have to include being in the thick of it.

Another world

"Another world is not only possible, she's on her way.  Maybe many of us won't be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen carefully, I can her her breathing."
Arundhati Roy (2003)

Giving a strong voice to all in society

This is the text of an editorial I published in The Examiner on 7 June 2013, with my Advocacy Initiative hat on.

ON the surface it may seem natural that any government would be hesitant to fund criticism of its own policies.

Is this not simply a case of an organisation in receipt of state funds biting the hand that feeds it? At first glance the argument against state funding of “political activity” such as social justice advocacy by civil society organisations seems pretty solid.

In the first instance, a government’s role is to use taxpayers’ money to fund public services. It is a waste of those resources to seek to buy its own judge and jury. Secondly, governments should create environments in which civil society organisations can thrive and contribute to democracy. Third, acceptance of state funding fatally wounds the independence that is fundamental to the mission of civil society organisations. NGOs are non-governmental and that includes funding. Many organisations, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, operate from this principle.

This begs the question why the State funds advocacy at all. Why has it defined an ambition to support the policy-making contribution of civil society in 2000? Why has it invested in building organisations that represent the voice of the poor? Does this boil down to a sinister strategy to silence criticism or buy political support?

Last year former justice minister Michael McDowell described the tactic as institutionalised dissent, when he argued that “former taoiseach Bertie Ahern brought dissent into the semi-state world by subsidising interest groups to beat their own drums from public money”.
But life is a bit messier than that. The arguments for the State funding social justice advocacy by civil society organisations are a response to the complexities of a mature modern democracy.

First, by involving those affected, better decisions are made. In the case of excluded communities this inclusion needs to be funded and supported. Those operating at the coalface of our most difficult social problems know more about their causes and solutions than any other actors.

Second, democracy is not something that happens once every five years. All kinds of groups seek to influence democratic decision-making every day. Big business and other sectoral interests invest heavily in influencing government, however, state funding can balance that power.

Finally at the core of our democracy is a robust election system. But by definition democracy involves winners and losers. When those losers are dis-proportionately communities who are disenfranchised, disillusioned and excluded, that is a failure of democracy. Social cohesion is achieved by supporting the participation of all voices.

The experience here may not be a perfect one, but we face long-term consequences if we undermine one fundamental pillar of that cohesion — a government’s commitment (financial and otherwise) to ensuring inclusive democratic debate and process at all stages of decision-making.

While some organisations can and do sustain their advocacy work without using direct state funding, others do not have the capacity or popularity to run successful mini-marathons or attract corporate or philanthropic investment. A principled, but simplistic stand against providing state funding would serve to exclude these voices.

It is both inevitable and desirable that there should be productive tensions between the state and the community and voluntary sector, particularly where they seek to influence and criticise each other. However, as Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan recently described it, “this may cause a degree of tribulation in a minister’s office [but] robust and evidence based criticism is something that I value and welcome”.

It is also proper the State should seek to regulate the behaviour of any organisation that attempts to exert influence on democratic decision-making processes, and the proposed regulation of lobbying is very welcome.

Money does have the potential to complicate any relationship and there are risks, but governments support advocacy because it makes for better democracy and more effective policy.

Government funding ensures that vulnerable communities and groups are at the policy-making table and not on the menu.

Transfer Assessment

30 May 2013
Sara, Maureen, John and Kathleen

I was not worried about the Transfer Assessment, it was clear that it was a formal process and I would not have been put forward for it if I was not ready.  The panel involved giving a short presentation of the research, I had a powerpoint set up from last year so I just needed to up date it.  It was useful to discuss some of the more methodological questions, and while I was nervous that the discussion might through up something I had not thought of, anything that did come up was either a useful elaboration or repetitive of comments I had heard in the past.

I wonder how much my thinking has changed and developed.  Its certainly has changed a bit and the reading process has been a useful one, but one question I have for myself is whether my thinking is flexible enough.  Undoubtedly I don't want to fall into the trap of not pinning down my question that seems to beset many PhD students, but neither to I want to shut down new ways of thinking about my question because of a fear of ending up in an unending process of question formulation.

My next stage is to start collecting data, I have a plan, we'll see how it goes...

Work in Phd. Phd into work.

I think I had thought about this Phd topic before I started working with The Advocacy Initiative, after all funding is an issue that is very hard to get away from, but I did intend it to be as complementary as possible.

That said, I don't really think there has been as much 'feeding in and feeding out' as I initially would have anticipated.  I think the Phd reading is beneficial to work (more so now than the first chapter), and maybe when it comes to field work I will be relieved to have The Advocacy Initiative stuff to draw on.  But so far I don't think the Phd is getting that much from the day job.  And if I am honest, the day job does at times undermine the Phd when it comes to time management.  It rarely happens that I postpone work stuff to meet a Phd deadline, but the other way around it a frequent enough occurrence.  Inevitable, but true.

The way I am trying to manage it at the moment, is that I ring fence my Thursday and Friday mornings as much as I possible can, and then every quarter or so I want to take a week off work and do some writing.

April is makeup month.  The only trick is to find a week clear of work commitments!

Chapter 1, Draft 1

I've sent it. Nervous.

So before I get any feedback on it here's what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of my first attempt at a theoretical chapter on participatory democracy.


  1. Its a bona fide piece of writing, written down into paragraphs with a structure!
  2. I think it ends up connecting to my research question, in other words it has the beginnings of an 'NGO test' which might be applicable - a lot of work to do on it though.
  3. I think I have a basic handle on the literature - it covers quite a broad range.
  4. I think it develops a case for participatory democracy which is on its way to standing up (I might be wrong about that!).
  5. It has references, and Zotero is pretty much functioning now (thanks to Charles and his style sheet).


  1. Perhaps too broad and definetly too long. Twice as long as it should be in fact. What am I going to send to the PhD roundtable in the next couple of weeks, the whole thing is much too long?
  2. Do I read too fast and not spend enough time digesting particular arguments.
  3. Not sure about the four fold structure - does the section on 'difference democrcy' really belong?  Or is it the same thing as participatory democracy?
  4. Is the first section on the democratic debates too basic and a bit waffly?
  5. I am nervous that I do not actually say very much about what participatory democracy would practically look like? Is this actually what I should be doing?
  6. I still think there are big gaps in my review of the literature - there is plenty more I could do ( perhaps revisit after I have looked at other areas?).

Next on the agenda: This, then civil society, advocacy and government funding.  Then Irish government policy on NGOs.

What does it do?

This is the published text of a letter I wrote to the Irish Times just before Christmas, and was published on 31 December.  It responds to a particular editorial, but reflects some of the reading I have been doing about associative democracy and the functions of nonprofit organisations.
Sir, – In reading your editorial, I am struck that you pose a challenge to the community and voluntary sector which is not without precedent. Within a broader awareness of the need for change and innovation, many have asked themselves about the possibilities of consolidation, and indeed there have been mergers within the sector.
However mergers are not necessarily the easiest or most effective solution. The first question is, what is the role of the sector and how best can it support those who experience poverty and exclusion? Only then can we consider structures and institutions. In my view the community and voluntary sector has three core roles.
First, the sector responds to new and emerging challenges, innovating in ways that the State is unable to. However innovative service delivery requires quality mainstream public services, which are unfortunately being dismantled by austerity.
Second, NGOs advocate for better mainstream provision of services, as well as other decisions that lead towards a more just and equal society. It is important that decision-makers and their institutions are supportive of and responsive to advocacy. The Advocacy Initiative report, referred to in your comment, raises serious concerns regarding the capacity of the sector and the State to maximise the benefit from advocacy.
Finally, the sector fosters citizen empowerment, critically engaging people and communities in the decisions that will impact their lives and futures. For this work to be more effective we need participative and inclusive democracy, a democracy in which many participate and feel they can make a difference. Voting levels in recent referendums suggest our democracy is not what it should be.
Some within the community and voluntary sector do all three of these things – providing services, advocating for change, and empowering citizens — others do one or two. Different responses to complex challenges.
So yes, the sector has a responsibility to deeply reflect on its future, and that should include the question of consolidation.
However the reality remains that there are immediate urgent reasons — such as the 4,000 phone calls received by the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Dublin in the last week – as well as broader societal challenges, that need to be placed front and centre of any debate on the future of the sector. – Yours, etc,
Anna Visser