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!
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)