Democratic Resilience: Civil Society Organisations as Key Actors.

Civil society and active citizenship are often idealized in their function for democracy. Many people and donors put some efforts into their dissemination. Now it is time to ask: What can civil society realistically do in order to respond to populism and authoritarian threats? Key actors for making a society under a democratic perspective resilient are strong, independent and democratic civil society organizations with a focus on a common good and on social impact.

Last edits: January 2024

Around the falling iron curtain in 1989 in the different parts of Europe citizens reflected on the concept of democracy and the relation between state and citizens. In Central Europe former opposition activists like Adam Michnik described in the mid 80ies how the idea of Civil Society as a bottom-up driven free practice of citizens became able to transform the dictatorship in a civil way. In this perspective it’s the citizens setting up a society. György Konrad gave even an utopia a voice: trans- and cross-national cooperation between societies on the basis of the shared cultural heritage and diversity consciousness, even across the system borders (Konrad, 1987).

In the Western parts of Europe such ideas emerged parallel, fueled by the idea of citizens participation as a corrigendum or as a needed enrichment of representative democracy, like expressed by Benjamin Barber (Barber, 1984) or Jürgen Habermas (Habermas, 1992). Social change can be shaped collaboratively in a bottom-up way, this was the message of Solidarnosc in Central Europe, and protest movements and new types of political parties in Western Europe.

At the same time, in the US, Robert Putnam published his influential book “Bowling Alone”, in which he argued for the importance of “social capital” for well-functioning democratic societies, acquired through the horizontal action of citizens. The idea is that ongoing social practice helps people build trust, which has a positive impact on their willingness to cooperate: “The greater the level of trust in a society, the greater the likelihood of cooperation” (Putnam, 2001, p. 28). The greater and more diverse the level of cooperation, the more enriched a society is in terms of such social capital and democratic practice. In a macro-climate of participatory experiments, socio-political deregulation and internationalisation, the concept of ‘civil society’, ‘new engagement’ or ‘active citizenship’ became popular among scholars and politicians. The larger expectation was to update modern societies, including the hope that new actors would emerge, not trapped in the ideological perspectives of the past, and that improved cooperation would take place across national and social borders. In this sense, the self-confident citizen was also perceived as a social innovator. Alain Touraine put it this way in the German DIE ZEIT in 1999 (Touraine, 1999):

The ‘top down’ oriented democracy has shaped a new sphere. After parties and trade unions as the most important representatives of social and workers’ rights now a new kind of political actor is developing: the civil society.”

Alain Touraine

At the European level, it was hoped that the old geopolitical thinking could also be replaced by civil society organisations acting beyond European borders. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in June 1992 or the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre in 2001 became romantic symbols of the potential of INGOs, international non-governmental organisations.

Basically, the term “civil society” is a description of a social sphere in which citizens are engaged in action, expression and organisation. This sphere of civic engagement is called the third sector in many functional concepts. The first sector is the state and the second is the economy. According to Putnam, those places and practices in the civic sphere that build bridges to other people and organisations in the form of cooperation, discussion and exchange (bridging social capital) are particularly relevant. This is how a democratic public is (self-)constituted. It is also important to develop bonds between people with common interests, values and beliefs (bonding social capital). In this way, civil society organisations (CSOs) with a shared identity can be constituted and the voice of the individuals involved strengthened.

Furthermore, the existence of free associations can only be powerful if they intend to have a social impact and contribute to a common good. Systemically speaking, if they learn cross-sectoral cooperation by trying to reach out to other citizens, feeding their ideas and positions into other social sectors, for example into politics or the economy as advocates, as hybrid organisations or as watchdogs.

Picking up on the idea of deliberation, civic structures aim to be sustained over time, but with the purpose of supporting citizens in their regular engagement. Thus, from this perspective individual active citizenship is a current expression of their agreement with democracy. From institutional perspective, engagement is a current picture of the state of civic culture.

1. Confidence in Democracy, Hope, Trust

Many of these assumptions are proving less than realistic in light of the anti-pluralist threats to civil society and politics since then. When a tank rolls down your street, critical voices are silenced (as the Turkish or Crimean examples have shown). When donors show no interest in a region, a CSO leader is often unable to replace them and keep the work going. When there are political protests, the old political players re-organise, but there is no game-changer from civil society strong enough to break the political deadlock. Or look at smaller cities in Europe, where many citizens are often sceptical about democracy, diversity or pluralism. Here, ‘good’ civil society remains in competition with organisations that are sceptical of democracy and pluralism.

All these different phenomena are related to trust. One issue is the need for trust in the survival of democracy and independent civic practice. Will there be solidarity from other citizens if I put myself in a risky situation? What would those NGO people do with my time, passion and money? How could an individual or a small group build a strong enough coalition to enter politics or change the system?

A key factor in democratic resilience is the trustworthiness of democrats and the ability of their organisations to create spaces where trust can be practised in a stable way. Víktor Òrban is trying to multiply this mistrust with his 2018 election campaign, which is linked to accusations against CSOs as “the people of speculators” serving the interests of international finance capital (Eötvös Károly Institute/Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2018).

Organisations and spaces with high levels of trust and inscribed high levels of trustworthiness seem to be more able to withstand authoritarian threats and also to stabilise and establish civil and democratic configurations. This can also be a rough description of democratic resilience.

That is easier said than done. The fundamental problem with generalised trust is that we are used to building trust through personal social relationships. But in a society, groups and communication are too large for all members to be able to do this: “In complex modern societies, individuals must constantly […] make decisions taking into account the future actions of strangers” (Fuchs et al., 2002, p. 429). Trust is increasingly disconnected from familiarity or intimacy. But how can trust be created without familiarity?

One answer is the creation of free civil society organisations. According to Offe, their great potential lies in helping individuals build positive relationships with those with whom they don’t have a direct relationship. Offe argues with the specific expectation of truth and morality:“Institutions generalize trust to the extent they commit their members to the virtue of truth-telling, and to the extent they monitor and effectively detect (intentional, as in lying, or unintentional, as in erring) violations of that norm” (Offe, 1999, p. 73). In their operations these trustworthy institutions are the trustee in both directions.

We trust our fellow citizens (or, for that matter, fellow human beings) due to the fact that we share a significant institutional space with a sufficiently strong meaning so as to make the overwhelming majority of ‘strangers’ among my fellow citizens worthy of being trusted because I anticipate them to be appreciative of that meaning.“

Offe, 1999, p. 75

Trust becomes possible when it is practised. If trust is a behaviour, this would mean that it is up to everyone to determine the level of trust in society. Active trust can be distinguished from hope or confidence. Hope is a passive attitude (Sztompka, 1999, p. 24), confidence has a more detailed and reasonable basis, but is still passive: “Because in the case of confidence one is not actively involved […] it is possible to blame disappointment on others, the regime, the system, the propaganda, the falsified information, the forged credentials, etc., but not on oneself”. Trust is an active attitude towards another person. Luhmann also distinguishes trust, hope and confidence by “whether the probability of a disappointment depends on our previous personal behaviour or not” (Luhmann, 2001, p. 149).

If trust is based on active behaviour, this implies that it can be learned or unlearned. Therefore, civil society organisations should be aware of how their work and culture enable trust to be built, for example through participation, shared decision-making, transparent exercise of power. A key challenge here seems to be awareness of social diversity and managing diversity in a constructive and inclusive way.

The current debates on populism, radicalisation and the decline of trust in society also show that lack of trust is not an individual problem. Trust has a societal dimension. One of the well-known paradoxes inherited from the idea of democracy is that building trust takes place in a dichotomy between trust and mistrust. Mistrust, too, can be seen as a kind of systemically required skill, a critical ability to assess the trustworthiness of social actors. “Trust appears in its essence as the result of successfully neglected mistrust, and this leads to a political-constitutional order in which trustworthiness is based on the multiplication of opportunities for effective mistrust” (Schmalz-Bruns, 2002, p. 11). Citizens and their organisations need to be aware of this need for balance and assess populist prescriptions with the same critical attitude as populists analyse the “too complex” policies of “the others”. Organisations can provide incentives for cooperation and a basic attitude of trust, and also encourage critical thinking. Only in this interplay can citizens learn to deal competently with the paradox of democracy.

Without any doubt populists gain support all over Europe. They neglect the necessity of balanced trust-mistrust mechanisms, in the same way how they neglect any ozther complexity.

“Populism has to do, first of all, with a re-personalization of politics. The trust in political leaders is based not upon the track record of kept and broken promises, not on their known programmatic proposals and the constraints and possibilities afforded to them by their office, but upon their personal style, appearance, and media skills, and their reputation[…]“

Offe, 1999, p. 77

The weakness of populists could be seen in their lack of adequate answers to the complexity of social problems and their inability to communicate with others in a dialogue. It seems that they replace this kind of systemic understanding with decisionist attitudes, hostile antagonistic mobilisation of citizens, or the introduction of an artificial permanent state of emergency with ongoing campaigns against internal and external enemies.

Populists simulate a relationship of trust with the people through re-personalisation. Democratic organisations build trust through democratic action.

In conclusion, NGOS can and should stand out as democratic and trustworthy alternatives. Practising openness, showing third parties how they practise a civil culture of living together. Peaceful in their methods, open to dialogue, but resolute in their civil courage to address important social issues in the sense of “robust civility”. A concept of civility that self-limits its users in terms of not infringing on the dignity and rights of others, but robust in terms of openness, tolerance for free expression, especially of less powerful and marginalised groups, and for art and comedy (Garton-Ash, 2016).

2. Civil Resilience

Citizen self-organisation plays a fundamental role in creating safe spaces and instigating democratic change. Governments change, but the ‘social glue’ and social capital generated by democratically-minded citizens persists. Their interactions help us to continuously shape a democratic civic culture. To achieve this, we need to examine the conditions for success in the collective empowerment of citizens through civil society organisations. And perhaps we need to go one step further. When social conditions deteriorate – a strong civil society should in theory be able to transform a non-peaceful, anti-pluralist, less democratic political practice and culture towards pluralism, democracy and the rule of law.

At the systemic level, the role of civil society actors is to co-create civic culture, understood as “attitudes towards the political system and its various parts, and attitudes towards the role of the self in the system” (cf. Almond & Verba, 1963, p. 12). Furthermore, according to Pye, civic culture can be seen as the whole mental map of a society according to citizenship: “[…] the traditions of a society, the spirit of its public institutions, the passions and collective reasoning of its citizens, and the style and operating codes of its leaders are not accidental products of historical experience, but fit together as part of a meaningful whole and constitute an intelligible web of relationships” (Pye & Verba, 1972, p. 7). Following this broad definition of civic culture, democratic resilience then describes the ability to influence, co-create and transform this inner landscape of society and its citizens, in particular to shape the way it manifests itself in procedures, styles or narratives.

On the basis of these previous considerations, civil resilience could be defined as a set of indicators to describe civic culture. From the perspective of individual organisations, civil resilience describes their ability to share and adopt democratic principles, as well as to respond to external changes in line with democratic intentions. From the perspective of individuals, democratic resilience is developed and acquired particularly in the network of civil society that surrounds them.

Civil resilience describes the ability of civil society to withstand challenges or threats and to transform the status quo. In particular, it expresses how an organisation contributes to civic culture by embracing and promoting democratic principles, attitudes and processes.

Civil refers to who is responsible for inducing and organizing social change in a civil society. And it refers to the way discussions, negotiations and disputes are conducted. CSOs contribute to fairness, peace, non-violence, participation and collective solution orientation.

Resilience describes the ability of civil society organisations to adapt to new conditions, to develop resilience and to renew themselves by rethinking their actions, catalysed by external impulses. It includes persistence, adaptability and the strength and will to change, driven by a clear theory of change (transformability).

“Resilience thinking incorporates the dynamic interplay of persistence, adaptibility, and transformability across multiple scales and multiople attractors in socio-ecologic systems”.

Folke et al., 2010, p. 7

3. Resistance, collaboration, dialogue

To what extent should civil society organisations be opposition, partners or even part of power? This question is hotly debated and the concrete answers have a strong influence on the social impact of an organisation. Often the mutual agreement is a critical distance to power. This is an expression of not wanting to exercise power over others, nor to make decisions over the heads and against the interests of others. This attitude quickly comes into conflict with the desire for more social impact, as this desire can also be interpreted as an attempt to gain power (“power” cannot be eradicated from “empowerment”). In addition, many organisations aim to address grievances for which political actors can be held accountable. However, change can only be brought about by different or changed political actors, who ideally also involve the people who belong to civil society organisations. Power and influence play a role at the level of objectives and are also aspects that structure the civil society actors’ landscape (although the landscape would look more horizontal than hierarchical).

It seems plausible that those with significant social, cultural and economic capital have power. Moreover, the idea of active citizenship includes the idea of empowerment. It is clear that the line between powerful and powerless is not necessarily the line between state and civil society or business and civil society. The difficult and not always transparent distribution of power is, from a democratic perspective, an obligation for civil society organisations to be transparent and fair and to use their power in a meaningful way. From this perspective, in a democratic society, parties also have an outreach to civil society, but as hybrid organisations with a civic membership culture, they feed the needs of citizens into the state and governance. Power and influence are necessary goals for civil society actors working for social change. Their legitimate exercise is bound by democratic principles.

Power and influence are necessary goals for civil society actors working for social change. Their legitimate exercise is bound by democratic principles.

On the other hand, innovation, alternatives and democratic social practices may grow better under conditions of fundamental opposition, especially when political power overforms civic culture and occupies civic spaces (Putnam cites the Italian example, Michnik the Polish) (Michnik, 2000).

In any case, civil disobedience is not a cheap option because it requires a clear moral basis. “It lives from the power of non-violence and its ability to justify itself in terms of content” (Kleger, 2013, p. 164). The “civility of disobedience” is bound to criteria such as the consideration of material and immaterial effects, orientation towards the goal, peacefulness and the relation of the action taken to the higher constitutional values (Kleger/Makswitat, 2014).

However, a fundamental opposition that has no idea of how to transform society and how to shape dialogue is likely to fall back into a state of self-closure, self-confidence and perhaps even hostile antagonism. It will lose touch with the outside world, with possible cooperation partners, and will be characterised more as a community of believers than a community of active citizens. Conversation with Polish opposition member and future foreign minister Władysław Bartoszewski:

“An inseparable element of democracy is the will to achieve understanding – in other words the willingness to engage in dialogue.“

Władysław Bartoszewski

4. Key aspects of democratic resilience

What are the relevant resilience capabilities of civil society organisations? The following overview is intended to name them – not conclusively – and to be understood as the beginning of a more systematic tracing of the conditions for the success of democratic resilience.

Institutional Trust

Organisations provide opportunities for people to trust others, and demonstrate this through their internal and external credibility. A network of trustworthy organisations constitutes a democratic public sphere. In this way, they mobilise and generate social trust by defining the balance: between cooperation and competition, between attracting people and building bridges between them and other social groups. These balances stabilise trust. In conclusion, they are indispensable beyond an attractive, inclusive and participatory organisational culture, transparency, sense of responsibility, and accountability.

Systems & Political Thinking

Social life involves the interaction of various spheres, logics, and organizations. Civil society organizations that have an impact on society as a whole should consider their mission, the bigger picture, and their contribution to it. Systems thinking also encompasses their ability to respond to fundamental challenges of democracy and the state with their internal and external behavior, such as upholding the rule of law, fighting corruption, promoting fairness and solidarity. Democratic resilience necessitates an understanding of political issues and their relation to fundamental ethical and normative concepts.

Robust Civility

Constructiveness, humanity, diversity and democratic rules are needed in good times and bad. Robust civility is the capacity for freedom of speech, for constructive and peaceful engagement in conflict, and the ability to establish – or re-establish – these as principles. Robust means the virtue of being able to practise tolerance and endure impositions; civility emphasises the need to enforce fair and democratic rules of free speech. This also includes concrete practices to prevent violations of free speech and actions to strengthen the ability of marginalised groups to speak (such as the ability to demonstrate, protest or engage in civil disobedience).

Inclusion and Democratisation

Representation and participation is encouraged through open experimental spaces for individual engagement. Inclusive organisations practise fair and participatory decision-making and leadership models and offer places where people can learn to have a say, shape and participate in decisions. They combine a diversity-conscious attitude with democratic internal standards such as responsiveness, transparency or clear and legitimised responsibility.

Collaborative Impact

Common spaces develop around common resources, an idea rooted in the concept of the commons. When organisations are able to see themselves as democratic commoners or as part of a collective effort, they have the chance to contribute to new common goods, increase their impact and develop collaborative skills. The ground for collective impact is shaped by open access, the search for win-win arrangements and the ability to organise as the backbone of collective efforts.


Especially in authoritarian environments, civil society organisations must communicate across media, acquire campaigning skills and combat negative campaigns and fake news. Communication comprises the sum of communication, behaviour and design. These shape internal and external relationships.

Although many organisations are not explicitly associated with political issues and democratic concerns, they should still be aware of them. For example, they should clearly state which theory of change they use to strive for democratic change in their environment and beyond.

Resilient organisations combine internal and external openness with a view of the bigger picture. Democratic resilience is a counter-strategy to what analyst Orysia Lutsevich diagnosed for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: “Citizens are largely isolated from public deliberation on important issues because local NGOs have very little ability to help them form opinions or influence the policies that affect them. Western-funded organisations are not anchored in society and create a kind of ‘NGOcracy'” (Lutsevich, 2013, p.4).

5. Empowerment and Learning

If civil resilience is the ability of citizens to proactive, self-responsible, democratic-minded collective action, it can on an individual level be considered as civic competence. The term competence refers to the combination of knowledge, skills, values and attitu-des in order to enable citizens for this action.

“Thus,‘democratic competence’ is the ability to mobilise and deploy relevant psychological resources (namely values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and/or understanding) in order to respond appropriately and effectively to the demands, challenges and opportunities presented by democratic situations.“

Council of Europe, 2018, p. 32

The starting point is empowerment of individual citizens for public expres-sion and for proactive, targeted engagement in CSOs: Empowerment is a process of promoting skills in public social activity, cooperative organization, and involvement in public deci-sion-making (Competendo). It deals with questions like:

  • How do they gain power?
  • How do they use power?
  • How do they shape power relations?
  • How can they influence socially relevant conversations and decisions?

Another fundamental aspect seems to be the ability to envision, to develop intellectual responses to challenges, to benefit from individual and collective creativity (Zimmermann, Leondieva, Gawinek-Dagrgargulia, 2018).CSOs could be places for envisioning and initiative, and offer such places to other citizens (Bacigalupo et al., 2016).

Organisations are informal or non-formal learning spaces. Following the authors of the Competences for a Democratic Culture, organizations are important supporting structures for democratic citizenship:

“While democratic institutions are not self-sustaining without an accompanying culture of democracy, it is also the case that democratic culture and intercultural dialogue are not self-sustaining in the absence of appropriately configured institutions.“

Council of Europe, 2018, p. 27

As a consequence, providers and educators of democracy-related and political education should focus more on the institutional foundations of active citizenship. For example, through cooperation with existing organisations, by working on the democratic competences of their target groups, or by supporting organisations in developing themselves as democratic learning spaces or expanding this aspect of their organisation. Ideally, organisations treat their members or internal parts as partners and not as clients.

Another aspect addressed by the authors of the Council of Europe is the increasing need to deal with social diversity: “In culturally diverse societies, a thriving democracy requires: a government and institutions that embrace the perspectives of the majority while recognising minority rights, a democratic culture, intercultural dialogue, respect for the dignity and rights of others, and institutions to protect the human rights and civil liberties of all.” (Council of Europe, p. 24f.) In this sense, NGOs are places of learning for diversity and places where social and cultural diversity is embraced in a way that leads to shared solutions and institutions. In addition, diversity and creativity are directly related – in order to tap into the creative potential inherent in diversity, diversity awareness must be developed and diversity must be recognised as a resource (Zimmermann, Leondieva, Gawinek-Dagargulia, 2018, p. 53).

This article is a modified version of the article “Democratic Resilience and Civic Education” published in: STEPS-Survival Toolkit for EDC in Post-factual Societies, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe.


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