Civil society and the unbound world

Civil society and the unbound world
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First Published: Mon, Aug 10 2009. 08 59 PM IST

Updated: Mon, Aug 10 2009. 08 59 PM IST
The challenges facing civil society organizations are greater in Russia than in many parts of the world, but the challenges facing civil society itself are similar everywhere. Indeed, around the world, there is a gap between civil society organizations and the societies they profess to serve.
Civil society organizations do not gain power through elections, but through reaching the broader world. In short, their goal is to build the civil society itself. They are most successful when people behave as part of civil society, without necessarily being civil society professionals.
That is, they will do such things as take care of their own health, engage in public discussions or blog about safety conditions in their community, rate school performance, organize weekly runs for dog owners, care for their local forests or rivers as part of their lives, not as part of their jobs.
One area of concern for civil society nowadays is the press and new media. In many places today, information is flowing more than ever, but mass media is under both political and financial pressure.
Most people think of a free press as a way to keep track of what governments are doing—and so it is. That is why, the press as a whole, and journalists in particular, are so frequently targeted by the authorities. When media outlets aren’t owned—and tamed—by the authorities or people close to them, they still face censorship, intimidation, tax audits, and occasionally assassination of journalists and editors.
In Russia, in particular, the situation is mixed. The government owns or controls most of the mass media—major newspapers and television stations—but there is an abundance of mostly marginalized publications and radio stations—to say nothing of the Internet—that retain a remarkable degree of independence. They are not directly censored, but operate under the knowledge they can be shut down on vague charges any moment. And, of course, most of them are struggling to survive financially.
Journalism’s other task is to reflect a society back to itself—to spread an accurate picture of its current situation, to share information about the activities of private citizens and businesses as they build civil society and to encourage citizens to become active in improving their own lives and developing their communities.
Consider healthcare. As far as I’m concerned, the ultimate goal should be not so much a better healthcare system, but a population so healthy that it hardly needs healthcare. Health problems may take you to a clinic, but many of them start with how you behave at home. This is the kind of thinking that was driving us at a recent healthcare working group gathered as part of the recent Civil Society Summit organized in Moscow by the Eurasia Foundation, the New Eurasia Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I was there as a Eurasia Foundation board member.
To tackle these problems, we came up with an “open data/information liquidity” project, which will advocate and organize the publication, exchange, aggregation and analysis of health data.
Of course, many of those statistics are not even collected, let alone published. But we can start with what exists, and by so doing create demand for the rest. In the US, people are already rating their own doctors at sites such as RateMDs.com and Vitals.com; third-party doctor and hospital ratings are available at HealthGrades.com.
Civil society groups don’t often run hospitals directly, but they can make their performance more transparent. So there are plans afoot to develop and distribute tools to analyse information, discover correlations (data mining) and display the results as graphs and charts.
But again, health really begins at home, so the real victory—and one where such civil society cooperation may have a more immediate impact—is to give people better data about themselves and what they should be doing for their own health.
One Russian friend told me, “Whenever we would read an article about the health dangers of butter, we would immediately run out and buy as much butter as we could find, because we knew it meant there would be a butter shortage”. Today, that type of information is called “healthy lifestyle promotion”. We are also working on a project along these lines, reaching out to target population with two-way new media such as the Internet and mobile phones, rather than harangues in newspapers and TV.
When I made those same points in a wrap-up to the summit as a whole, I was interrupted by none other than the US President Barack Obama, who was in Moscow for his summit with President Dmitry Medvedev, but also took the time to listen to our gathering of civil society organizations.
Obama apologized for arriving late and added: “That’s why we have civil society. You just can’t rely on politicians!”
©2009/Project Syndicate
Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, healthcare and private aviation and space travel.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 10 2009. 08 59 PM IST