Opinion
May 7, 2012

Engagement for our times

To say that over the past decade, the nature and forms of civic engagement in Canada and around the globe has been changing might be an understatement. Our recent federal election has shown that Canadians continue to be actively engaged in our political system, yet Canadians are also trying to effect change in diverse ways, outside the political process locally, nationally and beyond our borders. Surprisingly, there has been little holistic analysis of these new social engagement trends.

Last month, Canadians went to the polls to elect a new federal government and, in addition to discussions on the profoundly changed political landscape, there was a great deal of discussion on voter turnout, a purported key indicator of how engaged we are as citizens in our democracy. But engagement is about far more than voting in elections (as important as that is) – the nature and arenas of engagement in Canada are changing.

Over the past few decades we have seen the rise of social entrepreneurship challenging traditional philanthropy while concurrently the voluntary sector has become professionalized. This has been accompanied by an increased focus in the corporate sector on corporate social responsibility (CSR) motivated by a genuine desire to effect positive change as well as a conscious strategy to better reach target markets.

At the same time, there has been a rise in the number of registered charitable organizations in Canada from approximately 50,000 thirty years ago to over 85,000 today, indicating a proliferation of causes competing for Canadians’ attention. These developments are taking place while public debate is ensuing in Canada, and elsewhere, around the limits of state intervention in civic life (think of Phillip Blond, David Cameron and the U.K.’s Big Society). Does this fragmentation decrease our effectiveness in addressing the most pressing problems facing our society and the global community, or provide more opportunities to positively contribute?

Change is also being driven by new technologies including social media, as evidenced by the impact of Twitter, Facebook and blogs and their non-hierarchical approach to communication, which are now ubiquitous in the general culture and challenging the status quo. These have special meaning for governments – at all levels – as they grapple to keep up with the speed of communications and volume of feedback to knit together a social and policy consensus in an increasingly crowded “blogosphere.” And, of course, it is this social media that has driven the kinds of grassroots engagement that continues to play such a crucial role in the recent uprisings taking place in the Arab world. This environment creates an opportune moment to investigate the impact and efficacy of these new media as instruments for meaningful lasting social change, apart from their ability to mobilize individuals toward action.

A third recent trend has been the rise of a new generation of “mega-philanthropists,” from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with assets greater than the GDP of some countries, to the recent call by Gates and Warren Buffet for a range of ultra wealthy Americans to donate more than half of their fortunes to charity. While the generosity of these individuals is commendable, it also raises questions regarding who determines the allocation of resources and the role of government in determining how society’s resources should support various social needs; their largesse is, after all, supported through our tax system.

On a broader level this also raises questions of what the balance should be between the not-for-profit sector and governments in trying to address complex social and policy issues, from helping to create a civil society in a war-torn country to addressing climate change.

Some of these changes lead to key questions about the different modes of engagement – what drives the different approaches to affecting change – approaches that vary from advocacy to direct action, with corollary questions about how successful these are and why. Given the scope and scale of these actions, surprisingly little discourse exists on the pros and cons of these different models, in the media or in public policy circles (though these are key issues of discussion and debate within some non-governmental organizations).

Where that debate does spill over into the public discourse tends to be around the discussion of the rights of protest actions within our own country. From the 2001 anti-globalization protests in Quebec City to various forms of protests taken by environmental and other groups, to last summer’s G20, we have tested and debated – in the courts – the legal limits of our peaceful rights to protest.

Ironically, one of the key changes in the way we are trying to affect change is itself changing as we adapt to new technology and an increasingly atomized blogosphere where virtual communities can be created around a specific issue, at a moment’s notice. Wherever we look today, civic engagement – on the ground, in the street and in the virtual world – is reconfiguring the role of representative democracy and organized social life.

Have we sufficiently grasped the meaning of this shift? Is the change simply one in form rather than substance, taking place in the absence of a meaningful conversation about our societal goals or, is it more lasting and fundamental? In this context the time is ripe for a dialogue within Canada on what engagement means as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.

 

Gwen Burrows is president of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

 

SIDEBAR

The 80th Anniversary Couchiching Conference will examine the roots, meaning and form of engagement today. The Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs is Canada’s oldest public affairs forum and is a crucible of provocative questions, creative ideas and divergent discussions that are the product of the collective contributions of all who attend.

See www.couch.ca for the conference outline and speakers confirmed to date. You can follow the institute on Twitter@couchiching or join the Couchiching group at Facebook.

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