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Series: Democracy & Sustainability

Nordic Civil Society: Schools of Democracy or Organised Individualism?

June 27, 2014 | by MI AH SCHØYEN and MARIANNE TAKLE

© Matt Erasmus via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Civil society organisations in the Nordic countries focus on interest group representation and recreational activities. Yet especially in Norway, civic engagement is increasingly motivated by individualistic goals. Does this affect the countries' quality of democracy?

From an international perspective, the Nordic countries boast high employment rates, low levels of poverty and inequality, and high living standards. They typically perform well in most international rankings. A combination of factors contributes to explaining these desirable outcomes. Distinctive features of this region located at the northern periphery of the European continent include: encompassing welfare states, a high degree of social trust, peaceful industrial relations and skilled and trustworthy state bureaucracies. Moreover, the Nordic countries are consistently ranked among the world’s most advanced liberal democracies.

In the Nordic region, government and governance are defined by democratic political institutions (most importantly the separation of powers and free and transparent elections), but they are also supported by democratic societies characterised by extensive civic involvement. This latter component is perhaps less known but adds strength to the Nordic democratic tradition. While, formally, it is the democratic political system that gives popular legitimacy to state activities like taxation and public spending, an active and healthy civil society sector (aka the ‘voluntary’ or ‘third’ sector) has become part and parcel of the Nordic societies. This is one of the keys to their political stability and high-quality democracy. The latest edition of the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) ranks Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway at the top in a comparison of democratic quality in 41 OECD and European Union countries.

What, then, characterises the Nordic way of organising its civil society sector, and how does this matter for the quality of democracy?

Based on similarities in the way civil society is organised in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, it is common to speak of a distinctly Nordic tradition. Civil society organisations have typically been characterised by:

  • a broad membership base,
  • voluntary work is linked to individual membership, and
  • a rule-based and democratic organisational structure.

A comparison with other advanced democracies illustrates what is special about this tradition. First, the region is characterised by a highly active civil society sector. This is primarily due to the prominent position of unpaid voluntary work. Around 60 per cent of an organisation’s income is generated by voluntary work, compared to around 35 per cent in many other European countries.

A second important trait is the emphasis on activities centred on ‘expressive’ functions (such as arts, culture and sports along with interest representation and advocacy work). In most other liberal democracies, civil society is more significant as a service provider (with regard to, for example, housing, health care and education).

A third factor distinguishing the Nordic tradition relates to the issue of legitimacy. In rule- and membership-based organisations, members’ individual participation legitimises the organisations’ activities and engagement in the public sphere. By contrast, in Continental European and Anglo-Saxon countries, an organisation’s legitimacy rests on its moral foundation and ability to turn particular ideals into practice. Individuals are often associated with non-profit organisations as donors or volunteers rather than as members.

Civil society organisations were crucial for the development of Norway’s democratic culture

Nordic democracies have evolved hand in hand with the development of an organised civil society. Historically, the notion of ‘people’s movements’ has been central. In Norway in particular, people’s movements have helped bring groups from the whole country into the public domain since the second half of the 19th century. The aim has been to achieve political clout and legitimacy through cross-class mobilisation and mass membership.

Many civil society organisations were established in the period of national liberation after 1814; for instance, the Norwegian Confederation of Sports (founded 1861), the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights (founded 1884) or the Norwegian Youth Society (founded 1896). The establishment of civil society organisations in Norway coincided with that of the first political parties. Thus, the two kinds of organisations – people’s movements and political parties – adopted the same organisational structure. This meant hierarchical and impersonal organisation, linking the local level to regional and national levels. People’s movements brought local interests to the attention of the national political centre. Moreover, they gave members training in practical democracy.

In Norway the hierarchical structures were strengthened after World War II. The civil society sector formed a parallel bureaucratic structure. At the same time, there were substantial overlapping zones between voluntary organisations and state administration, making for an orderly and transparent relationship between the two spheres. Civil society organisations have therefore been crucial in the development of a Norwegian democratic culture. They often acted as countercultures, putting grass-roots pressure on central government through democratic processes. The organisations were located outside the state administration and the private sphere, providing a channel of influence outside the party system and political elections.

Norwegian people’s movements have won several important battles bringing changes to official policy. Examples include issues such as language, resistance to alcohol, religious questions and opposition to EU membership in 1972 and 1994. Many civil society organisations founded in the 19th and early 20th century have large memberships even today. The Norwegian Confederation of Sports, for instance, has more than 2 million members and is Norway’s largest voluntary organisation. In its Norway report the SGI 2014 confirms that “the large organizations are professional in communicating their messages to politicians and to the public, and are sometimes able to set the political agenda.”

The legacy of the people’s movements has led to the expectation that civil society organisations function as ‘schools of democracy’ for their members. Similar to citizenship within a democratic political system, individual membership is associated with both rights and duties. All members may – according to established rules – express their preferences concerning the organisation’s internal actions and public opinions, stand for office and elect the organisation’s governing body. Regarding common duties, members are typically expected to perform voluntary work for the organisation. The organisation of fundraising events, campaigning for a specific cause, administrative tasks, or instructing children in sports, music or arts represent examples of such unpaid activities.

The combination of membership and voluntary work is instrumental for participants’ democratic rights and fosters a sense of collective ownership. The normative ideal is that the organisation’s actions should reflect members' preferences. The opportunity to speak and be heard is part of this ideal. Hence, civil society organisations have a positive impact on the overall quality of democracy in the Nordic countries.

Nordic way of organising civil society is changing

A little more than a decade into the 21st century, is it still relevant to speak of a distinctly Nordic tradition of civil society participation? The answer depends on how close up you look. A foreign observer would perhaps emphasise that people in the Nordic countries (particularly Norway and Sweden) are still highly willing to contribute to local communities and associations through voluntary work. A large proportion of the population is member of at least one organisation. Yet, a number of visible changes have taken place in recent years.

First, more people volunteer without taking out membership weakening the collective identity within the organisations. Instead, there is a trend towards ‘organised individualism’. Voluntary engagement relates to goals of self-realisation and personal development. There are fewer and weaker ties between participant and organisation.

Second, modern civil society organisations tend to be narrower in focus to cater for specific and well-defined interests. In the past, people’s movements mobilised broadly across social classes, thereby promoting social inclusion. Today the landscape of organisations is richer, making it difficult to locate the organisation best suited to one’s own interests. Especially individuals who already face social challenges in other ways (for example, low income groups, disabled or ethnic minorities) risk exclusion from civil society activities.

Finally, while participation through membership is declining, there has been a marked increase in monetary donations to the civil society sector. This suggests that Norway is moving towards the Anglo-Saxon charity tradition, where individuals are affiliated to organisations as donors rather than members.

It is important to monitor current changes to the content, scope and organisation of civil society engagement in the Nordic countries. Thinking of what the future might hold, the high quality of democracy is not under any immediate threat. Still, in the long run the developments are likely to have implications for how we describe the region’s democratic societies. The Nordic countries might be about to let go of the benefits of a civil society that is inclusive, transparent and educates the grass-roots in democratic practices and values.

Mi Ah Schøyen holds a PhD from the European University Institute and works as a researcher at NOVA Norwegian Social Research.

Marianne Takle holds a PhD in political science from the University of Oslo and works as a senior researcher in the research group for migration and transnationality at NOVA Norwegian Social Research.

This article is part of the series "Democracy & Sustainability", a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy: Several authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

"Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement: A Gain for Democracy?"

In 2014, we'll discuss whether the sustainable development paradigm has produced democratizing effects at local and national levels in countries around the world. The articles will look into civil society engagement as an evaluation criterion for the quality of democracy.

Part 5 of our series focuses on the social dimension of the sustainable development paradigm. Using the examples of Peru and the Nordic countries, Paul Maquet, Mi Ah Schøyen and Marianne Takle discuss the meaning of democratic participation and social inclusion and analyse how they are changing.

Planning sustainability? The dispute surrounding social participation in the discussions on development in Peru. Please find Paul Maquet's article here.

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