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The Big Answer

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The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up

a book by Don Eberly

(our site's book review)

Eberly's Book Is the Go-to Bible for International Aid

Even though in the early 1980s, government aid accounted for 70% of all American outflows, today 85% of all help comes from private individuals, businesses, religious congregations, universities, and immigrant communities. If aid policy in the 20th century relied on top-down bureaucracy engaged in social engineering, the 21st century is shaping up as an era in which citizens, social entrepreneurs, and volunteers link up to solve problems everywhere. The spirit of volunteerism and the mobilization of civil society, once thought unique to America, are spreading throughout the world, and helping to alleviate some of the world's worst problems.

Don Eberly is America's leading thinker about civil society (see Building a Community of Citizens: Civil Society in the 21st Century). This brilliant, timely book is a one-of-a-kind guidebook for a people-first globalization, destined to be the go-to Bible for international aid regardless of who provides it. He says "America's reputation abroad, we are reminded again and again by ubiquitous polling, is at an all-time low, and many citizens are embarrassed and frustrated by the fact that a country so closely identified with the highest democratic ideals could be so unpopular in so many places." And our aid policies are not helping matters. The work of building and maintaining the democratic state must involve citizens operating in their own communities—from the bottom up, not top-down social engineering from bureaucracies.

Genuine Democracy Is Not Possible without Democratic Citizens

In both Eberly's and our opinion, "the rush to democratize strikes many as misguided. Democracy cannot be instituted simply by forcing elections on nations that remain in a state of underdevelopment. Moving hastily to achieve the symbolically satisfying results of an election can even produce 'illiberal' outcomes. Genuine democracy is not possible without democratic citizens. Moreover, the experience of recent years suggests that the U.S government is ill positioned to push democracy on a reluctant world. The institutions and values of democracy are most likely to advance through the continued outflow of assets from the American private sector, including business, civic, philanthropic, academic, and faith-based organizations."

America's and other nation's civil society is empowered by voluntary associations
America's and other nation's civil society is empowered by voluntary associations

America's and Other Nation's Civil Society Is Empowered by Voluntary Associations

[there's] "an explosive growth of nonprofits, NGOs, and thousands of civic, professional, and advocacy-oriented groups, many of them tied together by technology and promoting democratic values worldwide. This movement, I argue, is America's most consequential export, and it presents the greatest hope for economic and political progress. The tendency to join or create voluntary associations, which Alexis de Tocqueville identified as distinctive to America and a key to its democratic success, is now also a trend on every continent, thanks to the increasing connectedness of the world. This global web of civil society is providing the world's destitute in remote locations with information and knowledge relevant to improving their condition."

He says that all over the earth there are national and international NGOs at work fighting poverty and promoting enterprise and democratization. All over the earth there is also significant bottom-up growth in indigenous, local, volunteer-based civil society. All this creates the opportunity to forge problem-solving partnerships anywhere in the world and for innovation to demonstrate why it is vastly more important than social engineering spending driven by good intentions or the politicians' need to look busy and look as if they're actually addressing problems.

We cannot have a strong nation grounded in democratic values without healthy, dynamic nongovernmental institutions. "National health and strength grow from the vitality of basic institutions such as family, neighborhood, congregation, and civic association," he says.

America's civil society and our talent for self-renewal were empowered by voluntary associations and private charities throughout our history. Many of our enduring civic institutions came about from the work of citizen leaders. Many American social movements, such as justice for women and children, reducing substance abuse, increasing literacy, and eliminating poverty and suffering, were led not by politicians but by social entrepreneurs and community organizers. The reformist movements of civic America historically have not originated from top-down government efforts but from the bottom-up grass roots efforts.

Many American social movements, such as justice for women and children, reducing substance abuse, increasing literacy, and eliminating poverty and suffering, were NOT led by politicians but by social entrepreneurs and community organizers
Many American social movements, such as justice for women and children, reducing substance abuse, increasing literacy, and eliminating poverty and suffering, were NOT led by politicians but by social entrepreneurs and community organizers

As Alexis de Tocqueville said in the early 1800s, voluntary associations that citizens join are the true building blocks of society.

Central planning, a.k.a. social engineering, has been mostly discredited as a way to build effective democratic societies. The state has proven itself to be bad at solving social problems. Social engineering is mostly counterproductive, and sometimes destructive. Eberly says to mostly use grassroots approaches like scaling down dependency-producing government programs while building up alternative private institutions and strengthening communities and families—and we agree.

The United States is enjoying increased civic activism on college campuses and among America's young, who are less likely to view political action as worth the effort, but more likely to favor local social enterprise. Eberly says that almost ninety million Americans volunteer, averaging more than four hours a week.

American Communities Are in Decline

Eberly does not address community decline in the U.S. But we will—it's too important to gloss over: Before we cheer our countrymen's efforts—as volunteers, as stated above—and conclude that communities are thriving in America, we need to open our eyes to the reality staring us in the face: Our pseudo-communities have degenerated to the degree that kids are not allowed to walk to school or playdates because most social trust is a memory, and parents act as security guards as well as chauffeurs. So this means we now have mere geographical communities—as opposed to social, civil communities—and as a booby prize we also have lots of superficial, commitment-free cybercommunities which expose members to merciless quantities of unwanted ads and few if any critically needed social bonds.

Parents act as security guards as well as chauffeurs because most social trust is a memory
Parents act as security guards as well as chauffeurs because most social trust is a memory

But our isolated families feel little trust for either the IRL or cyber form of social networking, so "all roads really do lead to lawyers, courts, and social agencies," in spite of our country's web of voluntary associations, whose strands are obviously too sparse and weak to create a civic culture citizens can trust, and social trust is a prerequisite for healthy community, according to the author. Eberly's assurances, in The Rise of Global Civil Society, that civic culture and voluntary associations are on the rise, isn't supported by the facts he presents. Even if "ninety million Americans now volunteer, averaging more than four hours per week," how does this compare to our American past? It isn't stated nor is anyone likely to know, although Alexis de Tocqueville seemed to perceive that the United States was awash with voluntary associations in the early 1800s.

Eberly uses phrases like "There are indications of renewed interest" and "some are predicting a significant increase" and "several leading forecasters point to signs" and "there are also signs" in his hopeful rhetoric about United States civic health. But when he says "some data seem to support a pessimistic outlook for civic health in America," this is the only time he mentions data, a.k.a. evidence. He's unlikely to rouse readers' confidence in civic rebirth with such flaccid support of his theme. Although this book is a literary milestone in the area of international aid, and it makes an unprecedentedly brilliant case for empowering civil society in problem nations, his overview of the health of American communities may be wishful thinking. For a better researched view of American community decline, there is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Bowling Alone
Bowling Alone

Putnam's Bowling Alone

Robert D. Putnam did the needed research for Bowling Alone, and his assessment is not pretty: community really is declining at the turn of the century (2000). Ironically, although Eberly mentions Bowling Alone, he still presented rosy American community assessments contradicted by Putnam's comprehensive research. This seemed a bit disingenuous to us.

Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans’ changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures—whether they be PTAs, bowling leagues, churches, or political parties—have disintegrated. Until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had ever so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our physical and civic health. Americans no longer value civic engagement or regard relationships with neighbors as worthwhile. See Why Do We Need Communities?.

Neighbors are nearby people we are stuck with, not friends we have chosen—but MCs change all that
Neighbors are nearby people we are stuck with, not friends we have chosen—but MCs change all that

Adults and kids often opt for their TVs—distant friends are inconvenient
Adults and kids often opt for their TVs—distant friends are inconvenient

The greatest casualty of our declining communities is in social capital, says Putnam, a term which describes the emotional and practical benefits of personal relationship. Too much TV is one main culprit and women joining the workforce and thereby having less time for civic involvement is another, although he of course is not faulting them in any way. But Americans have become spectators of life rather than participants, through TV vicariousness (or online social network addiction where we talk about the entertainments we've seen, sports, food, technology, actors and politics, all of which further separates us from any IRL community involvement). Putnam's intensive research tells us that:

  1. While nominal membership in community organizations has not actually fallen much at all, active involvement—measured by number of meetings attended and leadership positions held—has fallen markedly.
  2. The number of voluntary organizations has grown a bit, but many of these are essentially lobbying and direct-mail operations
  3. Many Americans continue to claim that they are "members" of various organizations, but most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations—they've stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers and stopped going to meetings
  4. Moreover, his new data suggest that informal gatherings have become less common too; in the late 70's, for instance, the average American entertained friends at home about 14 times a year; now it's more like 8
  5. Much of our volunteering work is one-on-one tutoring, for example—and so it doesn't create the multiple ties among people that Putnam calls ''social capital,'' and support groups and the like are certainly proliferating, but they foster self-involvement as much as they do community participation
  6. Church attendance is down, except among fundamentalists
  7. We Americans need to reconnect with one another, says Putnam

Faith-based organizations perform better social services than the government
Faith-based organizations perform better social services than the government

Religion to the Rescue

George W. Bush stressed that social services must "go first to the neighborhood healers," those groups that "are working in the neighborhoods, fighting homelessness, addiction and domestic violence." This approach, would "attempt to replace the failed compassion of towering, distant bureaucracies."

Bush couldn't wait to thrill his base by "supporting" ($) faith-based organizations (a.k.a. religions—so much for the separation of church and state!). But these organizations have apparently been of significant help in poorer neighborhoods, so perhaps to be fair one has to realize this type of support would probably get more accomplished than government bureaucracies' "programs"—infamous for their inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Megachurchs are doing more than provide services to poor people. These congregations are building healthy institutions and helping to transform dysfunctional communities into decent living places, where people go beyond the limitations imposed by their disadvantages, and are helped to achieve independence and self-reliance.

In Eberly's view, urban congregations are the most powerful islands of civic health and hope, providing poor people with role models to emulate and exposure to social values, customs, and traditions that generate self-sufficiency

The Pew Charitable Trusts released the results of a national poll which demonstrated that large majorities of Americans believe that "local churches and places of worship together with local organizations such as Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity" are the most significant problem-solving organizations in their communities.

But large systems of government are bad at providing the more personal care that families and neighbors frequently need. Eberly believes that grand notions of national community are being replaced with real, functioning local communities where people support each other as neighbors, and yet the examples of such miracles are few and far between in his book so maybe he is talking more about intent than accomplishments. Small nonprofits and faith-based organizations have the capacity to transform lives and mend broken communities, at least to some degree. A commmuity is a pretty complicated entity and it would take a lot to do actual mending. Perhaps "improving" would have been a more appropriate word.

According to the author, the most successful strategies for human development in the current century will emphasize ideas, knowledge, and expertise. He feels such strategies should be utilized to assist the poor in better using their existing capital for productive investment. Assisting the poor is fine, but pretending the non-poor are doing fine in well-functioning communities and families is wearing blinders—missing the Big Picture, which realizes that money is not the central issue at all. Also, the most effective game plan for human development for this century is obviously MCs. We challenge you to read this website (or even just the novel) and conclude otherwise.

With the whole world now a potential marketplace, many companies have unprecedented opportunities to combine generosity with entrepreneurialism. There is a growing realization that American businesses can indulge in win-win thinking and help meet some of the needs of poor people while advancing their own interests at the same time. It's a new era in corporate citizenship and social responsibility.

World Trade Center bombing of September 11, 2001
World Trade Center bombing of September 11, 2001

The War on Terror

It will take more than compassion and good PR to win the war on terror that Bush began and Obama bungled, but the generosity of citizens does help significantly in winning the hearts and minds abroad.

The inescapable fact was that in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing of September 11, 2001, and with Bush's and Obama's global war on terror that followed, America's major security problem was not with specific nation-states. The struggle, unlike perhaps any that had come before, was in fact with the radical Islamic extremists, a violent ideological movement driven by Islam's most bloodthirsty elements, who loudly announced their intentions to bring down America and the West. (ISIS is of course their champion both on the internet and on the ground in combat.)

However, advocating secularism as an alternative to officially supported Islam may be the least effective antidote to extremist thinking, because it merely verifies the impression of many Muslims that America is an antireligious nation generally and we are opposed to their religion—especially because of their degrading or at least oppressive view of women. Further confounding the matter are our U.S. government programs that overtly attempt to nullify or modify Islamic practices in the area of women's rights, lifestyles, birth control, and the family—a policy which, not surprisingly, reinforces the perception among Muslims that America is thoroughly secular, anti-Islam, and out to change their culture.

Eberly advises that the West should forget indoctrination and proselytism and bestowing vast sums of aid. Instead it should help empower civil society. Linking people and institutions with potential reformers in the region allows the Middle East to progress along its own path and this is the best antidote to mistrust and hatred, according to Mark Leonard and Conrad Smewing, authors of Public Diplomacy in the Middle East.


The central thesis of The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up is that civil society is increasingly the means by which the values of democratic capitalism are being advanced globally (although empowering civil society can have a variety of effects, only one of which is the spread of democratic capitalism). This in itself suggests that greater reliance on NGOs may be the most effective approach to curbing anti-Americanism, since they empower civil society best.

If maintaining even a minimally favorable view of itself around the world falls within the scope of our government's responsibility—which our government has declared that it surely does—then overwhelming hostility toward the United States among Moroccans and Egyptians and dozens of other nations reflects one of the more spectacular failures in American foreign policy.

Eberly says the biggest reason for being hopeful about the Middle East is the satellite dish, although many media outlets remain instruments of anti-American governments, and the United States and Israel are portrayed as victimizers. (ISIS is expert at exploiting the Internet and its social networking sites as well as controlling access in areas it conquers, and it loves to confiscate cell phones—perhaps they've read Eberly's book!)

For many traditional Arabs and Muslims, the downside to allowing greater openness in Arab societies is that it means letting their young have access to the corrupt moral values of the West. Many Muslims view America as selfish, materialistic, promiscuous, and too willing to trade off its families and communities for a socially destructive individualism and enough freedom to generate antisocial actions.

Democratization: The Realist Position Versus the Idealist Position

What if freedom makes it even more possible for the poisonous ideologies of hatred that are so pervasive in the Middle East today to gain additional ground like it did in Iraq and Syria, resulting in ISIS?

Richard Haas (the Council on Foreign Relations) defends the realist position (scepticism about democratization) by saying that giving precedence to democratization may heighten national security challenges. (The Idealist position says democratization is fine in oppressive countries: if democracy works here, it ought to work there!) Haas (realist) says we must recognize that "unattractive regimes can be replaced by something far worse (ISIS) and that the first objective, therefore, is to practice the Hippocratic oath of foreign policy, which is 'do no harm.'" (Current events have shown just how prescient Haas is.) Until fairly recently, in fact, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the "realist" school, known for its cynicism about the possibility of American democratic ideals being quickly or easily transplanted to regions that have historically been hostile to democracy.

Robert Kaplan says that "the historical and social argument supporting democracy is just not there" in much of the world. What is often there and waiting to surface are ancient hatreds and prejudices, nourished through the "intense partisanship" of tribe, clan, or religious sect. (Saddam Hussein used fear and torture to restrain people from acting out these hatreds and undermining stability. But he is gone. As is stability. ISIS is enough to make one miss Saddam!)

Although democratic civil society is attempting to take hold across the globe, the fact is that in dozens of locations, the forces of progress are hobbled and in some cases overpowered by ethnic and sectarian conflict. Upwards of fifty nations today are at or near civil war conditions and are deeply dysfunctional. Some observers believe that ethnic conflict has become the dominant global trend.

"Realists" see the West's attempts to push democracy on Islam as naive and foolish and dangerous. But the "romantics" are bullish about prospects for continued progress toward the universal values of democracy which are as foreign to most Islamics as prayer rugs are to most non-Islamic Westerners. Perhap we need to "get real."

The universal values of democracy are as foreign to most Islamics as prayer rugs are to most non-Islamic Westerners
The universal values of democracy are as foreign to most Islamics as prayer rugs are to most non-Islamic Westerners

Eberly makes the point that repressive regimes like Saddam Hussein's in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad's in Syria accept a variety of antihumanistic practices, but in so doing they sometimes prevent equally antihumanistic conditions from emerging—general violence, civil war, or genocide, which are much more difficult to deal with.

Dubya Bush the Liar lied us into the illegal Iraq invasion
Dubya Bush the Liar lied us into the illegal Iraq invasion

Much to their chagrin, Bush and Obama have discovered that democratization that is pressed forward too rapidly or recklessly can yield unintended consequences—like ISIS. We'd have been better off leaving Saddam in power or at least have the good sense to leave Iraq once we'd dumped Saddam. In what universe can Saddam be considered worse than ISIS for either the West or for world peace—or even for Iraq? Or U.S. national security? Soon after Obama showed his true colors as a liar and hypocrite back in 2009, billboards began popping up displaying Bush and these words: "Miss me yet?" We'll not be surprised if Iraqis start seeing billboards with that very same message only with Saddam's picture!

We'll not be surprised if Iraqis start seeing billboards with 'Miss me yet?' under Saddam's picture!
We'll not be surprised if Iraqis start seeing billboards with 'Miss me yet?' under Saddam's picture!

We say the best democratization plan is to aim for a more gradual change from repressive to democratic, based on the rate of progress, offering dictators the opportunity to remain in charge and end up as nondictator "President" as opposed to dictator "President." And perhaps the elections in Iraq should be seen for what they are: shams where the leaders get into power and then immediately screw over all sects but their own—which already happened. It kind of reminds one of how U.S. elections install leaders that merely support the Corporatocracy instead of the will of the people. Elections in the U.S. as well as in Iraq have ended up as hollow gestures long on symbolism and short of effect. Look at Obama's record compared to his campaign promises. America voted for what he said, not for what he actually did. Alas—the same thing happened with Iraqi elections!

Says development economist Bill Easterly, "a big problem with democracy and development, particularly with uneducated voters, is that politicians could appeal to voters' gut instincts of hatred, fear, nationalism or racism to win elections." (This is close to what candidates do in American elections via attack ads, since what sane person would claim these ads—or even most nonpolitical ads—are not targeted at voters' gut instincts, hatreds, and fears?)

Wikipedia says that Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin were two of several U.S. politicians who called for Nouri al-Maliki to be removed from office in 2007. Senator Clinton urged Iraq's parliament to select a "less divisive and more unifying figure" and implied she felt al-Maliki was too concerned about Iraq's Shiite majority and not enough with national reconciliation. "During his trip to Iraq last week, Senator Levin ... confirmed that the Iraqi government is nonfunctional and cannot produce a political settlement because it is too beholden to religious and sectarian leaders", she said.

This is an example of how toppling of dictatorships merely creates opportunities for sectarian hatreds to boil over—here's a leader who is supposed to unite a country and yet he merely used his position to consolidate power for his Shiite buddies. Democracy ideals were no more part of his ethics than was mercy—he became a leader by using the pretense of being into democracy.

Wikipedia tells us that United States Christopher Meyer said that the invasion of Iraq served as a proximate cause for the rise of extremism. And Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote that had Obama forcibly intervened in the Syrian Civil War, it "could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq."

Bottom line: U.S. nation building is an unqualified disaster, since it used none of the desperately needed wisdom of Eberly's book, and this horridly bungled nation building utilized all of the limitless naiveté of Bush, Obama, and our military, defense, and political establishments. When will this country learn?!

Apparently—never: "After 9/11, President Bush declared regime change to be official U.S. policy. He took this country to war to create regime change in Iraq. How does the president know which governments to overthrow? According to Bush’s criteria, a government must:

  1. build or sell weapons of mass destruction
  2. violate U.N. resolutions
  3. threaten, invade, or dominate its neighbors
  4. exploit many of its own poorest citizens
  5. erode the civil liberties or human rights of its people
  6. fail to live up to democratic ideals
The president [Dubya], of course, was thinking of countries like Iraq, Iran, North Korea, or Syria. But look at the list more carefully. Sound familiar? The criteria that call for regime change apply to the American government itself. Americans live under a regime that is threatening to dominate not just its neighbors but the world as a whole." (Source: Regime Change Begins at Home: Freeing America from Corporate Rule.) If, as George Dubya Bush says, these are the correct criteria for regime change, doesn't that mean the U.S. needs regime change now? And that is precisely the author's (Charles Derber) insightful point! See The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.

Eberly concludes with advice to follow his "roadmap" for building communities and nations worldwide through indigenous civil society. This scholarly, well-researched book is impressive not just because it is so thorough and helpful and has such specific advice for aiding the world in repairing itself as citizens, social entrepreneurs, and volunteers link up to solve problems everywhere. It is also impressive because the author was willing to get in the trenches and go to hot spots and find out in reality what was working and what was not. In general, social engineering via top-down bureaucratic action is the obsolete Second Wave approach the Tofflers warned us about—and it IS NOT working, while the bottom-up civil society strengthening Eberly champions is the Third Wave approach the Tofflers advocate—and this IS working.