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egypt.jpgLike everyone, I’m watching the events in Egypt with awe, fear for the people on the street, and enormous hope for their possible future. What does any of it have to do with the social sector? A LOT and let me explain, from two perspectives.

Photo by Jacob Anikulapo on Flickr

First, part of what inspires people to want freedom and to risk their lives is because of America, Western Europe, Australia, etc. where freedom and democracy are unquestionably imperfect and very alive. While there are many things they do not like about America, they are also inspired by Americans. I feel this not in some jingoistic way, but because friends from multiple cultures and countries have told me this over the years, time and time again (even though many can’t acknowledge it publicly). And a rich, deep vein that makes the American body what it uniquely is is our social sector (see Alexis de Tocqueville, and subsequent).

The spirit and ethos of our social sector and the people, leaders, organizations involved in creating positive social change are something everyone in this sector and across the political spectrum should be very proud of. It is part of the inspiration that is America and what is inspiring those fighting for freedom in Egypt.

Think about that when you go into work, do your next volunteer gig, sit on your next grant committee meeting.

Maybe even more fundamentally, let me relate an experience in Mexico City about 5 years ago. I was invited to a two-day conference with about 30 social sector leaders from all over the world, northern and southern hemisphere, first and third world. (Don’t ask me how I got in the room.)  I learned a hundred new things, but two that are relevant now – in many countries, the way their social / non-profit sector (and it takes many different forms) truly got started in a significant, sustainable way was in the aftermath of a natural disaster or political upheaval. It is at those moments when non-public, non-private entities filled massive vacuums in ways that only they could. That was profound.

Even more profound was understanding why non-profits are often called “civil society organizations” in second and third world countries.

You might hear the descriptor NGO (non-governmental organization) and occasionally non-profit / social sector organization, but for some at the table in Mexico City “civil society organization” was their main handle. Why? Because that is what they do, i.e. teach, evangelize, and eventually sustain the practices of a true democracy / civil society in emerging countries that have often had little or no experience with that way of living and behaving.

It goes without saying that there is a need for such organizations in America too. But at a time of revolutionary change in other parts of the world, the old public entities are broken and the private sector plays a sometimes significant role, but it can’t be their primary work to engrain the practices of law, human engagement, and civil society that each of us takes for granted (to varying degrees) every day of our lives. It has to be done, in large part, by CSO’s. Like I said, even more profound.

Right now, I’m looking at two headlines across my screen (that will be old news within hours, no doubt) – “Show of force doesn’t slow massive protests” and “vigilante groups on outlook for looters”. Are those not two embryonic, as yet unformed, social / civil service entities right there right now on the streets in Egypt?

If this stunning momentum in Egypt continues, watch for the emergence of this third sector.

Every news flash I see makes me grimace knowing that people are losing their lives and in such turmoil at this very moment. And every news flash also inspires me to see such courage and determination and perseverance. Like I see every day in our own social sector. We are linked with their longing for freedom and democracy in more ways than you may know.

– Paul


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