What problem are we addressing with ViabilityNet 3.0?
When we embarked on ViabilityNet 1.0 in 2010, widespread disenchantment about the potential for citizen-initiated change, government roadblocks to citizen engagement and the lack of connection between civil society organizations across the region were among the key issues that the sector faced. Today, after six years and two rounds of ViabilityNet, engagement paralysis derived from disenchantment and government obstacles is still a major theme but has in fact taken on additional urgency and complexity in light of new pressures rising from within the region and simultaneously squeezing it from the outside.
One of the most pronounced pressures stems from extreme nationalism and political attacks on democracy, which is stressing civil society in the Czech Republic, in the CEE region and across western Europe. Equally so, the migration crisis, already challenging western European democracies’ capacity for tolerance and acceptance, is showing that CEE countries are far from ready to meet the challenge and making baldly apparent the gulf between East and West in attitudes towards otherness and willingness to accept newcomers. Environmental issues add another layer of risk and potential strife as communities struggle to deal with and/or prepare for the effects of climate change and make informed, sustainable and just choices. Furthermore, the ubiquity of social networks and rise of virtual communities around the globe demonstrate an evolution in the concept of community itself and pose questions about the relevance of place-based communities and traditional participatory approaches. Continuing urbanization is yet another trend demanding community development stakeholders to re-examine and adapt engagement approaches for changing urban and rural populations.
As these internal and external pressures flow through and influence communities in the CEE, we are seeing greater creativity and diversity in the way active individuals and communities respond to complex situations. Increasingly, community efforts are driven not by formal NGOs but by informal issue-based groupings of volunteers which form to address a particular need and then morph into another shape as the situation develops. Overall, we are witnessing an increase in local action, leadership, activism and giving in communities, often spearheaded by young people who are fuelled by a self-confidence that was rare six or ten years ago. Relatedly, we see that intense funnelling of energy into a particular community can come at the expense of outward connection: local leaders lack exposure to similar initiatives in other regions and potential cross-learning or sharing of solutions is missed.
What do these trends mean in terms of needs in community development, both in the region and beyond? Firstly, they signal a need for communities to build resilience so that they can withstand external shocks (environmental, economic, social, migratory, etc.) and deal with internal change (shifts in demographics, etc.). We believe that community resilience is rooted in a strong sense of identity and empowerment; i.e. a community that knows itself and knows that it can play a significant role in decision-making processes that affect local quality of life is better poised to face the myriad challenges of 2016, 2026 and beyond. To build identity, empowerment and hence resilience, a community needs active individuals and groups. Therefore, we see a need to support citizen engagement efforts by leaders and various types of civil society organizations (public and private, formal and informal, traditional and modern, etc.) working on the ground in communities.
Our view, shaped by 20 years of community development work in the CEE, is that solutions lie in building the resilience of communities to empower them to face the challenges described above. We have found that a community which is resilient to external and internal pressures is one with a firm sense of its own identity and a belief in its ability to engage meaningfully in decision-making processes that affect local quality of life.
How do we strengthen community identity, empowerment and consequently resilience? Our experience shows that active individuals and groups are at the core of this process and that small yet tangible actions at the local level which make use of existing community assets build resilience step by step. Supporting engagement efforts at the local level is thus one part of the solution.