Tue, Aug 04, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Healthy civil society organizations engender a healthy nation

By Esther Dyson

The challenges facing civil-society organizations are greater in Russia than in many parts of the world, but the challenges facing civil society itself are similar everywhere. Indeed, around the world there is a gap between civil-society organizations and the societies they profess to serve.

Civil-society organizations do not gain power through elections, legitimate or otherwise, but through reaching the broader world. In short, their goal is to build civil society itself.

They are most successful when people behave as part of civil society without necessarily being “civil society” professionals. That is, they will do such things as take care of their own health, engage in public discussions or blog about safety conditions in their community, rate school performance, organize weekly runs for dog owners or care for their local forests or rivers — as part of their lives, not as part of their jobs.

One area of concern for civil society nowadays is the press and new media. In many places today information is flowing more than ever, but mass media are under both political and financial pressure.

Most people think of a free press as a way to keep track of what governments are doing — and so it is. That is why the press as a whole, and journalists in particular, are so frequently targeted by the authorities. When media outlets aren’t owned — and tamed — by the authorities or people close to them, they still face censorship, intimidation, tax audits and occasionally assassination of journalists and editors.

In Russia in particular, the situation is mixed. The government owns or controls most of the mass media — the major newspapers and television stations — but there is an abundance of mostly marginalized publications and radio stations (to say nothing of the Internet) that retain a remarkable degree of independence. They are not directly censored, but they operate under the chilling knowledge that they can be shut down on vague charges at any moment. And, of course, most of them are struggling to survive financially.

Yet there’s more to journalism than keeping an eye on the government. Journalism’s other task is to reflect a society back to itself — to spread an accurate picture of its current situation, to share information about the activities of private citizens and businesses as they build civil society and to encourage citizens to become active in improving their lives and developing their communities.

Consider health care. The ultimate goal should be not so much a better health care system, but a population so healthy that it hardly needs health care. Health problems may take you to a clinic, but many of them start with how you behave at home — what you eat and drink, whether you smoke or exercise or sleep enough, and so on.

This is the kind of thinking that was driving us at a recent health care working group gathered as part of the recent Civil Society Summit organized in Moscow by the Eurasia Foundation, the New Eurasia Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (I was there as a Eurasia Foundation board member).

To tackle these problems, we came up with an “open data/information liquidity” project, which will advocate and organize the publication, exchange, aggregation and analysis of health data — not just general statistics, but specific data about health outcomes in terms of drugs and treatments, hospital performance and the like.

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