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DEVELOPMENT: And Here Scotland Scores

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Jun 14 2006 (IPS) - It must be rude of course to mention these days that England is playing the World Cup and Scotland is not. But what else could be a more ready reminder these days how distinctly different Scotland can be from England.

That difference became constitutional with the birth of the new Scottish parliament in 1999, some time after the older one merged with the English parliament in London in 1707 and created United Kingdom. Today, football and parliament both tell a story of separateness, even if the exclusion from the World Cup is not so nice, and the Scottish parliament sits in a strange sort of building.

What is most distinctly Scot is of course the people themselves, and some of the uniqueness of being Scot is emerging through the way that people are organising themselves, in large and growing measure through civil society.

“At least four new civil society organisations are formed every working day,” says Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. “There are over 50,000 organisations in our country of 5 million people. Scotland has a long history of civil society dating back over centuries but there has been an upsurge recently.”

That upsurge is riding difficulties within the new wealth. “The Scotland of today is largely post-industrial and increasingly affluent for many, but with a growing gap between rich and poor,” Sime told IPS.

And the new parliament has not delivered just about everything, “A new Parliament with significant devolved responsibility has brought new energy into the democratic process but this is offset by a growing alienation from politics and politicians,” Sime said.

Enter civil society. “Civil society is energetically engaged at all levels, is largely well resourced, and is growing its service delivery role, most notably in housing and care. A strong thread of mutualism runs through much of its work.”

The creation of a separate Scottish parliament was itself substantially the result of civil society efforts.

“It worked closely with policy makers to establish the devolved systems and has been closing contributing to initiatives and reviews of legislation in the Scottish parliament,” Farah Kabir, consultant for participative democracy with the British Council Scotland told IPS.

“There has been contribution through campaigns such as the ones developed and run by Zero Tolerance against violence against women. It ran the campaign for 10 years and has now broadened the theme by developing information and material for schools around RESPECT – raising awareness on self-respect, respect for diversity and other related matters.”

Civil society itself had more support from parliament earlier. “There was a honeymoon period immediately post setting up of the parliament, and the Civic Forum, the umbrella organisation of civil society organisation – other than SCVO – got both moral and financial support from the parliament. It has fallen out of favour and is struggling to keep its presence.”

That has not led to a weakness of civil society itself, she said. “I would say without any hesitance the civil society in Scotland acts as a watch and conscience of the Scottish population,” Kabir said. “There are so many stories that can be shared like the work of the organisations like Children First or Age concern, or Shakti and Nari Kalayan Sanghsta that are made up of individuals from the civil society having come together to promote a cause or address an issue.”

But civil society is not doing enough to tackle “the problems and concerns of those in poverty, and the young who lack role models and incentive to change their lives,” Kabir said. “Of course, there is also the problem of not enough resources or proper distribution of resources to deal with the immediate problem, as well as take a long-term view.”

Scottish civil society is addressing the particular concerns of Scottish society in its own and increasingly more energetic ways. That makes Glasgow a particularly appropriate location for an assembly of civil society groups from around the world.

Civil society from Scotland will be out in strength at the Civicus world assembly of civil society in Glasgow next week. It will be a time to share knowledge of what has worked, and explore ways to tackle what has not.

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