Ruth Simsa is one of few scientific experts when it comes to the civil society in Austria. She is an NGO researcher at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and has conducted a number of research projects on the legal and social framework and the impact of civil society. In this conversation she told Christine Tragler how she sees the current situation for NGOs in Austria.
NGOs are under pressure worldwide. What has got worse in Austria?
First of all, the language has changed. Politically oriented NGOs in particular are being denigrated. The common public interest plays a minor role on the government’s agenda. There are reasons to fear that overall conditions for NGOs will deteriorate, while the need for the social services provided by NGOs will increase, as a result of a policy that aggravates social inequality.
What are the social functions of NGOs in Austria?
They strengthen social diversity, participation and innovation. They have an impact on a society’s political climate, as they embody social values such as solidarity and responsibility and thus work against an ideology that rather promotes self-interest and the survival of the fittest.
NGOs often serve as early warning mechanisms. They point out topics and problems that are otherwise often disregarded. NGOs and the social services they offer are of huge significance in many people’s daily lives.
What political framework is necessary to support NGOs?
A well-developed welfare state is an important requirement for social sector organisations in particular. Moreover, NGOs need freedom of expression and legal security to be able to work properly.
Why is a strong civil society particularly high in demand now?
A strong civil society can counterbalance authoritarian developments. It can initiate changes and boost social trust. Civil society can adopt a low-threshold and flexible approach when fulfilling tasks. It often fills the gaps left by state-run services.
How should a democratic state deal with its critics?
There’s a wonderful quote by Winston Churchill: “Protect the rebel.” A democratic state should protect its critics and if necessary also finance them – this fosters diversity, openness and societal learning.
What advice would you give to NGOs in view of the current developments?
What’s important now is networking. People must speak with a common, strong voice when making crucial claims. Smaller, more political NGOs now need the support of larger groups. Also, they must not abandon advocacy, that is dialogue with decision-makers and opinion-formers, because an important function of civil society would otherwise be lost.