No. 3




Civil Society, the Third Sector and Social Capital

  • Rein Ruutsoo

    Rein Ruutsoo

    Tallinn University, Professor of Political Theory

In choosing a strategy for the development of civil society and the third sector, Estonia will in fact take a decisive step in the embedding of its whole social model. Equating of the third sector with civil society ignores several important problems, which are connected to the general democratic tasks of a civil society’s development.

These become visible through a set of problems, which are linked to social capital (trust, co-operation, networks etc.). Civil associations “produce” different social capital. The mode of economic activity, which develops in the form of the third sector, is primarily linked to civil society as a mode, which functions through the intermediation of primary groupings and associations. As a political aim, which serves a society’s openness, it is worthwhile supporting civil society as an “assembly” of association which is as varied as possible (from trade unions to choirs).

The third sector is an irreplaceable resource in the structure of civilian initiatives. It is irreplaceable in improving the mental / social climate, increasing trust, acquiring experience for co-operation and for social dialogue (in other words, increasing “civility” and “the total social capital”). The paradox of the third sector lies in that it is one of the most perspective sources of increasing social capital, whilst utilising large amounts of it during the “production” process.

Self-government reform, the aim of which is to delegate the obligations of the state to self-government units through increasing the third sector, is a serious challenge to the whole of society. If the development of the third sector is not accompanied by the development of a civil society in its wider meaning, the growth of the third sector could prove to be localised and short-lived. With the deficit of social capital, loose networks can easily become networks of corruption and unfair competition. Self-government reform, which is based on weak social premises (low civilian moral, inadequate legislation, etc.) and feeds client-based relationships could even reduce the total sum of a society’s social capital.

The alleviation of this threat depends on social capital (trust, networks, etc.), which increase the transparency of society, improve access to information, protects common values, develops dialogue within the sector, etc. At the same time, the development of roof organisations into corporations and their hegemonic politicisation, is in conflict with the openness of civil society and its independence from state power.

The development of Estonia’s civil society has thus far mainly concentrated on securing its legal and institutional basis. A specialist study conducted last year (2000) at the initiation of the Riigikogu Cultural Committee, confirmed that the “social securing” of civil initiatives through the creation of a common language, instilling trust, increasing information, etc., forms a vital link in the development of the third sector into a network of civil co-operation. The path chosen for the preparation of the Estonian Civil Society Development Concept – the widespread inclusion of public and civilian unions (discussions, round tables, seminars, etc.) – played an important role in deepening social dialogue and increasing the awareness of the problems of the third sector.

Full article in Estonian