Report - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Strengthening Civil Society in Spain: A Post-COVID-19 Agenda

July 11, 2022

By Marta Rey-García and Sebastián Royo

Executive Summary

Vibrant civil societies have proved a necessary ingredient for freedom, prosperity, and justice to thrive in Europe and the United States. Their potential contribution to constructive debate and collective action for the common good is even more relevant today, as time has come to rethink social contracts on both sides of the Atlantic. In this hour of need, Spanish leaders from all walks of life are no exception in placing a high value on civil society for its potential to re-imagine the relationships between citizens and the state in Western liberal democracies. Not by chance, influential scholars have attributed Spanish civil society a key role in making possible the successful democratic transition of the country.

Since then, and parallel to its own strengthening as part of the young liberal democracy, Spanish civil society has been re-shaped by long range trends like globalization or digital transformation, awakened by shocks like the 2008 economic crisis, and enabled or constrained by domestic institutional conditions, including political and legal frameworks. The full impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the resilience of the civic fabric is yet to be systematically assessed. Against this volatile background, what role is civil society expected to play in the post-COVID recovery period? Would it remain as valued an asset and why? Even more important, how can its full potential for the common good be unleashed in times of disruption?

This research ultimately aims at identifying the institutional and operational levers that should be actioned so that civil society turns into fertile ground for a new social contract to start taking root in the post-pandemic scenario. However, laying the foundations for a reflective agenda to enhance civil society requires a prior conversation on its current conceptualization (how do concept users conceive it?), fluid boundaries (who belongs to civil society and who does not?), and sources of legitimacy (why does/should civil society matter?). Nowadays, Spanish civil society is no longer narrowed down by the terms of its mutating relationship vis-à-vis the state. It has become more visible, plural, influential, and global. While its interface with politics remains contentious, the rich connections of civil society organizations with the business sector and with informal actors (citizens, communities, social movements, social media networks) are enlarging its capacity to innovate and make an impact while, at the same time, challenging its more traditional undertakings.

To explore these questions, this report, anchored in the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship, builds on the acumen of a diverse set of Spanish leaders from nonprofit, business, public and hybrid organizations. They all have participated in past editions of the Global Civil Society Seminar (GCSS), organized by the Rafael del Pino Foundation and the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School with the involvement of internationally renowned Harvard scholars. This informal network of GCSS practitioners provides a unique subsoil for an engaged scholarship approach. The fruits of this dialogue between academic research on civil society, on the one hand, and alumni insights—collected through brainstorming sessions, one survey and several focus groups—on the other, aim at paving the way for a future agenda of civil society enhancement in the country for the aftermath of COVID-19.

10 Key Takeaways

1. Civil society is both a key antecedent and a valued outcome of Spanish democracy.

A strong civil society, that actively participates in the design and implementation of public policies, endorses civil values, and checks and balances state power, is both a key driver and an impact of democratic quality. As civil society is about collective action by the people and for the people, its effectiveness is inextricably linked to policymaking. Not surprisingly, its main risk lies in being appropriated by institutionalized politics.

2. The appropriation of political parties and labor unions by institutionalized political powers has resulted in their estrangement from civil society.

While the “what” question about civil society elicits consensus, the “who” question remains controversial. Any non-state actor may belong to civil society as far as it contributes to social change for the common good. However, the cooptation of political parties and labor unions by institutionalized political power in Spain currently precludes their consideration as civil society actors.

3. Business actors are valuable civil society allies.

Regardless of whether corporations are part of civil society or not, an ongoing debate, businesses have an enormous potential as engines for social change, through corporate sustainability strategies and in necessary proximity to civil society actors within alliances, social enterprises, and other hybrid arrangements. Myriads of common good causes, from climate action to equality, cannot advance without businesses being on board.

4. Informal civil society actors are being empowered by technology to the detriment of the representativeness of traditional voluntary organizations.

The capacity of third sector organizations to represent civil society is being eroded by digital transformation, parallel to the empowerment of virtual communities and other informal actors thanks to social networks. Beyond collaborating with business and public actors, civil society organizations should search for alliances with social movements and other informal actors.

5. The legitimacy of civil society is grounded in its capacity to blend instrumental and expressive rationales for promoting social change, but this delicate balance is being disturbed by populism and polarization.

Spanish civil society sustains its existence in balancing the provision of solutions to social problems, on one hand, with the advocacy for community needs and the articulation of the values of civility, on the other. On the expressive dimension, however, tensions between the democratic values that are endorsed within walls and the need or capacity of civil society to manage other non-state actors with uncivil values or behaviors remain largely unresolved.

6. Civil society should further evolve as a space for innovation and advocacy that inspires but also confronts the state, rather than aspiring to complement or supplement it.

The future legitimacy of civil society is rooted in its innovation and advocacy roles. Civil society innovation does not run parallel to that of the state. Rather than meeting problems that are left unattended by the state, civil society is a source of innovative ideas and practices for state adoption and scaling. Beyond innovation, civil society should also adopt antagonistic roles to keep the state accountable and transparent to communities in need and the common good.

7. Civil society as a key source for social resilience needs to put collective thinking, dialogue, and action at its core.

The core future outcome of civil society consists of collectively articulating ecosystems for inclusive well-being. Although civil leadership by individuals matters—and is being leveraged by social media—civil society as a valued achievement is clearly positioned in the “we” end of the identity spectrum. In Spain, civil society is concomitant with solidarity.

8. Spanish civil society has gained impetus with shocks like the 2008 economic crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still lacks the capacity to sustain this momentum and achieve transformation in the long term.

Both crises spurred outbursts of civil mobilization and generosity, created awareness about social needs and civil rights and galvanized the innovation role of civil society. However, the effects of the pandemic remain ambiguous due to policies restrictive of rights and liberties. A dual-speed impact was identified: while organized civil society retreated during lockdowns, informal civil society such as families, support groups, neighborhoods, and communities rapidly mobilized for self-support.

9. The existing political, legal, and fiscal framework, together with cultural factors, slow down further development of civil society in Spain.

Overall, the majority of Spaniards support civil society organizations and value civil society. Strength of Spanish civil society is comparable to that of other Western European countries if the resilient fabric of informal actors and networks of support (individual citizens, families, neighborhoods, communities, or movements) is considered. However, a favorable institutional framework is missing and mechanisms for formal participation are insufficient or rarely used. Also, the historical lack of a deeply ingrained civil society culture, in contrast to the United States, carries weight on this gap, as citizens expect the state to cater for their needs in the first place. Citizenship education emerges as a key enabler of the necessary change in culture.

10. More orchestration is needed to enhance civil society in Spain.

Spain is home of a plural fabric of civil society organizations involved in advocacy and innovation initiatives and a resilient interlining of informal actors that visibly bolsters toward mobilization and self-support in the face of external shocks. Beyond their evident contributions in terms of agitating and innovating, the time has come to orchestrate more. The main levers for orchestration to happen lie in transformational alliances and digital information and communication technologies.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Strengthening Civil Society in Spain: A Post-COVID-19 Agenda.” , July 11, 2022.