A functioning civil society is important to every aspect of our communities. From the global to the local. From business to politics. Civil society keeps us all on track. It draws focus back to the important stuff like equality and sustainability, it is the homeostasis of society.
Often the tangible construct of civil society is hard to grasp and is thought of as an abstract ‘thing’ that none of us have much to do with. Last week I participated in civil society with an amazing group of young Australians and Chinese and it has reminded me how important civil society is and that it needs to be endlessly encouraged. Civil society is a practical way to invoke our right to participate in shaping the world we live in.
I just got back from Sydney, Australia where I attended a youth dialogue about the China – Australia relationship. The Australia China Youth Dialogue‘s (ACYD) mission is (among other things) to:
Promote more sophisticated cross-cultural understanding among Australian and Chinese youth. The ACYD seeks to enhance Sino-Australian relations by bringing together key people form both sides to forge deeper connections for the future.
This initiative is run by an inspiring group of young Australians and Chinese and is entirely voluntary. Twelve Chinese and twelve Australians under the age of 30 got together for 5 days to discuss a range of key issues related to the bilateral relationship. I have never before been so engaged and have never learnt as much I did over such an intense 5 days. Whether it was because the participants were still young and enthusiastic or because the guest speakers were of a high calibre, I’m not sure, probably both.
Whether or not the dialogue was engaging is one thing, but why it is important to have such dialogues is another. Here are a few reasons why an initiative like the ACYD, a prime example of civil society, is so important:
- The ACYD provided a platform for one of the most basic, but also one of the most important aspects of civil society and that is talking with and meeting other people. I’m not talking just about debate style interaction or structured discussion but more so the kind of relationship you build singing a karaoke song together or chatting waiting for a bus to arrive. It is in the moments when you relate to someone in a personal context that are so valuable. Mainly because it means you are more likely to try and understand their perspective and worldview. Once you get to that stage in a relationship, real engagement and dialogue can occur.
- You learn. One of the main lessons I took away from the 5 days was to never stop learning. Advice provided to the dialogue participants by a previous Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Civil society activities like ACYD provide an opportunity to learn from our leaders (new and old), our peers and representatives from other sections of society. Education kills ignorance and we should not forget the role of civil society in educating us all.
- It encourages informed opinion. Over the 5 days we heard from a variety of people each with a variety of opinions about a variety of topics. Challenging others and our own opinions and biases is vital to the progression of our society in every aspect. But it also is important to stand up for what you believe in, becoming too diplomatic is in no ones interest. The last week has certainly shaped and strengthened some of my own ideas and perspectives for the better.
The Australia China Youth Dialogue is but one tiny piece of the puzzle in relation to civil society but for me it has been a timely reminder how important it is for ‘keeping the bastards honest’ and by ‘the bastards’ I mean us all.