civil society versus the private sector

(Newark, NJ): At Monday’s launch of America’s Civic Health Index, Bill Galston said that Katrina demonstrated a failure of government and political leadership, but also of civil society, because it displayed our inability (or unwillingness) to work together across differences. Nina Rees, formerly a staffer for Dick Cheney, replied that the “private sector” had performed very well after Katrina, as revealed by the massive amount of philanthropy directed toward New Orleans and the Gulf. I’m with Bill, because I think there’s a difference between the total amount of individual voluntary effort (also known as “the private sector”) and civil society.

New Orleans is rich in groups and associations that operate within discrete neighborhoods and ethnic communities–including the extraordinary African American mutual benefit societies. But there is, and was, a dearth of civic institutions. New Orleans had few voluntary associations that crossed community lines so that they could coordinate efforts, allocate resources fairly, monitor the government, organize deliberations about justice, encourage citywide solidarity, and develop plans for redevelopment. In the absence of an encompassing civic infrastucture, New Orleans got bad government and ineffective or piecemeal private aid. Thus the Katrina disaster illustrates the importance of decent political leadership, but also the need for a strong civil society that goes beyond charity and volunteering.