Reacting is distracting: Proactive civil society

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In the ongoing turbulence in Israel and other democracies, many are realizing that the government’s ability to solve problems is very limited whereas civil society is more agile and capable. Let us review the power of nonprofit and philanthropy leaders in Israel, where immense and overwhelming mental health needs are met by an almost helpless government.

In the last two decades, Israel’s governments have undermined the public sector, politicized public servants, and practically dismantled the administration’s professional tier. The days and weeks following October 7th revealed a terrifying chaos that had been brewing behind the scenes for years. The most basic public services were nowhere to be found in our time of need, and the excruciating months that followed have only exacerbated the original crisis.

Today, the shattered public welfare system is still not responding to our citizens’ immense mental and social needs, even eight months into the war. The education system occasionally reappears between teacher strikes, inadvertently creating a generation without basic skills or knowledge. These young individuals struggle to sustain social connections for peer support while education professionals, teachers, and school principals are wasting precious resources accommodating the political whims of the higher-ups. Local municipalities, dependent on the narrow political aspirations of various ministers, are failing to meet their residents’ needs, thereby forcing thousands of displaced citizens to rely on the sporadic charity of kindhearted people for housing.

The government went AWOL. Fortunately, ordinary people, nonprofits, philanthropists, and civil movements reacted immediately. Motivated by solidarity and a deep emotional connection to those suffering, civil society saved Israel. It was a miracle.

However, the reactive approach cannot become our modus operandi. We react based on political ideas, our sense of identity, and emotions: persuasive motivators that easily sidetrack us from important, long-term, sustainable goals.

Reacting is distracting, as illustrated by Israel’s mental health system. A new study shows that, typically, 11% of the population suffers from anxiety; however, the figure has jumped to 54% since the war began. Another recent study indicates that 34% of Israeli society now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

We are desperate for a functioning public mental health system. Yet, Israel’s national budget allocates only 6% for mental health services, compared to the OECD average of 9.7%. The recently announced National Mental Health Plan aims to increase this figure to 7.4%. Budget-wise, our public mental health services are not even equipped for times of peace.

A reactive civil society creates ad-hoc programs. Decent people donate. Volunteers rise to the occasion, some with relevant professional training. Certain programs may be highly informed and could build an innovative framework to overcome the acute challenges. However, most of the energy, money, and professional skills in a reactive society are devoted to small-scale “pilot programs” for social and mental health, favoring any action over inaction.

Will these sincere efforts solve the problem? Sadly, no. They may even make things worse. In the best case scenario, the government will “adopt” the pilot program using a relatively small budget, likely requiring a philanthropic matching grant. The government could then claim, “We have adopted your solution. We are listening,” while deepening the country’s dangerous systemic crisis. A reactive civil society is easily exploited.

What would the leaders of a proactive civil society do? Heads of nonprofits and their philanthropic funders would focus public attention on the systemic problem. They would promote long-term, sustainable funding for public mental health services, relying on nonprofits’ professional knowledge to identify pertinent needs. They would also become advocates for the public sector’s professionals struggling with the unending flow of demands.

At the same time, nonprofits and their philanthropic funders could advance applied research to develop best practices and policies in mental health services. This can include creating professional development programs for welfare workers, caregivers, and educators. They could enable universities to train new professionals and prepare various infrastructural programs to help more patients in acute states. In times of war, clear-eyed leaders of a proactive civil society steer the nonprofits to invest all their resources in the broader social cause.

We must resist the urge to react and distract. It is not easy, as we feel the pain of others and believe that solidarity is at the core of civil society and democracy. Yet, if we continue reacting to random (and authentic!) cries for help, we will sacrifice the opportunity to truly help people. A proactive civil society can heal us. Heads of nonprofits and philanthropists, please help Israel focus.

About the Author
Tali Yariv-Mashal (LL.B Tel Aviv University, MA Columbia University; Ph.D., Columbia University; EMC Insead University) is Currently Director of Interdisciplinary Research and Engagement at the Center for Applied Research on Risks to Democracy at the Tel Aviv University. She also works as an independent advisor for Philanthropists, Philanthropic Foundations and NGOs, and is a researcher of Civil Society, Philanthropy and Education. Tali was the Director of the Beracha Foundation between 2010 – 2023 and served as the Chair of the Israeli National Forum of Foundations between 2020-2023. Prior to her roles in Philanthropy , Tali was a fellow researcher and lecturer at the Gilo Center for Civic Education (Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2016-2019), served as the director of the Excellence program at the ‘Beit Berl ‘ Teachers College (2016-2018) Which is a joint program for Arab speaking teachers, art teachers and Jewish Hebrew speaking teachers; and worked with various NGOs and with the Ministry of Education on topics of Civic Education , Education for Democracy and Democratic Leadership. Tali serves as board member in various NGOs: she is the founding Chair of "Haira - Urban Sustainable" , a board member of "121 For Social Change" and a board member of "Bonot Alternativa".
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