“ It is impossible to have a conversation about politics or public policy these days without someone mentioning the magic words, ‘Civil Society’, so one might think the people are clear what they mean when they use this term and why it is so important. Unfortunately, clarity and rigour are conspicuous by their absence in the Civil Society debate, a lack of precision that threatens to submerge this concept completely under a rising tide criticism and confusion (Edwards, 2004).
While the above quotation might appear to suggest otherwise, it is possible for us to begin this piece by setting out a working definition of Civil Society. Like many definitions it is perhaps over-generalized and over-simplified, and while the purpose of this blog is to share and learn from each other, let us look at the term in more details and it is good to start with this:
“Civil Society is a collection of individuals and collective initiatives for the common public good” (Tandon, 2003)
Within the definition, we can clarify the key words and expressions used in it in the following ways:
• We use the expression ‘common public good’ to mean those things that benefit society as a whole, rather than only specifi groups of individuals within it.
• ‘Individual initiatives’ for such public good take multiple forms-from simple ‘good neighborliness’ and day to day respect for and tolerance for others, to structured volunteer work.
• Similarly, ‘collective initiatives’ also take many forms: people work together with others for the common public good in many different associational and organizational settings-from small informal community groups and associations, to formal and institutionalized voluntary organizations.
The important thing to reorganize is that Civil Society is primarily about people-what they do and how they contribute to the good of all. As one examines Civil Society in more detail, it becomes clear that it is about participation, justice mutual tolerance, and other civil conducts and circumstances that affect people’s lives. In turn, it also becomes clear that existence and good health of Civil Society is an essential prerequisite for other features generally agreed to be needed in societies, if they are to function and flourish development and social cohesion.
As regard the latter, we can note that societies are rarely homogenous, and their heterogeneity can make them inherently fragmented and therefore unstable. In South Sudan this fragmentation is around ethnicity, age and language. The same is true of some societies, while, in ye others, different forms of fragmentation are apparent, e.g. between indigenous and immigrant populations or between tribal groupings. This inherent fragmentation needs to be counter-balanced in some way, if the society is to be sustainable, stable and coherent. This is the key function of ‘Civil Society’.
Other functions also become apparent. In South Sudan a country that just emerged from war, social and economic development, poverty, illiteracy, and marginalization of the poor and women continue. It is, therefore, increasingly being recognized that the Government alone cannot bring about growth and development and solves the various problems that arise in society. Something else is needed-the individual and collective actions that come from Civil Society.
The forms of democracy adopted by South Sudan and other countries have also been shown to have their limitations. Citizens around the world are becoming mistrustful of the democratic process and, as a result, more apathetic about playing their part in it and that the only role they appear to have in a democracy is to cast a vote every few years. Something else is needed- the individual and ‘collective initiatives’ of Civil Society take not only the form of actions directed towards development, but also of the discourse and debate that are the very heart of democracy. This function, too, of Civil Society is also increasingly being recognized.
From all this, it will be obvious that it is difficult to understand Civil Society, and therefore build it, without reference to the State. The state and Civil Society are both needed for the governance of society to be complete-the State provides and represents the structures of governance and Civil Society creates the values and democratic discourse without which such structures cannot be effective. The two are, therefore, mutually constitutive of each other and both need to be strong.
Chandoke (2003) sees Civil Society as “the essential precondition for democracy” and as a sphere in which citizens “constantly monitor both the State and the monopoly of power within itself.” There is another key actor in the society-the private sector. It too plays, through the dynamics of the market, a key role not only in the economic functioning of society, but also in limiting and defining State power and responsibilities, although it is being recognized that too much market power can be as harmful as too much State power.
As a result of all this, there is now a general recognition that Civil Society, along with the State and the market, needs to be present and active n societies if they are to be stable, sustainable and coherent, or in other wards ‘good’ societies.
As has been noted, Civil Society is about what people do for the common public good-both individually and collectively. Let us examine the collective aspect of this in a little more detail. More commonly, these days, this collective action-working together with others-takes place through what we termed Civil Society Organizations or CSOs. As we have noted, these take a variety of forms-from small informal community groups and associations (often called Community Based Organizations (CBOs)) to formal and institutionalized voluntary organizations, often called Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
Until quite recently, such an orientation was the main one for many NGOs and CBOs in most countries. But now, the objectives and work of Civil Society organizations span the entire spectrum of social, economic and environmental policy and practice. As a report of the common wealth foundation (1995) points out, CSOs are engaged in almost every conceivable aspect of human need and endeavor, at every level from local to global, and their methods and practices span the spectrum from care and welfare to education and advocacy. Over the 10 years, since the publication of the report, this widening of the scope and purpose of Civil Society Organizations has continued.
As a consequence of these trends, increased attention has been given to the way in which ordinary people involve themselves individually and collectively, in solving problems related to their lives, not just through action, but also discourse. There have been moves towards increased participation of citizens in development interventions as well as bringing about more inclusive and participatory forms of democracy and governance. Civil Society Organizations in Africa and the rest of the world are emerging as important players in new forms of development activities and new approaches to participatory democracy.
(watch the space…….)