Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the conceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.
Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as
- ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam, etc)
- The Good Society: a good thing in itself
- A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)
"'What to do' depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association" (pg. 108)
"Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy" (pg. 108)
"Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries" (pg. 108)
Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.