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Civil Society and the State: Opponents or Partners?

Sabina Panth's picture

When the globalization agenda pushed for democratic reform and decentralized system of governance in the early nineties, aid agencies began investing in civil society organizations to demand and deliver development services that the centralized state was not deemed effective in providing.  Now, with over two decades of civil society hype and non-government organizations (NGOs) mushrooming all over the developing world, it is time to appraise how or whether the contributions of these organizations have been integrated into national development priorities and goals.  

Civil society organizations have clearly been successful in bringing development closer to the people. They have been effective in mobilizing communities to become active agents of development. They have also contributed immensely to gender equality and social change.  However, majority of these organizations, especially in developing countries, still depend upon and are guided by external funding interests and thus, function merely as service delivery agents of small-scale projects that are not necessarily prioritized or integrated into national planning and policy work.  Even when these organizations have been engaged in advocacy work, policymakers have complained that the lack of capacity and technical expertise of these organizations have caused more hindrance than assistance in doing development.  No doubt, the relationship between civil society and government is observed, generally, as divisive with ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality and creating parallel structures of governance. 

In another scenario, however, the distinction between representatives of civil society and the government tends to be obscure, as majority of civil society representatives, at least the leaders, are likely to come from similar backgrounds and have close associations in family and kin with civil servants and/or political party affiliates (as in the case of developing countries).  This influences strong network and bargaining power among the elites at the cost of the poor and disadvantaged, be it from the side of the government or civil society.  Similarly, in a polarized political situation, vested interest groups can easily exploit the cause of civil society and appeal to short term gains and instantaneous gratification at the cost of longer term investments and economic gains of the country.  In many instances, opposition political forces have manipulated civil society organizations in obstructing development work to thwart the seating government from gaining credit or the confidence of the mass. 

At the same time, civil society organizations have proven effective in conflict mediation and reconciliation work, especially in a political crisis.  From the formation of peace groups at the local level to building coalitions and organizing mass rallies and campaigns, civil society organizations have aligned aspirations and interests of the general mass to demand better governance.  They have also demonstrated neutrality in providing humanitarian relief and development services in sensitive areas that the state has been unable to reach.  Independent media, in print, television and radio have also been significant in governance reform.  In my previous post, I spoke about the influential role of community radio in democratic transition in Nepal.

In view of the above rationale, it is important to carefully assess both the strengths and weaknesses of civil society organizations before blindly rejecting or romanticizing their contributions in development work.  Working solely with civil society organizations on small-scale projects can only go so far in terms of governance reform.  Efforts have to focus on building coalitions and partnerships between and among different civil society groups (media, NGO, think-tank, CBO, academia, bar associations, private agencies) and most importantly, in strengthening their relationship with the government. 

Ultimately, the effectiveness of government-civil society partnerships should be measured in relation to harmonization of national/regional development goals and priorities with local needs and aspirations.  In other words, the effort requires dismantling of parallel structures and competition between the state and civil society in governance reform.  A decentralized setting may be a good place to start.   The work carried out by the State of Kerala in India is a fine example, where social accountability efforts have been integrated into local governance programs through an effective participatory framework.  I will share the Kerala story in my next post. 

Photo Credit: Flikr


Submitted by Roland Lomme on
Please elaborate on Kerala. I just join the WB team in India as governance advisor to the country director and I am extremely interest by all successful local initiatives and experience that we could operationalize in Bank-funded project.

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