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Is Civil Society Uncivil?

John Garrison's picture

Having worked with civil society engagement work at the World Bank for many years, it is not uncommon for colleagues to see me in the hallway and jokingly ask: “is civil society still acting uncivil?”. The assumption being that when Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) criticize the Bank they are not being constructive and thus not acting civil. While I understand the good-natured ribbing, I and most of my Bank colleagues actually believe the opposite is true. Most advocacy CSOs are being effective global citizens by monitoring the policies and programs of governments and inter-governmental organizations such as the World Bank. After all, governments and multilateral development Banks serve at the behest of citizens and thus they should welcome a watchful eye from CSOs, media, and citizen organizations to ensure that its taxpayer-generated international development funds are being well spent. In addition, as Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently said at the closing plenary of the 2013 InterAction Forum, important changes and reforms in history – such as the concerted response to the AIDS epidemic – are often driven by citizen activism spearheaded by CSOs. He further argued that what is now needed is a global citizens’ movement to advocate for effective climate change policies.

To be fair, the concept that a critical civil society is being uncivil is outdated and reminiscent of a time when most advocacy CSOs were outside on the streets protesting Bank policies. Today, CSOs are more often found inside the Bank participating in policy dialogue and consultation meetings. The recently held Spring Meetings exemplified well this important change in civil society’s role at the Bank. CSOs came in ever-larger numbers to the 2013 Spring Meetings. More than 700 representatives from 100 countries participated in the week long Civil Society Program from April 15 – 20, 2013. The Program included an orientation session on the World Bank and a CSO Roundtable with Executive Directors (see photo) which has become a standard feature of Annual and Spring Meetings. CSOs also participated in several high level sessions such as the Global Voices on Poverty event with Bank President Jim Yong Kim and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

More than the growth in numbers, however, the most significant aspect of civil society presence at the Spring Meetings was the informed and interactive nature of the dialogue during the 60 policy sessions held on a wide range of topics during the Civil Society Policy Forum. A cogent example of the significant nature of the policy dialogue was the session on the safeguards review (transcript, video). The four-hour session brought together some 60 CSO representatives from around the world with Bank Vice President, Kyle Peters, and the Bank’s safeguards review team to discuss the findings of the initial phase of the 2-year consultation process. The discussion centered on ways to streamline yet not weaken the application of the existing safeguards, and whether new principles such as human rights, gender equity, and disability inclusion should be incorporated into the revised policies. 

Another notable session was on re-engagement in Myanmar organized by Burmese and US CSOs which brought together representatives from the World Bank, IMF, and Asian Development Bank to discuss the pace and scale of their re-engagement into that country. A third significant meeting was a briefing session with CSOs on the proposed new World Bank Group strategy with senior Bank managers leading the drafting effort. This will be the first time the Bank will have an overarching set of goals to guide its work and thus it is key to hear the views and perspectives of civil society on what is being considered.

The substantive nature of all three sessions clearly demonstrates how strategic and influential civil society participation at the Bank has become. From protesting outside the security perimeter a decade ago, CSOs are now a key component of the policy dialogue which occurs within the halls of the Bank, and their views are being clearly heard and taken into account. Thus the more appropriate question to ask is whether civil society is becoming “too civil” and may lose some of its advocacy edge as it engages more intensely with the Bank going forward. I don’t believe so, as there are many examples that show that civil society influence has increased as it has expanded its relations with the Bank but that is a discussion for another blog.


Submitted by Ralph on

Indeed the so-called CSOs have long understood that in order to have greater impact in policies and programs driven by multilateral development organizations they had to change their strategy, which just happened by about the time when social media became handy as a cost-effective advocacy and lobbying tool. So yes, they have probably become more civil and politically savvy than in the 1990s and 2000s. But does that really matter?

Perhaps the debate that needs to take place is about whether indeed huge CSOs headquartered in United States and other developed nations are honestly representing the interests of the poor in less developed nations, or aren't they just big bureaucracies trying to protect their own economic and political interests in the name of development?

Not surprisingly a larger portion of international aid funds is now controlled and mostly unaccounted for by such organizations while donor agencies scramble to come up with good evidence of their impact on the ground.

Therefore, a more needed discussion should perhaps look at how international development agencies such as the WBG manage to listen more carefully and continuously to local NGOs and their communities, and ignore the noise and pressure of huge CSOs and "Think Tanks" with dark interests yet with powerful lobbying budgets and capabilities.

Although surely all WBG staff and an increasing number of citizens (mostly in urban areas) in less developed countries are gaining access to smart phones and social media tools, still most of the intended beneficiaries of international development investments are out of that loop.

Thus, in order to base its decisions on the conditions on the ground, the WBG needs to do a reality check and wake up from its "social media solve-it-all" hallucination and bring to bear a more comprehensive array of tools. They should include traditional mass communication channels (such as local radio and television, community round tables, periodic household assessments), to gather better information while establishing a productive and continuing dialogue with local organizations and their constituencies.

Submitted by Anonymous on


Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that it is important for the Bank to hear the views and perspectives of local civil society. As a global organization based in Washington it is obviously easier for us to interact with international CSOs and this is quite important, but over the past two decades we have taken many important steps to engage with national and local level CSOs as well. This has included decentralizing staff to country offices and hiring civil society focal points, sponsoring developing country CSO and youth leaders to attend the Annual Meetings, consulting actively with local CSOs on Bank policies, and using a variety of communication technologies to reach local communities. This has included (as you suggest) using community radio, household surveys, participatory decision-making methodologies, and social media. In some countries, the growing use of easily accessible phone apps are allowing local citizens to access information about Bank projects and policies.


Submitted by Ralph on

Dear John,

I sincerely appreciate your reply. The WBG has certainly made tangible progress setting in motion concrete measures to engage with local organizations, and they should be commended. However, given that the lobbying power brandished by large international CSOs has grown substantially, the WBG needs more than ever to become more effective at interacting directly with the communities it is aiming to serve.

Yes, mobile apps have a strong potential to enable broader access to information to the general public, yet as indicated in my previous message they mostly reach urban dwellers.

Perhaps the next frontier where the WBG should play more audaciously is at the country level. Here, the WBG's ongoing decentralization efforts are bold steps forward. One of the challenges ahead is to make use of innovation so that any citizen - regardless of gadget, income, education, location, gender or ethnicity - can fully interact with the tools and means at his/her disposal. Again, social media could be just one of the tools, although not yet the most effective one.


Submitted by Deepak Deb on

I am an Indian. Born and brought up in the district of Cachar, Assam(India). Bark Valley situated in the lower site of Assam, formed within three District ( Cachar, Karimganj & Hailakandi). As you are repeatedly outburst your views regarding the civil socity of America but there are numbers of problems facing by the people of Barak Valley due to nonconstructive attitude of Civilsocity. Communication system both in road and rail are in very worst condition. no facility of higher education, Infrastructure of the Barak valley 0%. People of Barak valley passing their livelihood through cultivation, daily labour and other way to survive. We have an attitude to help the people, if you people come to join with us by rendering your all out help.

Basically, Hindu, Muslim,Manipuri,Bihari, Naga, Adibashi, Rangkhlang, Charai, Khasi, SC, ST & OBC people are living in this three district. Once upon a time one big shot political leader called Barak Valley as the place of "Peace and harmony". After the independant of India no development has not been done, basically village area condition is very worsen. We the people of civil socity should move agaist the policy,so that major aminities can be get by the poor people of Barak Valley.

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