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Civil Society: To What Purpose?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

"Associations may socialise individuals into practising core civic and democratic values, such as tolerance, dialogue and deliberation, trust, solidarity, and reciprocity."
I'd mentioned in a previous post that I had a few more thoughts on this report on citizen engagement from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability (Citizenship DRC) at the UK's Institute of Development Studies (IDS). In light of recent conversations at the Bank regarding civil society, I've been thinking about the significance of framing civil society in instrumental terms (i.e., as a means toward an end in achieving sectoral reforms) vs. framing it as a fundamental institution of good governance. The report notes outright that associations can be schools of democracy, contributing to political participation and citizen influence over public policy. In fragile states, it says, associations can strengthen the culture of citizenship and help build responsive states. Based on my own admittedly subjective experience with these issues, this appears to be true; those who have actively participated in some form of associational life tend to be better equipped to participate in the formal give and take of democratic governance. And yet it seems as though much of the mainstream development world still views civil society mainly as a tool through which sectoral reforms can be achieved.
Civil society has a vital role to play in advancing and consolidating sectoral reforms, of course. But viewing civil society mainly as a means through which sectoral objectives can be achieved - in areas such as health care, housing, education, the environment - minimizes the significance of civil society as institution necessary for good governance. If development institutions view their engagement with civil society merely as instrumental to other goals, they will miss a host of opportunities to strengthen an important keystone of state-society relations.
To be sure, the report notes that some governance-oriented civil society organizations (CSO) have focused too heavily on the theory of citizen participation without offering actual avenues for action. In contrast, many sectoral or other issue-based grassroots community activists have taught themselves how to achieve real policy change, without outside technical support. It's hard to argue against real-world experience.
Perhaps the right approach, then, blends an appreciation of civil society as an institution of accountable governance with recognition of its importance in achieving sectoral objectives. Something to keep in mind as the development field continues to reorient itself with respect to civil society.

Photo Credit: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank (on Flickr)

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