"Civil society is an important partner in the development process." Within the current development context, there's nothing particularly remarkable about this generic sentence. If anything, it merely reflects the now commonly espoused viewpoint that civil society should be considered an important constituency in development planning.
But perhaps it's time to more seriously interrogate the ubiquitous use of the word 'partner.' As Inigo Montoya once famously said in the movie The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
What exactly is this "partnership" all about? Does it mean that civil society should act in concert with the wishes of government? That it should serve as a policy conduit between government and citizens? That its primary purpose should be to carry out national development goals as a sort of implementing institution for government and for donors?
It appears that, within mainstream development thinking, the idea of civil society as a supportive partner to government is overshadowing its role as counterweight, critic and watchdog. From a donor standpoint, it is easier and safer to think about civil society as a compliant "partner" in all processes. But civil society, by its very nature, is and should be independent. Any society that aspires to accountable, legitimate, and effective governance must have a civil society that is unafraid to disagree with government, to challenge government, and to hold it to some kind of reckoning. This doesn't mean there's no room for civil society, donors and government to agree and work together on issues. But if donors and governments are truly committed to governance reform, then it's time to look beyond easy platitudes about partnership and toward a more complex - yet ultimately more meaningful - view of civil society.
Photo Credit: Flickr User aAndres