Monday, 6 December 1999

From "Strengthening civil society in developing countries"

By Alison Van Rooy.

What do we mean, precisely, when we use the term "civil society"?


Civil society as values and norms

For some, the "civil" in civil society is the operative word: the term describes the kind of well-behaved society that we want to live in, the goal for our political and social effort. This ideal society is trustful, tolerant, co-operative -- ambitions held to be universal and to be universally good.

Note the current conversation about "social capital," for instance, invigorated by Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone (1993, 1995) [...]

Civil society as a collective noun

[...] synonymous with the voluntary sector (or the Third Sector)' and with advocacy groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social movement agents, human rights organizations and other actors explicitly involved in change work [...] just how many CSOs are there? [...]

Civil society as a space for action

[...] together with state and market, one of the three "spheres" that interface in the making of democratic societies [...]

Civil society as a historical moment

Others describe civil society as a historical moment, either a real or idealized description of society when a set of prerequisites was in place. Adam Seligman's prerequisites were the primacy of the individual, rights-bearing and autonomous, and a shared public space in which agreed rules and norms are sustained [...]

Civil society as anti-hegemony

One of the most radical optics on the debate argues that civil society is not conducive to modern liberalism (in politics or economics) but is instead its antithesis.

First, many CSOs are disengaged from formal political processes and work partly underground, outside conventional institutions of civil society and the state, or are mobilized in opposition to prevailing cultural norms. In positing alternate visions of society (about gender and power, sexual identity, anti-consumerism, anti-globalization or anti-Westernism), movements may not ever join in formal political action. If one defines civil society primarily in terms of its relationship with the state, one may well miss this aspect of civil organizing.

For policy-makers trying to work in other cultures or in sub-cultures within their own, the implication is that their intervention may be utterly unwanted -- a symptom of the perceived cultural and economic dominance of "hegemonic" institutions [...]

Civil society as an antidote to the state

The sixth overlapping optic describes civil society by its activities in opposition to a centralized or autocratic state. Promoting civil society has come to mean limiting the state [...]

Another concern focuses on the implications for sovereignty in a globalizing civil society. Lipschultz argues that we are seeing an increase in international activism because of a leaking away of sovereignty (1992). Environmental degradation, the universalization of human rights (and the notion that foreign actors can act upon the transgression of rights in other countries), civil wars, drug trafficking, and other transborder activities are no longer seen to belong to the governments that govern the territory upon which they take place.

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