iii. Understanding civil society
Civil society is the third element of discussions about how institutional development should be brought about and by whom. The term ‘civil society’ itself is ‘used in different ways by different people’ (Bebbington and Riddell, 1997). But the following definition is one that gives some insight into its core meaning.
Civil society is, together with the state and market, one of three ‘spheres’ that interface in the making of democratic societies. Civil society is the sphere in which social movements become organised. The organisations of civil society, which represent many diverse and sometimes contradictory social interests, are shaped to their social base, constituency, thematic orientations (e.g. environment, gender, human rights) and types of activity. They include church-related groups, trade unions, co-operatives, service organisations, community groups and youth organisations, as well as academic institutions and others.
(UNDP, 1993, cited in Bebbington and Riddell, 1997, p. 109)
A concern with civil society groups and their participation in diverse arenas of decision-making and programme implementation has certainly increased in recent years. Civil society has had a growing voice in global governance and is said by Edwards, who has written extensively about NGOs, to be a ‘prerequisite for creating viable policy and strategy’ (Barakat and Chard, 2002, p. 72).
Of particular interest has been the role of NGOs in service provision – historically considered part of the state arena, even if the state did not necessarily meet this expectation. Although different NGOs have their own histories, goals and constituencies (and may not be engaged in service provision at all), they can also be repositories of activities:
devolved by the state;
which the state has failed to carry out; and
which the market is unable to provide to particular (usually vulnerable) groups in society.
However the conception of civil society is not simply benign. For example, Howell and Pearce argue that civil society has two contrasting and possibly opposing roles: to challenge the status quo as well as to work in synergy with the state. The concept of civil society can thus encompass a diverse set of groups and movements.
If there is no agreed definition, how can it be used to act with? Or is the diversity also part of its strength as it opens space for diverse groups to enter into debates? Howell and Pearce argue that
… its appeal to such a wide institutional and political spectrum lies not least in the intellectual and political space it opens up within a context where long-standing dualistic debates about state or market paths to economic development, reform or revolution have reached an impasse. Ironically, its diffuseness has also been a secret of its success, enabling it to be legitimately claimed by everyone.
(Howell and Pearce, 2001, p. 1)