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Civil society: universal concept or donor fad

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

John Harriss, LSE DESTIN
Jan Aart Scholte, University of Warwick

David Booth, ODI

  1. John Harriss argued that the concept of civil society - or at least that society-centric view, inspired in large part by the work of Robert Putnam, which appears to dominate the thinking of the Bank - is a donor fad, which is in effect pulling the politics out of development. The model of civil society to which donors subscribe maps poorly onto recipient societies, while de-politicising development threatens the very objectives that the donors espouse.

  2. The version of civil society which dominates is one which, inspired by de Tocqueville and Putnam, emphasises social organisations, associational life, informal relations, independent of the state or market, which bring people together in the pursuit of collective goals. It is closely bracketed with the concept of social capital - indeed, in Bank-speak the two terms are used largely synonymously.

  3. De Tocqueville's is however only one vision of social society: others view civil society as an arena for contestation, in which efforts at domination are played out and resisted. The Putnam argument is that strong civil society forms the basis for democracy and economic growth: this can equally well be reversed, with others (including Italian specialists) saying that the state has shaped civil society, through political mobilisation and organisation. Ashutosh Varshney's analysis of the incidence of inter-communal violence in Indian cities found that "bridging" social capital is much more common (in the form of a rich inter-communal civic life), and violence is much less common, in those cities in which the Ghandian political and social mobilisations of the 1920s and 1930s were most concentrated and most successful.

  4. If there is debate about the function of civil society, there is a good deal of consensus around the core of its definition, as relating to the institutions of modern associational life based on principles such as freedom of exit and entry, contract, and so on. Defined in this way, it seems that civil society in India or Africa is very small; what exists arose largely from the mobilising activities of nationalist elites (who once in power typically neglected or dismantled it). Most of the important forms of identity and organisation lying outside the state in India are of the community type, based on caste or ethnicity, rather than the modern, voluntaristic forms taken to characterise civil society.

  5. This leaves the question of whether it is desirable, and possible, for donors to engineer the expansion of civil society in developing countries. The auguries are not good: efforts to create democratic states have not been notably successful, and USAID has found that civil society organisations it created to counter-weight authoritarian states have often turned out to be anti-democratic themselves. Sanjay Kumar and Stuart Corbridge have found the DFID's East India rainfed project was quite good at agriculture, but the local development organisations they fostered were dominated by local elites - who withdrew from traditional, collective and reciprocal social arrangements, which provided some guarantees to the poorest.

  6. There are more positive examples: Lewis cites the role of NGOs in mobilising in support of realising poor people's land rights in Mozambique. But such cases usually require substantial political analysis, or initial political mobilisation.

  7. The donor fad for civil society thus reflects the desire for democracy without the inconveniences of democratic politics, and certainly without the need for supporting radical political action. This can be seen in India, where the states with the most social capital - such as Kerala - are those in which the lower castes and classes were mobilised politically in the nineteenth century, in a way that is only now becoming apparent in Bihar and UP.

  8. Jan Aart Scholte agreed that the concept of civil society is one which has become heavily used in development and, as often happens when an academic concept is taken into development practice, there is a wide variation in understanding of the concept. Under these circumstances, the concept can indeed become a fad. But it can be given substance by i) a more precise definition, setting a policy-relevant notion of civil society in relation to contemporary politics; ii) exploring the forces that have led to the growth of interest in civil society; and iii) establishing a framework by which to assess its legitimacy as a candidate for donor support.

  9. Definition varies enormously: in sixteenth century England, civil society was taken as synonymous with the state, while for Hegel it included the market, and for Gramsci it was the arena in which dominant elites forged ideological hegemony. So, it is important not to be dogmatic, but to relate the concept to context. It can be defined for the time being as "a political space where voluntary associations seek deliberately to shape the rules which govern social life". The line between civil society and the market or the political blurs - but this is no big deal. This definition includes not just NGOs but also kinship, clan, ethnicity, environmental and human rights movements, think tanks, business associations, trade unions, etc. An active political orientation is central to this conception; it thus excludes recreational clubs and "pure" charity NGOs. The concept clearly does have its original roots in western politics, but much civil society today is not in this mould. Similarly, civil society was originally clearly defined in relation to national issues, yet much of contemporary civil society is regional or global in organisation and orientation - and should not be disqualified on these grounds.

  10. The term has risen to prominence over the last 20 years in the face of the decline of the one-party state; the spread of liberal democracy; the increasing importance of supra-national forces; and dissatisfaction with party politics. All these have increased the scope for and interest in politics outside the state. Linked to globalisation has been the emergence of new forms of identity politics based around faith, ethnicity, feminism and so on, which cross borders, facilitated by advances in technology which enable communication between like-minded individuals. At a deeper structural level, contemporary civil society is a feature of a "reflexive modernity", an expression of a desire to question the institutions of state and market.

  11. The question of how outsiders should attempt to understand and work with civil society in cultures which are not their own is a valid one. Criteria by which outsiders could judge how to work with civil society groups could include:
    • Morality: a group secures moral legitimacy when it fulfils goals related to social conscience. It often serves this purpose, but not always. Civil society is not always civil: it can also be sexist, racist, or homophobic, or reproduce caste or class inequalities.
    • Efficacy: the group should be competent, informed and knowledgeable (though not necessarily in a technocratic sense).
    • Democracy - it should held contribute to closing the democratic deficit. Civil society has considerable democraticising potential, but it has to be proven. Civil society groups can give voice, create pluralism, enable dissent, and exert pressure for transparency. But they can also limit political participation if they force people into groups, or are themselves untransparent or unrepresentative (note that globally most are led by white, Northern males).
    • Social cohesion: seen as declining in modern society, civil society can help to preserve and increase it. But once again, this is not automatic: civil society can also be used in socially divisive ways (e.g. by racists, or in pursuit of economic special interest rather than the common good).

  12. In conclusion, legitimacy is as complex for civil society as it is for the state. Civil society is neither universal nor a fad. If we want concepts which can help us understand and participate in our times, then civil should be amongst those we use.

  13. David Booth summarised the presentations as expressing a difference in emphasis: while John Harriss says that the dangers (that the concept of covil society distracts from political monilisation) outweighs the advantages, Jan Aart Scholte argues that civil society is in part a response to the failure of political mobilisation.

  14. The discussion covered several issues:
  • If it was accepted that donors work with civil society because they can't work with political parties, what is the conclusion? Should they work with NGOs, or be explicit in what they are doing and why, or find ways in which they can work with overtly political actors like parties?

  • The need to differentiate between donors - and even within big donors such as the Bank - which may use the concept in different ways, many of which are less restrictive and restricting than those John Harriss described.

  • On the relationship of political and social mobilisation, there are limits to what is gained by trying to identify causality: it is a question of chicken and egg. What should donors seek to do in states like Orissa, which lacks (positive) civil society but also has a disinterested political elite? If civil society is a political space, how does an increase in its profile or level of activity affect political actors in the state realm? How do actors move between political and civil society locations? In Bihar, it was found that literacy activists, successful in campaigning from a civil society standpoint, became ineffective when they tried to participate in the restored panchayat elections, as they were managed and excluded by the usual political fixers and middlemen.

  • Could local government be seen as a form of ridging social capital, as they are neither central government nor market, and serve to bring decision-making close to the people? Alternatively, it can be seen as clearly part of the state, or as a site of mafias and social and political exclusion.

  • The limitations of trying to predetermine the effects of what is actually a fairly loose concept. Promoting civil society may be as much about creating political and policy space as t is working with specific organisations such as NGOs. It is hard to be certain about how an introduced concept may take root: big donor agencies may try to use it one way, but other groups may find it useful in other, unintended ways.


This event discussed the model of civil society to which donors subscribe maps poorly onto recipient societies, while de-politicising development threatens the very objectives that the donors espouse.