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States and Civil Societies in the New Aid Approach

Time (GMT +00) 17:00 18:30


Jenny Pearce, Professor of Latin American Politics, University of Bradford


Alina Rocha Menocal, Overseas Development Institute


Diana Cammack, Overseas Development Institute

Professor Jenny Pearce opened by remarking that the current swing of the development pendulum back to the state was healthy to an extent, but perhaps also partly based on a misunderstanding of civil society by donors. She discussed this under three themes:

  1. i) the historical question of what role civil society plays in state building;

  2. analysis of the "civil society turn" in development trends (c1990-2005), including its failures and an explanation of the misconceptions which contributed to them; and

  3. given this critique, suggestions for what kind of external support could be given to help civil society contribute to effective state building.

She took "civil society" to refer to the essentially public sphere of voluntary associational life between family, market and state, basing this on Iris Marion Young's work and the concept of "lifeworld" (Habermas). It is vital to understand that civil society is "messy": a heterogeneous, value clashing arena, complex and conflictive.

Donors have often failed to grasp this. In an effort to derive fundable projects from theories of civil society, they lifted "the NGO" from the lifeworld and made the NGO the main unit for funding and understanding civil society. This tends to create a situation where donors fund people like themselves - middle class professionals - and the ability of organisations to meet bureaucratic norms of external accountability drives funding decisions. The World Bank's famous triadic model from the 1997 WDR of market, state and civil society made this common error of oversimplifying and reifiying "civil society" as an unproblematic agent for development.

Moving onto "state building", she referred to Lange and Rueschemeyer (2005), who conclude that 'state building is time consuming and difficult'. This may seem banal but it is also very profound:

" The factors which enable economic development to take place may have to be traced to the indirect impact of states on economy and society over time, which have lain dormant until historical conditions make them relevant.

" The relative ease of Chile's post-Pinochet transition to democracy and continued economic growth - and some of its weaknesses - can be traced back to state and political institution building processes originating in the 19th century, for example.

She argued further that to separate state effectiveness from state building is artificial and unsustainable.

  • State "embeddedness" is a key concept, one of Lange and Rueschmeyer's three characteristics of effective states (the others are "formal-rational organisation" and "state culture/espirit de corps"). This refers to the capacity of states to harness societal actors and exercise "infrastructural" rather than "coercive" power.
  • The ties between state and society are thus vital.
  • In Europe, states first formed as absolutist entities: civil societies developed in struggles for accountability and state effectiveness, which continue today.
  • Patrimonial states are lacking perhaps in all three elements. She felt that there is no one route to transforming them, but all lie in the state-economy-society connection. The historical moment is important. Early state builders were able to engage in war and plunder; while this continues, mostly within so-called state boundaries, it is not so clear that it is linked to state building and in any case is presumably not a route we would want to promote.

Looking at the experience of the "civil society turn" in development practice, she felt that the Paris Declaration is a response to the failure to build measurable links between stronger civil societies and effective states. Part of the problem is that effective civil societies develop alongside effective states. A non-linear, incremental and multiple component state building approach reveals this. Civil society organisations and NGOs do matter to development, but funding them must be based on a clear analysis not a rushed reification.

Civil society strengthening took place in a historical context which she characterised as:

  • The rise of neoliberalism,
  • the ideological rejection of the developmental state, and
  • the search from easily categorisable, ideologically acceptable and hence fundable agencies for the new policy agenda.

In the process, a strata of NGOs was created whose embeddedness is as much in question as that of their States.

It is not surprising that it was middle class elites who initially formed NGOs. But she noted that the nature of even these middle-class NGOs had changed, from more social solidarity orientated organisations to a distinct elite strata, based in capital cities with only sporadic contact with the poorer sections of society.

She argued that this was a product of the bureaucratic logic of development organisations, who have sought to create mirror-images of themselves - in the process prioritising technocratic skills above societal embeddedness. Patience, listening, willingness to try new ideas and fail are more important in building associational life. Gender is important here - socialisation processes mean that women are more likely to value and posses such skills.

In conclusion, she said that multilateral and bilateral development organisations are ill-suited to fund the complex and messy "lifeworld" of civil society. This does not mean that civil society should now be downplayed; rather that the limitations of a technocratic-focussed approach should be understood.

International NGOs with histories of shared working are often better at supporting civil society in the South. However, the development industry has colonised that relationship too and some international NGOs increasingly resemble state donor bodies, resulting in an unfortunate fragmentation of their relationship with social movements, which could be very productive in building a socially embedded associational life in which the voices of the poor and marginalised are present.

We can talk of effective states when development objectives are genuinely geared to responding to such voices. Such states need effective civil societies

In response, Alina Rocha Menocal picked up two themes:

  1. issues relating civil society and the developmental state, and
  2. issues relating civil society and democracy.

Adrian Leftwich began this meeting series commenting that in East Asia developmental states were accompanied by weak civil societies. She noted that Peter Evans' work (1995) on embeddedness shows how there were some effective ties, but with business only, not other sectors of society - a rather exclusionary form of embeddedness.

She said that Jenny Pearce had outlined how the shift from "good governance" to "effective states" may neglect the role of civil society as a partner in building effective states. The question then is what role can civil society play?

She felt that this is a very relevant question given that many states are going through periods of democratic transition, particularly in Latin America. Many of these are already formal democracies but lacking full realisation of citizenship rights and with poorly functioning formal institutions. In general, surveys have shown that political parties and legislatures in Latin America are the least trusted institutions among citizens, ranking well below the Church and even the armed forces. This is clearly a problem if parties are to be vehicles to represent citizen demands.

The product of this is an increasingly confrontational relationship between civil society and the state, and the de-institutionalisation of politics. For example, since the late 1980s, 14 elected presidents have been unable to finish their constitutional terms in office, having been forced out by protest.

This is particularly a challenge for donors, whose existing models of partnerships assume that state, civil society and markets share common interests. Processes such as PRSP design are thus treated as technical and depoliticised, whereas in fact they are inherently deeply political.

This throws up a number of questions:

  • can a civil society that grew up under authoritarianism and defined itself in opposition to the state shift toward a more conciliatory and partnership approach?
  • How can conflict be best mediated/managed and how can multiple interpretations of 'the public good' be negotiated?
  • How do we strengthen people's demand for development via formal state institutions?
  • Isn't this necessary to create a 'developmental state' and rights-based development?

Points raised in the discussion included:

  1. there are areas of Latin America where people believe that the state is inclusive of everyone
  2. why are we at a privileged historical moment where civil society can create states rather than the process being one of interaction as previously?
  3. is the notion of the political settlement more useful in explaining state legitimacy and effectiveness than state-civil society relations? It helps draw attention to the need for some shared vision between larger socio-economic actors, which is not uniquely an East Asian phenomenon. In Latin America, states did achieve considerable growth during the early and middle 20th century.
  4. how to get civil society and private sector partnerships working in a context where both were wary of the state (Colombia)?
  5. how to deal with the fear of civil society empowerment among African political leaders?
  6. what can donors do where there seems to be no civil society to work with, or where people have turned away from the state (e.g. many parts of Africa)?

In response, Professor Pearce said:

  • she didn't want to say there should be no boundaries between state and society, but that a high degree of interaction across boundaries was crucial;
  • that she didn't see civil society as the driver of state creation, but as an essential partner. She felt that the current historical moment was different, in that there was more space for civil society in the world system, and some abuses of rights and freedoms are less acceptable in the name of development. For example, when East Asian states developed, heavy US influence worked against the development of independent civil society (e.g. trade unions); Soviet stalinist tactics similarly lost favour now;
  • She was not an expert on political settlement theories, but felt that if settlements included a strong role for associational life, beyond mere consultation, then this would assist in effective state building. The alternative was the contestational route that Alina described in Latin America. It was true that the continent had seen growth in some countries, but also that this had stalled. Note that nation-building - creating a situation where people feel they share a legitimate right to the same space with their fellows - is also important and separate from state building;
  • Colombia is interesting because of the involvement of the private sector in peace initiatives. Neither the state nor the FARC see civil society as legitimate - the challenge is to change this;
  • There is no easy answer, but it is important that this question is addressed, and not forgotten in the rush to support the state;
  • Finally, she questioned the assertion that in some countries there is no civil society to work with. Her experience in Guatemala was of a divided and marginalised region where nevertheless local leaders and groups were constructing functioning associational life, often aimed at increasing state accountability at local level, overcoming interethnic tensions, etc. However, well-meaning but clumsy external funding had distorted incentives and caused conflict. In Africa, she knew of many people working on peace and solidarity building initiatives - albeit in local enclaves, small scale, but there is activity there. They don't need large amounts of money, but rather support of other kinds

Finally, Alina Rocha Menocal commented

  • Sometimes decentralisation brought forth unthought of alliances to build effective governance e.g. Mexico City post-2000 - pockets of hope;
  • Latin America's growth in mid-20th century was impressive, but often the benefits had been very unequally distributed;
  • Not only Africa but much of the South suffered from political leadership unwilling to genuinely work with civil society;
  • The Paris Agenda does not mean that all funding will go through the state; more will, but donors will still seek other actors to work with.


The sixth meeting in the '(Re)building Developmental States: From Theory to Practice' series discussed States and civil societies.