Theories of Civil Society

Theorizing about civil society has a long history in Western social and political thought (Alexander, 2006), but discussion of civil society has experienced a renaissance in recent decades, including attention to its role in both developed and developing societies (Diamond, 1994; Edwards and Hulme, 1995; Held, 1995; Chaplowe and Madden, 1996; Foley and Edwards, 1996; Salamon and Anheier, 1996; Smith, 1998; Brulle, 2000; Deakin, 2001; Minkoff, 2001; Warren, 2001; Fung, 2003; Munck, 2004; Walzer, 2004; Igoe and Kelsall, 2005; Alexander, 2006; Heyse, 2006; Dibie, 2007a; Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin, 2008).

Definitions and interpretations of civil society vary; however, the most prominent line of thought (e.g., Held, 1995; Edwards, 2004) defines civil society as a sphere of social life structured by private, voluntary arrangements among individuals and groups pursuing their own goals—which may, however, include working for what they perceive as the common good—rather than by the family, the state, or the economy. Participation in civil society is thus not determined by birth, occupational requirements, or state coercion, but by choice. Although some authors (e.g., Putnam, 2000) include informal cliques and neighboring as part of civil society, the core of the concept centers on organized associations; it includes groups as diverse as amateur sports leagues, hobby clubs, self-help groups, neighborhood or village associations, charitable organizations, public interest lobby groups, and SMOs. In particular, NGOs like those studied in this book are frequently emphasized in theory and research about civil society, especially in developing countries.

Much of the recent literature about civil society has been devoted to enumerating its positive contributions to society. Theorists typically argue that democracies with market economies, whether in mature or newly emerging democracies, function best when accompanied by a well- developed civil society and that civil society strengthens democracy. NGOs and other associations, which are the key components of civil society, are credited with building social capital—the network of overlapping memberships and mutual trust that binds citizens to one another and to society—reducing social fragmentation and isolation. Civil society, it is claimed, promotes tolerance of divergent opinions and acceptance of devalued groups and builds an inclusive social solidarity that dampens destructive struggles among interest and racial and ethnic groups. Civil society organizations are also credited with stepping in to provide needed services in cases of market or state failure, especially in the developing world. Moreover, civil society is said to supplement and strengthen the formal democratic structures of the state by providing an alternative to rigid state bureaucracies, by bringing important problems to light, by providing additional mechanisms for public participation in setting societal goals, by representing the interests of groups of citizens, and by acting as a check on government and business power. This is especially important in societies where democracy is under threat. In addition, through participation in the work and governance of associations, citizens are said to learn skills in self-government, a sense of personal efficacy, and an understanding of the necessity to carry their share of the load. Finally, a strong civil society is thought to contribute to the development of a more deliberative politics. In deliberative politics, knowledgeable citizen groups take part in reasoned discussions among all the parties involved in an issue in order to reach carefully considered decisions. Civil society organizations contribute to this both by disseminating information and by fostering reasoned debate.

Attention to civil society increased beginning around 1990, as theorists and researchers began to use civil society theory as a basis for research and policy recommendations for rebuilding formerly communist societies and for formulating new models of development for less developed countries. Writers with the former emphasis stressed the need to build strong civil societies to accompany and strengthen democratization processes and the transition to capitalism. Their ideas were extended to developing societies, where they were combined with additional themes to construct theories of civil society and development.

Arguments for the key role of civil society and NGOs in developing nations found a receptive audience and quickly obtained widespread acceptance and influence on practice and flows of funds (Hellinger, 1987; Bratton, 1990; Princen, 1994; Vivian, 1994; Edwards and Hulme, 1995; Chaplowe and Madden, 1996; Cheaka and Nangbe, 1997; Clarke, 1998; Zaidi, 1999; Neubert, 2001; Michael, 2004; Igoe and Kelsall, 2005; McCormick, 2005; Dibie, 2007a; Fonjong, 2007a, 2007b; Edwards, 2008; Goldberger, 2008; Hearn, 2007; Tukahirwa, Mol, and Oosteveer, 2010, 2014; Beer, 2012). Frustrated by years of watching development funds disappear into ineffective and corrupt government bureaucracies that seemed to serve the needs of elites rather than the general public, researchers and civil society theorists, aid agencies, and policy makers began to suggest channeling development funds through international and indigenous NGOs as a solution to the problem of “state failure.” They believed that, with funding and support, NGOs could step in to deliver services that the state had been unable to provide effectively, especially after structural adjustments sharply curtailed the state’s resources. Advocates of this approach also expected NGOs to be more participatory and democratic, to strengthen civil society and act as a counterweight to the state, and to be more cost effective and more apt to target real needs. The funders hoped that NGOs’ smaller scale, flexibility, and grassroots ties would allow them to promote citizen participation, innovate, and solve problems more effectively than calcified government bureaucracies. The result was a surge of funding to a wide variety of NGOs, including environmental NGOs. Often international NGOs, which had more on- the-ground experience, were enlisted by development agencies to channel aid to local ones.

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