Problems with Civil Society Practice and Theory

Unfortunately, high expectations for NGOs and civil society in developing nations did not always work out as planned. NGO performance is notoriously hard to measure (Edwards and Hulme, 1995; Edwards, 2008); however, the weight of the available evidence suggests that—although far from being a complete failure—the wave of NGO activity that resulted from increased funding and support fell well short of being the panacea that the advocates had expected, ultimately resulting in disappointment and somewhat reduced support. Researchers and policy makers (Fatton, 1995; Langley, 1995; Pearce, 1997, 2000; Clarke, 1998; Zaidi, 1999; Neubert, 2001; Igoe and Kelsall, 2005; Heyse, 2006; Fonjong, 2007b; Hearn, 2007; Amanor and Moyo, 2008; Edwards, 2008; Child, 2009; Holmen, 2010) suggested numerous possible explanations for the failures. Some noted that expectations for NGO performance in the development community had been unreasonably inflated—especially in light of the relatively small amounts of money and expertise actually at the disposal of NGOs and the magnitude of the tasks they faced. Others argued that some of the new NGOs were essentially creations of international funding organizations, and many others were thoroughly co-opted by the new funding, turning them into virtual subcontractors and robbing them of their independence and legitimacy. In order to keep the money flowing, NGOs sometimes exaggerated their successes, and funding cycles were often too short to allow much real progress. Moreover, conflicting, complex, and time-consuming funder reporting and accountability requirements sometimes became obstacles to NGO effectiveness. Still others pointed out that overcoming pervasive ethnic, tribal, and religious divides, massive disparities in wealth, and resistance from traditional cultures and practices in order to foster civil society ideals has proven much more difficult than advocates of civil society had imagined. Moreover, many NGOs were neither particularly oriented toward fostering democracy nor democratically governed, and efforts to foster participation and democratization sometimes encountered opposition from state authorities, who were worried about where democracy might lead. Participatory schemes intended to develop civil society required by international funders thus sometimes became shams, with NGOs and local citizens forced to at least appear to agree to demands for increased participation in return for resources. And even where democratically oriented NGOs actually attempted to foster participatory ideals, they often functioned as a thin overlay over nonparticipating masses of citizens. Moreover, many donor NGOs were relatively unenthusiastic about supporting confrontational social movement groups.

Behind this list of rather practical issues, however, lay deeper problems rooted in civil society theory and its view of NGOs. Hidden in the theory was the unanalyzed assumption that newly strengthened NGOs would almost inevitably behave as civil society theorists wanted them to. NGOs were expected to compensate for state failure and deliver services efficiently, all the while overcoming ethnic social divisions and increasing tolerance, providing experience in good citizenship and strengthening democracy, and uniting citizens behind them. Indeed, close examination of civil society theory reveals that much of it consists of normative and programmatic statements about how advocates thought NGOs should act or expected them to act, not carefully reasoned argumentation about why they would act this way or the conditions under which they would be most likely to do so. In the process, inconvenient but important realities were frequently overlooked (Child, 2009).

A closely related problem has been the tendency to treat NGOs as an undifferentiated whole and make sweeping generalizations about them without taking into account their unique goals and situations—a problem exacerbated by the fact that images of NGOs and their role in civil society vary considerably among authors (Clarke, 1998; Munck, 2004; Child, 2009; Holmen, 2010; Doherty and Doyle, 2014). The writings of neoliberals, for example, typically describe NGOs that undertake to fill gaps in state services, work within the system, and subscribe to the tenants of liberal democracy, while writers from the Left have looked at NGOs that function as parts of social movements fighting for equality and democratization of authoritarian regimes. In fact, NGOs in developing countries vary from being branches of well-resourced and well-organized international NGOs with offices around the world to small, locally based NGOs with very limited resources and high dependence on volunteer labor. NGO goals also vary widely, ranging from protecting wildlife, to operating recycling programs, to educating people about climate change, to fighting construction projects that might damage the environment. Each of these goals implies involvement with different stakeholders, different potential responses from government, and different fund-raising opportunities. Each of these types of NGOs might well generate some of the benefits civil society theorists mention; however, some NGOs might be irrelevant to realizing other expected benefits and actually impede attaining others. This kind of diversity is, unfortunately, infrequently taken into account by civil society theorists (Pearce, 1997, 2000; Neubert, 2001; Thomas, 2001; Heyse, 2006; Bebbington, Hickey, and Mitlin, 2008; Edwards, 2008; Child, 2009). Had civil society theorists begun with more realistic and nuanced theoretical models of the factors that influence NGO goals, strategies, and structures, they might have been both less broadly optimistic about what might be attained by strengthening and supporting NGOs and more realistic in formulating strategies to work with and strengthen specific kinds of NGOs.

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