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VIEW: Revamping support to civil society —Syed Mohammad Ali

Having the state directly facilitate civil society initiatives is also problematic. Where the state is so biased that wealthy farm owners demanding subsidy are treated more kindly, while marginalised groups face repression, there is no use suggesting that donors should try to include the state in facilitating civil society

It is said that the increasing relevance of civil society in the world today is largely due to the disappointment with both the ‘revolutions from above’ in the shape of an interventionist state, and with ‘revolutions from below’ in the form of liberation struggles in the colonised world. There is growing faith in the capacity of civil society to strike a balance between individualism that ignores public interest for the sake of personal profit, and the collectivism that tramples individual interests in the name of the larger public good. Civil society is also being recognised for its ability to infuse democracy with a sense of genuine participation. Promotion of civil society is thus high on the agenda of most global developmental organisations.

Before considering this promising capacity of civil society, let us consider what civil society involvement actually implies. At least three strands of civil society involvement are readily identifiable. In formerly communist societies, civil society groups have filled the vacuum created by the collapse or weakening of formerly overwhelming state institutions that exerted control over most spheres of social life. In Western social democracies, which were facing problems delivering efficient services, civil society also became involved in supporting service provision. Moreover, in view of the more recent pressure from neo-liberalism to leave social service delivery to the market, civil society has helped form new social movements like those of feminists and ecologists and created new normative ideals, such as the notion of corporate social responsibility. In developing countries, while there is an evident replication of these precedents, civil society has additionally taken on the responsibility of questioning and humanising the overbearing post-colonial state, by aiming to create a more vigilant citizenry.

However, donor organisations are promoting a rather limited understanding of civil society in developing countries, which has created some problems. To promote ‘good governance’ — which politely insinuates the need to reduce state inefficiency and corruption — many multilateral and bilateral development organisations have started funding civil society organisations. This assertive promotion of NGOs has been accompanied by growing erosion of state mechanisms, which does not bode well for promoting social cohesion. Unlike politicians and political parties, who have to seek validation through elections, NGOs are responsible primarily to themselves and donors. Providing funds specifically for civil society organisations may be more convenient for the donors than engaging directly with states but citizens do not necessarily exercise control over civil society initiatives being undertaken on their behalf. Therefore, civil society organisations can often become preoccupied by the need to document activities for their donors, who in turn require these to placate the concerns of the taxpayers providing support for international development activities. While there is nothing wrong with increased accountability to donors, this imperative often shifts the focus away from the concerns of the people the civil society groups are actually meant to represent.

It is in this context that the dangers of neglecting the role of state in development processes become evident. But having the state directly facilitate civil society initiatives is also problematic. Neera Chandoke, for example, has referred to the struggle of dalits, tribals, traditional fisherfolk and urban pavement dwellers in India to illustrate how the Indian government responds differentially to different kinds of civil society associations. Where the state is so biased that wealthy farm owners demanding subsidy are treated more kindly, while marginalised groups face repression, there is no use suggesting that donors should try to include the state in facilitating civil society.

Given that both civil society organisations and state institutions in developing countries remain far from perfect, it is necessary to identify means to supplement the ongoing thrust to bypass one imperfect system in favour of another. To do so, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture once again and perhaps even to concede to a higher level of governance that extends beyond the sovereign state. George Monbiot emphasises the need for democratic and accountable global institutions acting independently of civil societies, states and trans-national actors. Monbiot considers contemporary international institutions incapable of achieving this. He specifically calls for transforming the ethics of global trade by developing a trade licensing body to ensure fair trade, as well as regulating the role of corporations. In his new book, The Age of Consent, he has proposed the creation of a Keynesian-style International Clearing Union, which was rejected by the US in 1944 in favour of a World Bank and an International Monetary Fund. A clearing union of this sort could try to check not only deficits but also surpluses, and thus prove more effective in preventing deficit traps facing many developing states. Deficit states would not be forced then to increase exports in competition with other deficit-ridden nations to pay off interests on their loans.

Monbiot also argues for a World Parliament — with proportionate representation of people rather than states — which can hold other global institutions to account. Surely there would be others willing to support and further Monbiot’s ideas. It does make good sense though to try to enhance collaboration among citizens and institutions around the world to help curb monopolisation of power by states, corporations or a select group of individuals claiming to represent civil society.

The writer is a researcher with diverse experience in the development sector. He can be reached at syedmohdali555@yahoo.com

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