On December 14, the Carnegie Endowment hosted a symposium on civil society moderated by Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies. Michael Edwards (The Ford Foundation), Irungu Houghton (ActionAid USA), and David Rieff (writer and journalist) responded to questions concerning the concept of civil society and its role in developing and transitional countries, as well as the emergence of transnational civil society. A summary of highlights of the discussion follows:
Observing that many people use the term "civil society" as though it represents something new, Thomas Carothers opened the session with several questions. Is it really new, or are we simply relabeling older notions of interest groups or the nonprofit sector? And, given the inherently amorphous nature of the term and the real diversity of citizen groups on the ground, do we really know or agree about what we are talking about when we use the term civil society?
Michael Edwards and David Rieff debated the value of prescriptive and descriptive uses of the term "civil society," i.e. whether the term refers just to those citizens groups that embody certain civic values or to all types of associations, virtuous or vicious ones alike. David Rieff argued that aid organizations and other civil society enthusiasts are indulging in a "liberal fable" with respect to the concept of civil society, by using the term prescriptively, without recognizing that civil society in many countries often has nefarious and dangerous elements. Michael Edwards rejected that charge and insisted that the term "civil society" does have utility and coherence. He argued that it has both descriptive and prescriptive elements - what is essential, in his view, is that the foreign aid community has moved beyond its earlier focus on the state (in the 1960s and 1970s) and the market (in the 1980s) to a more interactive view of societies in which the associational realm plays many crucial roles.
Irungu Houghton pointed out that the concept of civil society clearly emerges out of a study of social history. There have always been vibrant social tensions that have given rise to citizen activism in one form or another. Over the past few decades, the rise of anti-Communist movements in Eastern Europe and human rights movements in Latin American have been particularly relevant to shaping our definition of civil society today. The considerable amounts of donor funding going to civil society organizations is a defining feature of the world of civil society today in many societies.
Moving forward, Carothers proposed that the relationship between civil society, NGOs, and politics is often muddled. Sometimes the international community talks about civil society as a domain clearly separate from politics. At other times, civil society groups are heralded for their political role. It is not entirely clear how these two conceptions can be reconciled, or whether they are in fact contradictory. Consequently, the role of donor organizations, which fund civil society, requires some examination.
Edwards suggested that the most important step might be set one's blinders aside and attempt to set individual NGOs in their social context. Iit is only natural that money flows to groups with normative goals similar to the donors'. To the extent that these goals are to be realized, political action is unavoidable in many cases. It is most important for donors to recognize this and study the linkages in order to be fully informed about the decisions they make. Houghton added that many domestic governments strictly prohibit NGOs with tax-free status from political affiliation. Indeed, it seems that most states continue to view NGOs as actors outside of the political arena. While in reality there are quite a few groups that perform ostensibly nonpolitical functions, their real separation from political society in general remains unclear.
One interesting trend to consider is that while funding has traditionally focused on NGOs, its emphasis has shifted to some extent toward less organized, grassroots movements. This move is both positive and negative, according to Edwards. While grassroots organizations may have some advantages in terms of accountability and responsiveness, it is perhaps unwise to reduce funding to organized NGOs too drastically. NGOs form the connective tissue that binds together other areas of associational activity, and therefore serve some purpose in building a broad civil society.
In addition, Houghton observed that because many social welfare functions of government in developing countries are insufficient, NGOs serve as private providers of many public goods. If the goal is to build civil society from the ground up, by funding grassroots movements and increasing their organizational capacity, it may be necessary to also strengthen the state so that it can reassume many public welfare functions. Edwards agreed in principle, but emphasized that funding for these two components of society is probably not a zero sum game and that official and private donors should strive to implement a mixed strategy to target both civil society and the government. Indeed, if we rely on civil society or NGOs as the magic bullet to solve a whole myriad of problems, we may be sorely disappointed.
Turning to the international context, Carothers pointed to the rise of transnational civil society--NGOs linked across borders in issue-based advocacy networks--as an important development. Are the few well-documented cases passing phenomena, or are they indications of genuinely powerful networks that are here to stay and develop? And what do the recent WTO, IMF, and World Bank protests tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of these actors?
According the panelists, the Seattle protests were both a positive and negative development for transnational civil society. While the peaceful elements of the movement opened up space for discussion on the problems of globalization, the more aggressive and violent strains of the protests have made governments more defensive about civil society involvement across a range of issues. Houghton proposed that the protests did reveal some key insights into the working of the international system. They demonstrated the vulnerability to public opinion of seemingly impenetrable global institutions; they displayed the tremendous mobilization capacity of transnational networks; and they signaled the weakness of multilateralism and state-to-state relations in the globalized world.
Edwards argued that the future challenge for these movements is to organize critical dialogue within the political space that they have created, around the issues that they have targeted. In this sense, they face many of the problems that domestic NGOs face when they arise out of anti-establishment or opposition movements. Moreover, it would seem wise for these movements to guard against promoting a limited Western agenda at the expense of responsiveness to the Southern NGOs. Edwards noted that many important issues are underrepresented because differences in resources mean that all citizens do not have equal voices in global discussions. Assuming that transnational civil society will flourish in the future, Rieff proposed that these issues will become more and more important, and will need to be confronted so that the erosion of sovereignty does not manifest itself as a new form of hegemony.