Civil Society & Development

"Civil society has established itself at the beginning of the twenty-first century as a significant, even paradigmatic concept in the field of development policy and practice" wrote Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce in their 2001 book "Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration" (p. 1). Yet, how do donors conceptualize, fund and engage with civil society? What assumptions do donors have about civil society, and its relationship to development, democracy and the market? These are some of the questions the authors set out to address. This book is well written and researched. It remains relevant to readers interested in civil society and development.

  • A focus on civil society by donor agencies emerged from a specific context wherein there was "growing disillusion with the state as both agent of economic development and locus of justice. These political assaults on the state took place within the ideological context of the rise of neoliberalism, which celebrated the allocative efficiencies of the market and derided the state as an agency for economic growth and management" (p. 89-90).

Foundations:

  • "De Tocqueville emphasized how a participatory citizenry active in a multiplicity of associations could ensure defense of the citizen against despotic government but also foster active engagement rather than disengagement with politics. It nurtures, for instance, the habit and capacity for self-rule. It encourages different interests to argue with each other without any attempt to reach a collective will… De Tocqueville assumed the self-interest and weakness of the isolated individual. This led him to search for forms of cooperation as a way of overcoming weakness. In the process, the individual learned the skills and developed the democratic culture…" (p. 44).

Civil society and democracy:

  • "In emphasizing the role of civil society as a democratic force against oppressive states, donor discourse has added to the dominant anti-statist theme in civil society debates, which is its most partial renderings has reduced civil society to antistate. This has ensured that a serious debate on the problems and prospects of the developmental state has not happened, and the neoliberal critique of that state remains the uncontested paradigm. Moreover this antistate focus has detracted attention away from the despotic tendencies of corporate capital and its potentially damaging effects on civil society. Donor encourage the illusion that civil society is harmonious and that is can only ever act as a force in favor of the liberal – primarily U.S. – model of capitalist development and democracy." (p. 11).

On social capital:

  • "The concept of social capital fails intellectually to provide a convincing missing link in development or to measure precisely what civil society contributes to development. Like the associations of civil society, trust and reciprocity can contribute negatively or positively to a variety of outcomes" (p. 30).

Challenges:

  • "For most donors civil society is a means to an end – be than democratization, economic growth, or sustainable development – rather than an end in itself. It is thus reduced to a technical exercise of coordination, cooperation, and joint effort, depoliticized and neutralized" resulting in "blueprint status" (p. 117).
  • "Not only is there a tendency to assume that civil society within nation-states is homogenous in moral purpose and values, but also that there is one civil society in the world" (p. 118).
  • "In contexts of aid dependence, the manufacturing of, and the long-term sustainability of, civil society become significant issues. External dependence on donors can easily lead to a distortion of local agendas as local NGOs competing for funding shape their planned programs and activities around the priority of donors. In countries where civil society and democratic institutions are fragile, the arrival of donors with preconceived notions about what civil society should do can end up weakening the capacity of local organizations to develop their own visions of civil society, their own understandings of how to achieve social and political change, and their own solutions to problems that are central to their lives" (p. 120).
  • "With their emphasis on urban, formal associations, their selection of a limited number of NGOs for funding, and their effective control over agendas, donor agencies have played a significant role in the shaping of civil society in the post-Cold War era" (p. 185). Further: "Through capacity building, financial auditing requirements, reporting procedures, and proposal preparation, donors play a powerful role in shaping not just the developmental agenda but also the direction and raison d'etre of civil society. By setting up local branches, Northern NGOs reproduce organizations in their own image, creating virtual clones, whose priorities, interests, and structures are externally shaped. As donors command the resources, they also consciously or unwittingly shape the priorities, promote certain values, and cultivate particular institutional forms such as projects and microcredit groups. The processes are in turn invigorated as local NGOs and groups formulate proposals around the perceived interests of donor agencies, adding a gender dimension here, inserting environmental issues there, and adopting donor discourses of empowerment, participation, sustainability, and income generation to lend credence to their proposals. As donors suggest revisions, they further stamp their priorities, values, and visions of development on the proposals, underlining the normative effects of their power" (p. 187-188).
  • "…a failure to fully grasp the salience of ethnicity in associational life can also lead to an unrealistic assessment of the cohesiveness of civil society and the potential constraining power of ethnic identities" (p. 202-203).
  • "When donors seek out partners to work through or to support, they are implicitly making political judgments about the location of these groups in processes of social and political change, their agendas, and their relations to other groups and actors in society" (p. 231).
  • "Donor civil society strengthening programs, and indicators of achievement, run the risk of inhibiting and ultimately destroying the most important of purposes of civil society, namely the freedom to imagine that the world could be different" (p. 237).

Solutions? (there are more challenges than solutions)

  • There is a need to "think in terms of multiple civil societies existing across time and space, with diverse purposes, varying degrees of autonomy, and different political implications. In strengthening civil societies donors have first to be clear about their own expectations to avoid disappointment and also recognize the limitations of any attempt to give civil society a purpose for which it is not structurally or politically equipped" (p. 145).
  • In terms of actions, donors "could help defend such spaces [public, political, civil] and foster the conditions for an inclusive associational life, for example by funding education, the rule of law, and economic opportunities" (p. 60).
  • "We emphasize the political importance of protecting and fostering an understanding of civil society as an intellectual and associational space in which to reflect openly and critically and to experiment with alternative ways of organizing social, economic, and political life" (p. 237).
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Logan Cochrane

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