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).


  • "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).


  • "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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Letting them Die – Why Programs Fail

  • "In the old South Africa we killed people. Now we're just letting them die." – Pieter-Dirk Uys

In her 2003 book, 'Letting them Die': Why HIV/AIDS Prevention Programmes Fail, Catherine Campbell describes how "the best-intentioned programmes, even when they achieve high levels of mobilization of the least-powerful sectors of small local communities, may have less than optimal results." (p. 19). Because the project took place in the late 90s and the book was published in 2003, I will not focus on some of the time-specific issues raised by the author, rather upon the broader issues that continue to inform programming, and analysis of it.

What is quite unique about this book is its openness to explore failure, and its explicit exploration of failures from the perspective of a critical insider (as opposed to a critical outsider who may not have all the details or be aware of the historical nuances). For example: "The second shortcoming in project design that emerges was the way in which the project planners were over-optimistic and somewhat simplistic in assuming that diverse stakeholders would be equally committed to participating in partnerships in the interests of supporting the Project's proposed activities. It was also over-optimistic in assuming that the more powerful groupings would be motivated to collaborate in projects designed to promote the interests of marginalized constituencies with little social power or influence" (p. 60). And, "rather than working together to develop new frameworks of understanding and action, they simply continued to implement the approaches they had used before the Project… with little attempt to bring these activities into the Project's integrative framework, or to develop new forms of collaboration with new and non-traditional partners" (p. 152). "Somewhat ironically, despite its well-intentioned conceptual origins, in practice the 'stakeholder' concept is often used in a way that masks how these unequal power relations between stakeholders have the power to undermine community development goals" (p. 181). Although the activities analyzed are time, place and sector bound, the approach to understanding failure offers insight into how programming can learn from what did not work well. An example of what tends to be missed by critical outsiders is that of staff related challenges and conflict, which in this project played a crucial role in creating barriers for collaboration (see pages 160-162).

Readers will appreciate the dynamic conversation woven throughout this book that explores institutional factors affecting the community that are beyond it, while engaging in very localized activities. Poverty, migrant labor systems, all-male hostels, and the selective neglect of laws (e.g. on pages 64 and 105), are a few of the contextual factors Campbell is cognizant of, while making a case for the importance of localized activities that did not address these factors directly.

Reading parts of Campbell's book I had to remind myself that it was written about a project that took place in the late 90s, not 2016. For example, she writes "Clearly, such outcome measures are vital for measuring whether or not interventions have had their desired effects. However, they often contribute little to understandings of the processes whereby programmes do or do not succeed in having an impact" (p. 9). Which is a point I've made in a recent article looking at the Safety Net program in Ethiopia. Campbell concludes: "The history of the late twentieth century is replete with examples of failed but well-meaning attempts by countries in the North to 'help' countries in the South (it is not for nothing that Africa is sometimes referred to as the 'graveyard of development projects'). Yet, these same mistakes are made again and again" (p. 193).

On social capital and participation:

  • "Concern has been expressed that concepts such as social capital and participation are dangerously ambiguous. On the one hand, they serve as potential tools for critical social theorists who argue that it is only through grassroots participation in strong community-based organizations that socially excluded people will gain the power to lobby governments and other powerful bodies to recognize and meet their needs. On the other hand, such concepts have the potential to be 'hijacked' by neo-liberal, free-market theorists, who argue that grassroots organizations and networks have the power to take over many functions (e.g. welfare) previously assigned to governments or international development agencies. Such arrangements can serve as justifications for cuts in welfare spending in the more affluent countries of the North, and reduced development aid to poorer countries in the South. In order to avoid this perversion of the radical potential of the concept of social capital, it is vitally important that critical social scientists locate conceptualizations of social capital, participation and community development against the backdrop of wider conceptualizations of politics and power." (p. 52-53)
  • "…evidence suggests that not all forms of local participation have equally positive benefits for participants. Furthermore, there is much evidence that social capital is often unequally distributed in particular contexts. Thus, for example, research has shown that effective participation in local networks is most likely to take place among the wealthiest and the most educated members of a community. Furthermore, social capital may often serve as a source of social exclusion and disadvantage, in contexts where opportunities for creating, sustaining and accessing beneficial social capital are constrained by poverty, or other forms of social inequality, such as caste or gender." (p. 53)
  • "…in setting up projects of this nature, much more work need to be done in clarifying the boundaries and constituencies of different stakeholder groups. There must be clarity around exactly which people and which interests are represented by each stakeholder group. It is also vitally important for each stakeholder group to provide clear and transparent procedures for ensuring that appropriately representative figures are nominated to act or speak on its behalf. It is also important for particular stakeholder groups to establish transparent mechanisms whereby their representatives are seen to consult and report back to their constituencies, and to be fully accountable to the people they represent." (p. 180)
  • "The research also suggested that grassroots participation is by no means a 'magic bullet'. The potential for local participation to have positive health benefits depends very heavily on the extent to which local attempts by marginalized groups are supported and enabled by efforts of more powerful constituencies, at the regional, national and international levels, and the development of health systems and organizational infrastructure to co-ordinate joint efforts. Participation has the potential to create networks of bonding social capital within marginalized communities, which is a very important component of the possibility of change. Yet such change cannot happen with the parallel efforts of more powerful groups." (p. 196)
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Logan Cochrane

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