What is Civil Society?

Posted by / 5th February 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , / -

There seems to exists a general agreement that international development programmes must be based on the support of local organizations and frameworks in the countries and areas where the projects are implemented, rather than the direct work of the international agencies and NGOs. Most of international cooperation projects are carried out following this approach, giving an increasingly leading role to local actors. The main goal is to strengthen the local counterparts and their ownership of development actvities in order to ensure long-term sustainability.

Within this context, the term “civil society” is used continuously in forums and seminars. Bold statements abound about the work of this or that organization mainly supporting civil society in this or that country. But civil society is not homogenous, and therefore to announce overall support to civil society is too simplistic and hides an important question facing international organizations: Who is actually being supported?

In the case of structural support to governmental bodies, either local and regional or national, the answer is simple: governments are legitimate and recognized actors- regardless of whether they have been democratically elected or not. However, most NGOs – and also governmental agencies in some cases- prefer to work with civil society’s organizations for moral reasons. In fact, NGOs are civil society’s actors and therefore it is reasonable they look for cooperation with similar types of actors.

Yet civil society is heterogeneous and their organizations have several interests, frequently with multiple agendas and lack of coherence. The legitimacy of the local counterparts can not be extrapolated further than the one held by the members of those organizations. This in spite of those statements assuming that working with one organization of a country’s civil society means working with its overall civil society.

In addition, the problem at the time of choosing the “twin” organizations is increased according to the level of advocacy associated to the programme: in a project of, for example, improvement of irrigation techniques in an agricultural area, it is not that important whether this is done through the organization A or B. At least as long as both are impartial, fair and good managers in general. However, in a project also looking for improving the agriculture policies in an area, the question about who is supported gains greater significance.

In the case of advocacy projects the goal is not only the strengthening of local organizations, but also, and above all, to legitimise the political requests. Most foreign NGOs do not see themselves having enough legitimacy to influence the political agendas of another country or region. This is blatant hypocrisy, as by supporting one group or another- or defending one political position or another- they are already playing a role. International NGOs often argue they only give funds and technical support to civil society to fight for their goals. However, as stated above, civil society is not homogeneous, so this discourse is flawed in most of the cases.

Indeed, international NGOs cooperate frequently with the development of political agendas of those “theoretical local civil society representatives”. Besides it only being part of the story, to affirm simple support of civil society is mistaken. In most of the cases, at least, there is a collaborative aspect in the work. Obviously it is not about international political intrigue by the NGOs: political agendas of NGOs are basically about the rights to access to minimum social services for those in need. So, why are they so worried about demonstrating that they are not an actor in the political arena of other countries?

The answer can be focused on two aspects of the matter: on the one hand, the frequent neo-colonialism accusations about NGOs force them to simply support a homogeneous civil society; on the other hand, NGOs are afraid a more honest position may close doors to hampering its influence as well as putting at risk their own survival. And there are of course more reasons in each particular case that make international development organizations move on the edge of incoherent discourse in so many situations.

However, the biggest problem is not the danger of pretending; the main concern should be the fact of neglecting the question itself.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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About the author
Jorge Jimeno is an associate researcher at ReSeT. He specialises in advocacy, humanitarian action and development projects.

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