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Undermining Open Civil Society

Reinforcing unsustainable restrictive initiatives

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Enthusiasm for "civil society" is now evident in many sectors. The debate concerning its nature is in full swing. Within this context, this article explores the ways in which open "civil society" can be most effectively undermined by the current strategies employed, deliberately or inadvertently, by those concerned.

Definitional games

The point has been made by a number of commentators that there is little consensus on what "civil society" can usefully mean. This could possibly be to the advantage of those who seek to advance the cause of "civil society". The less clarity there is in definition, the wider the spread of constituencies that may be prepared to act in support of the notion. This has proved to be the case with "sustainable development". It suggests a pattern through which consensus, or at least non-opposition, is best achieved through a fair degree of vagueness.

This situation can be very effectively exploited by those who wish to manipulate or undermine what might be called the broader or open vision of civil society (OVCS). The latter would emerge from the inclusion of types of body and process that those supporting a narrower or more restrictive vision of civil society (RVCS) strive effectively to promote.

The challenge is how to gain some understanding of what constitutes the OVCS. Unfortunately this can necessarily only be achieved at this time by exploring the various strategies of those effectively working towards an RVCS. A first attempt at this exploration was made in an earlier paper for the World Bank clarifying the notion of "un-civil society" (***). This quoted an earlier review of an effort to elaborate UNDP policy in relation to public management (http://www/, notably with respect to definitional games.

" In practice insightful analysis and laudable principles are elaborated at one point, only to be effectively reframed with a far more narrow and questionable interpretation at another. Whilst this may be good politics and good public relations, it does not invite confidence. Is it deliberate on the part of some, a manifestation of sloppy thinking, or a consequence of committee report writing? It is precisely this tendency which has alienated so many from political processes in general, and from UN processes in particular.

4. Governance as management of the public: The report leads off with some fast conceptual foot-work. "Governance is the exercise of political power to manage a nation's affairs. Public synonymous with governance." (p. xii) -- implying that "management of the public" is also synonymous with governance? "Whatever the nature of society, only governments can set the rules according to which the system works and take corrective action when it fails" (p. 19).

This reflects profound ignorance of the "rules" established by religious movements (notably with respect to population non-control), by professional bodies (with respect to codes of conduct and peer pressure), by multinational corporations, and by those who engage so effectively in the illegal arms and drugs trade. The action of NGOs in Somalia, of Amnesty with respect to human rights abuses, and Greenpeace with respect to government-sanctioned environmental abuses, can be seen as a non-government "corrective action" when the system fails.

5. Civil society organizations: But later we read that "Sound governance also calls for cooperation between governments and civil society organisations. Sound governance is not simply something that governments do by themselves" (p. 25). This is a typical example of a later statement reframing the scope of an earlier one (above). The major emphasis in the report on collaboration with "civil society" is indeed a striking and welcome breakthrough following decades of governmental arrogance. It parallels concerns expressed in other reports on governance. It also arouses the suspicion that, having recognized its limitations, and the progressive erosion of its credibility and resources, the intergovernmental system is anxious to associate itself with a system that is in a healthier state and which is seen to offer more genuine involvement of the people.

After several development decades "It is now widely accepted that many organisations in civil society are strongly committed to forms of development that give prominence to the social and economic needs of people and environmental protection." (p. 25). Consider the definitional games associated with this realization. "Such organisations are referred to community organizations. Two broad types are identified: people's organisations and NGOs...People's organisations represent their members interests, are accountable to their members, and tend to have participatory organisational structures." (p. 25). This strongly suggests that NGOs have none of these characteristics in the eyes of those who favour this definition.

Elsewhere we read however that "Civil society organisations are multifarious. They differ according to their membership, their missions, forms of organisation, and levels of operation. They include religious-based organisations, cooperatives, trade unions, academic institutions, and community and youth groups" (p. 110). Elsewhere a distinction is made between "NGOs, community-based organisations, and other civil society organisations" (p. 99).

6. NGOs: What does this imply as to UNDP understanding of NGOs? Only much later do we read that they can be very broadly defined as "nongovernment organisations involved in development, staffed by professionals and para-professionals, which provide services or products that cater to the needs of people at the grassroots" (p. 86). But we also read that "NGOs constitute a critical element of the civil society, but have probably received a greater share of the limelight than other deserving organisations, such as professional organisations and women's groups" (p. 86).

The definitional game being played here arises from a long-established tendency of UNDP to ignore the scope of the UN-imposed definition of nongovernmental organization (under Article 71 of the Charter concerning consultative status arrangements) in favour of a definition of NGOs as organizations providing direct development aid, however this happens to be narrowly conceived by UNDP strategists at a given time. The UN definition (itself currently under review) allows for a much broader understanding of organizations relevant to "economic and social development" and includes "professional organizations and women's groups" and many other categories. The implicit UNDP definition, reinforced by many national NGOs (until very recently excluded from anyrelationship to the UN or to UNDP Resident Representatives, and resentful of the exclusiveness of the UN definition), is an effort to coopt national or local groups whilst undermining the international NGOs through which many of them have long been linked.

7. International organizations: Definitional games are also played with the nature of international organizations. "International organisations clearly have an important part to play in creating an aid environment that gets the best out of all actors involved." (p. 91) For UNDP this in fact means only intergovernmental organizations (and probably only those of the UN family). That international nongovernmental organizations should have any role is not considered, and UNDP has a bad track record in this respect. And yet, plaintively, the UNDP Administrator is cited as recognizing that "UNDP cannot do everything. The needs are phenomenally large, and UNDP should not try to be all things to all people or to respond to all needs" (p. xviii). Why then play definitional games that fail to accord recognition to international networks that have long endeavoured to play the now-desired "complementary role" (p. 91), especially when such bodies do not seek UNDP funding. Why undermine their initiatives with UNDP-sponsored initiatives that duplicate their efforts and drain scarce resources from them?

Interpreting "civil" to mean "congenial"

Elaborating and agreeing on definitions can be a tedious and unrewarding process. It can even be used as a means of undermining those civil society processes drawn to action rather than indulging in reflection. Another approach to RVCS is therefore to interpret "civil" as meaning "congenial", profiting thereby from the positive connotations of "civil" -- namely "civility", "being civil", etc. A particular constituency can then simply "recognize" as members of "civil society" all those types of body that it finds congenial -- ignoring other bodies whose role that constituency poorly understands or considers as unsupportive of its implicit OVCS. This necessarily implies exclusion of those bodies that hold views that contrast significantly with the constituency.

Typically constituencies centered around "humanitarian" concerns would exclude from any understanding of civil society those bodies with "scientific", "cultural", "professional", "sporting", etc concerns -- and even those with "spiritual" concerns, where these have no obvious "humanitarian" focus. Those constituencies concerned with the failure of capitalism in Eastern Europe would focus more on trade associations, chambers of commerce, professional accountancy and legal groups, and other nongovernmental bodies contributing to regulatory processes. They would consider the humanitarian bodies as relatively insignificant except to the extent that they offered some remedy to the excesses of unbridled capitalism -- "picking up the pieces". "Congeniality" in this sense bring together bodies who expect to be able to "do business" with each other.

The merit of this approach to undermining OCVS is that it appears beyond reproach. It can easily be claimed to bring together the "good guys" who are doing the things that need to be done in a civilized society. The fact that, as an RCVS, it implicitly denies the relevance of other types of bodies can be ignored. If necessary any other bodies can be implicitly demonized as part of the problem of achieving an OCVS rather than part of the solution.

Interpreting "civil" as an extension of "civilian"

After a long period of emphasis on government providing solutions to the problems of society, the obvious challenges of such dependency have become evident. There has naturally been a new focus on acknowledging the responsibilities of civilians in situations where government has neither the resources nor the mandate to act. It is seen necessary that civilians take increasing responsibility in order to take the heat off overloaded, and often demonstrably incompetent, government bodies.

The more radical interpretation of this tendency focuses on grassroots solutions by "the people" and is inherently suspicious of any organized grouping. "People's movements" are then seen as the essence of civil society. This tendency was strongly expressed by a coalition at the Global Forum on the occassion of the Rio Earth Summit. Those groupings involving organizational hierarchies, central secretariats, committees and other super-structures are seen as to some degree undermining civil society and thus to some degree necessarily excluded from it.

This RCVS encounters difficulties as soon as any movement gathers momentum, geographical spread, and requiring scarce expertise. For how then can the movement be coordinated without using committees and other such devices? How can it make use of experts who become difficult to distinguish in practice from elites? This is one of the dilemmas of citizens organizations seeking to form representative world parliaments or world governments. How can a representative of a grassroots body avoid being transformed into an elite, a member of the nomenklatura -- at least in the eyes of those "left behind"? Are such elites part of civil society?

The merit of this approach to undermining OCVS is that it focuses on the people, the civilians, and the citizens who must clearly be an intimate part of civil society. Again it is above criticism, for from what perspective could it be criticized within that RCVS? However, the more the emphasis is placed solely on such people and that mode of organization alone, the more difficult it becomes to resolve the dilemmas of governance -- as the failures of "dictatorship of the proletariat" so effectively demonstrated. Those advocating world parliaments have yet to demonstrate how they will resolve such dificulties in theory or in practice.

Emphasizing access and public participation

One key to resolving the dilemmas of governance is to ensure maximum "public participation" in political processes and the processes of governance. This strategy is seeing much favour in a time of voter apathy, erosion of confidence in traditional governance, and proliferation of unsolved problems. There is an almost archetypal charm to the process whereby each person has the right to audience "with the king" -- as demonstrated by the millions of Jordanians who recently queued desperately to greet their new king individually.

At the international level there are two initiatives which best reflect this approach. One is the new Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention, 1998). The other is the set ofplurality of efforts to ensure greater access of NGOs to decision-making in intergovernmental organizations, especially the various United Nations bodies.

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