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.
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/uia.org/strategy/65undp.htm),
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
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 management...is 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 collectively...as
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
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.