What is civil society?
Civil society is that associational sphere
which is outside the state and the market. At the heart of civil society
are organisations that tend to be value based rather than motivated by
power or profit. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are diverse and
include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups, labour
unions, professional associations, faith-based organisations, and parts of
the media and academia. They operate at all levels, from the village and
community through to national and international levels. CSOs are
organised, self-governing, voluntary and non-profit distributing. They
often work in partnership with governments, for example in carrying out
public services under contract. Some CSOs are involved in commercial
activities but what differentiates them from their corporate counterparts
is the fact that any profit generated through their work is used to
further their social/societal objectives and interests.
Why are CSOs important?
A vibrant civil society is important for good
governance and democratic society. While in the past CSOs, and NGOs in
particular, were deemed necessary for meeting development goals,
they have more recently been recognised for playing a central role in
deepening democratic processes as well.
Listed below are some of the reasons why CSOs
are important to development and democracy. It should be noted, however,
that CSOs are a heterogeneous grouping, therefore each of the attributes
below do not necessarily apply to all CSOs.
CSOs are important because:
They contribute to the realisation of
Commonwealth goals and values.
They add value to people’s participation in
democratic processes and a voice to express hope and concern for all
people including the marginalized.
Their very existence is an important
expression of democracy. The space that is necessary for civil society
action is an important part of democracy.
They build leaders in their communities by
identifying and nurturing people to take responsibility for themselves and
They contribute to national development by
addressing poverty and gender-related issues; they are involved in
community development, providing such vital services as education,
healthcare and other social services.
They play a central role in making citizens
aware of their rights and responsibilities and prepare them to exercise
those rights and undertake those responsibilities through civic education,
especially in areas of human rights and electoral processes.
They advocate in areas of national resource
allocation and distribution.
They work to empower people.
They have an intimate knowledge of grassroots
issues and realities and are active in protecting the natural and physical
environments, and cultural heritage.
They coordinate the efforts of individual
groups through umbrella organisations.
They mobilise people as volunteers, advisors
and holders of past and traditional knowledge to complement paid staff,
and they raise charitable funds.
They provide independent advice/feedback and
embody community memory and traditions (often lacking in government and
the private sector), and remind governments of past agreements and
They provide a counterbalance to competitive
and commercial values with values that are people-centred, sustainable and
Why are CSOs not maximising their potential?
Many countries have active CSOs that are
respected in society. However, for various reasons some CSOs have not
reached their potential. These might include:
Lack of recognition by some governments;
The desire of some governments to control
CSOs, which sometimes contrasts with the freedom given to the commercial
CSOs are often overwhelmed by the problems
CSOs are constrained by inadequate funding
and capacity limitations.