It is almost impossible these days to have a conversation about politics or public policy, especially when the policy addresses international issues, without someone mentioning “civil society.” According to some advocates, “civil society” simply means the fundamental reduction of the role of politics and public policy in society to expanding free markets and individual liberties. Others might argue that “civil society” is the most viable alternative to the authoritarian State and the tyrannical market. Others think of “civil society” as the missing link in the success of social democracy.
As I will discuss later here, there are definitional problems both respect to the definition of civil society and with the identification of what we think of as the third sector, charities, public benefit organizations, voluntary associations and non-government organizations. In a nominal international study of Johns Hopkins University on the third sector, researchers were faced with the same problem of definition. Different terms are frequently used almost interchangeably in different countries or regions of the world, and this can be a problem when it comes to funding, regulation, or monitoring organizations that are largely identified as belonging to “civil society.”
As recently reported by the World Bank, “there has been a dramatic expansion in the size, scope, and capacity of civil society around the globe over the past decade, aided by the process of globalization and the expansion of democratic governance, telecommunications, and economic integration.” Moreover, the World Bank reported that:
CSOs’(civil society organizations)influence on shaping global public policy has also emerged over the past two decades. This dynamism is exemplified by successful advocacy campaigns around such issues as banning of land mines, debt cancellation, and environmental protection which have mobilized thousands of supporters around the globe.
The World Social Forum held annually since 2001 draws CSO leaders from around the world. During the 2007 World Social Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya, more than 50,000 CSO leaders from different continents around met to debate and propose more equitable and sustainable alternatives to current models of economic globalization. So we are not talking about an insignificant presence in the socio-politico-economic life in the world.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking at the World Conference Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2009, said:
Our times demand a new definition of leadership – global leadership. They demand a new constellation of international cooperation – governments, civil society and private sector, working together for a collective global good.
There are over 13,000 CSOs with established relationship with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Although the vast majority of these are NGOs, there are also institutions, foundations, associations, and almost 1000 Indigenous Peoples Organizations listed as CSOs with DESA. What the Secretary-General was pointing out was that the problems facing the world require solutions that are transnational and the participation of diverse groups and individuals.
Since these terms (civil society organizations, non-government organizations, third sector, public benefit organizations, voluntary associations, and charities) are used interchangeably, the problem is more a matter of research discipline, such as sociology, political science, law, political or legal philosophy, and economics, for example, and the classification and use of data in the analysis of these organizations. Moreover, the problem of defining the third sector enters into the political arena promoted by the European Union in E.U. and global policy in the UN as well as scenarios of globalization.
How the sector is defined and identified is important because it determines who is in and who is out of the political implementation of the policies. Specifically, for the States, for the E.U, and for the UN, for researchers and theoreticians of civil society, and for the wide range of organizations involved in the search for definitions, it affects their possibility of taking part in projects and policies, which means access to funds, information, networking, and increased potential for achieving their organizational goals.
But, in my talks in Milan and Amsterdam, I addressed something of a more general nature when I talked about Alexis de Tocqueville and his study reported in his book, Democracy in America The connection between Tocqueville and civil society did not escape the attention of Professor Dr. Henk E. S. Woldring of Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (the Free University of Amsterdam).
Professor Dr. Woldring wrote in State and Civil Society in the Political Philosophy of Alexis de Tocqueville, International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, that de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was one of the first political philosophers who discussed extensively the concept of civil society. As I mentioned in my talks in Milan and Amsterdam, the first thing that struck Tocqueville during his visit to America in the early 19th Century, was that religions provided Americans with the strong moral character without which democracy could not function, but also that free voluntary associations existed as intermediate institutions between citizens and the State. Although the America, and I believe much of the world, is becoming increasing secular and religiously diverse, there is still something of a religious, or at least a moral, impulse behind giving, forming associations, and doing the work generally ascribed to civil society.
Professor Woldring wrote that Tocqueville identified these intermediate institutions between citizens and the State as the phenomenon of civil society in which citizens could realize their social freedom and equality. Moreover, according to Professor Woldring, Tocqueville distinguished between the competence of the State on one hand, and the proper consequences of free associations on the other. Therefore, according to Professor Woldring’s interpretation of Tocqueville, the competence of the State should be a limited one.
The so-called “civil society argument,” as it has been called, is actually a complex set of arguments. It has been commonly accepted that there is a dense network of civil associations that is said to promote the stability and effectiveness of the democratic polity through the associations on citizens’ “habits of the heart,” as Robert Bellah and his co-authors called it in “their book by that title, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Like Tocqueville, the authors and the subjects of the book concentrated on our character and how to create a morally coherent life. Indeed, the phrase, “habits of the heart,” was borrowed from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. “Habits of the heart” was the term that generally described the values, goal, motives, and purposes held by individuals, and how they influence society and political thought and government.
The point is not only that religion and mores guide our character as a people, although much of the focus is on individualism, but now individualism in the context of communitarianism. However, pertinent to the civil society argument was Bellah’s comprehensive account of these ideas when he wrote:
We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning. Our individualism is itself one such pattern. And the positive side of our individualism, or sense of the dignity, worth, and moral autonomy of the individual, is dependent in a thousand ways on a social, cultural, and institutional context that keeps us afloat even when we cannot very well describe it.
These ideas of Tocqueville and the Bellah group about “habits of the heart” seem to direct our attention to the concept and role of civil society institutions and organizations. But, what is the civil society? And how does the idea of civil society relate to government obligations, if any, to provide the broad range of services provided by civil society institutions, and to regulate their practices and monitor their transparency and accountability?
The concept of civil society has evolved since the coining of the concept in pre-modern times, when its importance was the idea of “good society.” The question, according to Socrates, was how individuals could reconcile their individual needs with the needs of society. Of course, this is still very much the question in political science. When individual claims were balanced against societal claims, presumably the balance would result in what was regarded a civic virtue which would then produce what was called a societas civilis in contrast to a barbaric society.
According to Plato, citizens dedicated themselves to the common good in a just society. Within the early natural law and the state of nature thinking, citizens acted virtuously and wisely, and practiced the occupations for which they were best suited. Philosopher-kings would rule such a society as enlightened leaders based solely on the common good.
Whereas, Plato asserted the rule by philosopher-kings in an oligarchy form of governance, Aristotle argued that governance must be performed for the common good in which all citizens could participate. Thus, he stressed that two aspects of liberty served by democracy were the opportunity for individuals to participate in the formulation of public policy and individual freedom protected by law, primarily constitutional law, from interference by the State. Aristotle argued the nature of a political order as civil society presupposing that there were multiple forms of interaction, association, and group life in which people participated in the social order. There was no real distinction between the State and society
Augustine, on the other hand, postulated that natural law was based on divine rule, rather than on reason. Civil society simple meant that society was under the protection of God and submission to God’s divine rule. Here, the role of the church was important in its decisions and policies as the basic foundation of civic virtue, law, and order of the society.
Thomas Aquinas reconciled these conflicting concepts of God’s society and Aristotle’s civil society by stressing guidelines that all people should be treated alike. Each life had sacred meaning and eternal import. So, Aquinas stressed civic manners in which each individual was consciously committed to strive toward the common good in order to create a civil society.
From these early theories there evolved the concept of a political order based on a social contract. Thomas Hobbes argued that agreements were needed in order to create order and peace, and the institutions to preserve them, and protect freedom. Thus, civil society was achieved when rational people entered into an agreement.
John Locke moved the argument forward to the effect that civil society results from a social contract. According to Locke, the State should not be regarded as a single body as viewed by Thomas Hobbes, but rather that government and society should be differentiated with the goal of preventing the power of government from threatening the rights of the society. Nevertheless, natural law philosophers, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Kant, used the term “civil society” to describe a society in which each person was equipped with such rights as the State could defend for them.
According the G. W. F. Hegel, the civil society was regarded as a pre-state society. Hegel built his theory on British writers, such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, accepting that prior to the State there was a natural order to social life within the sphere of natural dependence, or the economy. Karl Marx denounced civil society. The rejection of civil society was largely responsible for the denial of any autonomous role for either law or society against the State.
In the post-modern perspective with the emergence of non-governmental organizations and the New Social Movements on a global scale, civil society was regarded a third sector apart from the political sector and commercial or business sector, replacing the State’s service provision and social care. Robert D. Putnam in an essay, Bowling Alone, and in his later book, Making Democracy Work, argued that civil society was a much more elaborated network of civic engagement fostered by civil associations of all kinds with denser networks in the community.
Although the term, “civil society,” is broadly used and is in vogue, its definition remains unclear. Nevertheless, the current understanding of the term usually refers to the public sphere set apart from the State and the market, according to some definitions and descriptions. This implies a spectrum of social organizations as well as community organizations, which will challenge and will uphold existing order. I think that part of the definitional and description problem is due to the fact that the conceptualizing the idea of civil society occurs in sociology, political science, jurisprudence, and history, each with its own disciplinary interests, history, and perspectives.
The definitional problem for civil society institutions and organizations is reflected in the variety of definitions of civil society. For example, the London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society’s definition is:
Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-government organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.
The Centre for Civil Society at the Johns Hopkins University defined civil society organizations as:
Any organisations whether formal or informal, that are not part of the apparatus of government, that do not distribute profits to their directors or operators, that are self-governing, and in which participation is a matter of free choice. Both member-serving and public serving organisations are included. Embraced within this definition, therefore, are private, not-for-profit health providers, schools, advocacy groups, social service agencies, anti-poverty groups, development agencies, professional associations, community-based organizations, unions, religious bodies, recreation organizations, cultural institutions, and many more. [Statement of the Sixteenth Annual Johns Hopkins International Fellows in Philanthropy Conference, Nairobe, Kenya]
The World Bank uses the term to refer to the wide array of non-government and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life expressing the interests and values of their members, or of other interests and values based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious, or philanthropic considerations. Therefore, “civil society organizations” refers to organizations, such as, community groups, non-government organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations. But some listings of examples of civil society organizations also may include educational institutions, both nonprofit and for profit, corporations and other business entities that are part of the market forces in the world.
One writer wrote that “rarely in the history of development can a term have progressed so quickly from obscurity to meaninglessness without even a nanosecond of coherence.” But, even with these stabs at finding a definition, it is still unclear what we mean by the term. Is it an important political idea, since it was used just a few years ago to refer to a few freedom fighters in oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and South and Central America? Or is it a trendy term for NGO activists? Is it a job creation scheme for academics? Or maybe, is it a refuge for politicians who have run out of ideas? As one writer said, “when an idea can mean so many things it probably means nothing.”
Although there is a lack of consensus around a commonly understood definition of “civil society,” there are certain characteristics that are generally associated with the term and what it means to be a civil society organization. These include:
Civil society is a part of society – that is, the world of voluntary associations. [However, civil society, from Aristotle to Hobbes, represented a kind of society that was identified with certain ideals. These may include political equality, peaceful coexistence, tolerance, cooperation, and the skills for living a democratic life. The problem here is that values and beliefs are fostered in the places we live and learn and are shaped by our families, schools, workplaces, colleges and universities, political institutions, and houses of worship.]
Civil society is good society – that is, it sets the contributions of voluntary associations in a proper context and guards against the tendency to privilege one part of society over others on the basis of some perceived ideological grounds. [However, good neighbors cannot replace good government, nonprofits should not be asked to replace business and substitute for functioning markets. But, how do societies decide the direction in which they should go?]
Civil society is a part of the public sphere – that is, what is the common good and how does the public deliberate about what is the common good democratically is central to civil society thinking. In its role as the public sphere, civil society becomes the arena for debating and negotiating alternative solutions to problems in the public sphere. If civil society is to advance good society as one of its goals, then part of this good society is poverty reduction and deep democracy. [However, this vision of the good society says little about how these goals are to be achieved, and the differences and particularities of associational life generate competing views about what it means to be a good society, anchored in religion, politics, ideology, race, and culture, for example.]
In an earlier post, I wrote about the INGO Accountability Charter, and the signatories to the original agreement. Some of these were more traditionally recognized global humanitarian organizations, such as Save the Children, Plan International, and World Vision International. Oxfam International is a confederation of 14 like-minded organizations working together and with partners to bring lasting change, end poverty and injustice, and work to advance human rights. Amnesty International and Greenpeace International advance primarily political agendas directed toward advocating for human rights in the case of Amnesty International, and for protection of the environment through non-violent confrontation in the case of Greenpeace International. Transparency International identifies itself as a global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, “bringing people together in a powerful world-wide coalition to end the devastating impact of corruption on men, women, and children around the world.
There are several questions that come to my mind. Should there be some distinction between giving to academia, charities that serve the poor, the sick, and the homeless, civic groups, sports and social clubs that provide some level of cohesiveness and benefits peculiar to individuals of like-minded social or athletic interests, consumer organizations, cooperatives, cultural groups, museums, and libraries, environmental groups, foundations, policy institutions, public policy advocacy groups, professional organizations, religious organizations and churches, trade unions, etc.? These are some of the most common examples of civil society institutions and organizations.
Should there be a distinction in the tax consequences of donations made to any of these groups? Should there be a distinction in the level of government regulation and monitoring of these segments of civil society institutions and organizations? Are there any of these classes of organizations that should be regulated and monitored by government agencies beyond the minimal designation as tax exempt organizations or organizations that should be accorded some level of government respect or recognized status?
If there is no distinction between traditional charitable or humanitarian organizations and public advocacy NGOs within the scope of civil society, how does a government grant tax exempt benefits and allow tax deductible donations, when some of these intermediary associations are working against the government in the country in which they are raising funds? In light of the Hein Persche decision, does a State have the right to deny tax advantages to a civil society organization that works against the public policies of the State in which such tax advantages are sought within the scope of Article 56 of the E.U. Treaty?
In view of the large number of civil society organizations, the lack of clear definition of what is and what is not a civil society organization, how is transparency and accountability to be monitored? Indeed, what do these terms really mean and why should transparency and accountability really matter? Are they to be monitored by the governments of all the States in which these organizations are raising funds and performing their “public benefit” mission? Or, should monitoring be done by international monitoring organizations, such as performed currently by ICFO, on a very limited basis? In light of the variety of civil society organizations, are such monitoring organizations free to distinguish the variety of mission goals of the organization to determine whether in fact they are public benefit goals? And if so, what criteria is to be applied for the determination of public benefit?
I recognize that the answers to these questions are related to the legal regimes and traditions in various countries. I also realize that some of the problem countries have in addressing the issues of transparency and accountability arise because of the lack of consensus on an agreed set of definitions. Moreover, this problem may be exacerbated by the fact that fact that governments provide grants and funds to the CSO to promote its particular mission which may be consistent with government goals in that country. Does the government require audits of accounts in which government funds have been allocated to insure that those funds have been spent or invested for the purposes for which they were given? But, is the mere requirement for such limited audits sufficient to provide the requisite transparency and accountability to provide for some level of donor trust? How much more difficult would it be for an organization, such as ICFO, to establish accountability Standards and monitor all the organizations seeking some form of seal for compliance with such Standards?
Let the dialogue which is so much a part of civil society begin or continue.