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Under pressure

As recognition of their significance grows, CSOs have found themselves under pressure to enhance their accountability, measure and report their impact in corporate terms, compensate for all manner of failures of market and state, and face unprecedented threats to their freedom, writes Ingrid Srinath

In his book Civil Society, Michael Edwards describes civil society as “the story of ordinary people living extraordinary lives through their relationships with each other, driven forward by a vision of the world that is ruled by love and compassion, non-violence and solidarity”. He goes on to list three different uses of the term:

  • As a description of varieties of association.
  • As a value advocating the advantages of cooperation.
  • As a democratic ecosystem -- a public sphere in which engagement with the whole future and shape of society takes place (or could take place).

In academic parlance it has become customary to use the term to describe all manner of associations and groups that are not primarily businesses or organs of the state. In popular parlance, the term is often used synonymously with NGOs. 

Regardless of the particular definition one subscribes to, it is clear that civil society in the 21st century has emerged as a significant, if not always coherent or cohesive global player. Policy development in any country with pretensions to democracy requires at least the semblance of civil society engagement. International institutions, from the World Bank to the World Economic Forum, too must at least be seen to engage with civil society. 

As recognition of their significance has grown, especially since the 1999 WTO in Seattle, civil society organisations have found themselves at the receiving end of ever greater attention and scrutiny. Simultaneously, they have found themselves under pressure to enhance their accountability (to donors in particular), improve their capacity to measure and report their impact (ideally in quantitative funding cycle- linked metrics), to compensate for all manner of failures of market and state in a global neoliberal regime, and face unprecedented threats to their freedom to exist, express and engage especially under the guise of the so-called “war on terror” and its ripple effects.   

Unsurprisingly, there has also been a proliferation of BONGOS (business-owned NGOs) ranging from corporate foundations to exercises in green-washing or other forms of PR, GONGOS (government-operated NGOs), especially in repressive regimes that wish to simulate the appearance of civil society engagement while exercising absolute control, QUANGOS (government departments that take the form of NGOs), a rash of social enterprises operating at the intersections of market and state with civil society, and thinktanks entirely dedicated to promoting a particular ideology or lobbying for a particular interest group. An acquaintance claimed recently that civil society grew faster than the GDP of China in the past decade!    

This has inevitably led to cross-pollination, usually donor-driven, between habits and attitudes across sectors. NGOs have been urged to adopt practices that make them more “business-like” in their measurement of impact and compelled to “manage the ratios”, whether these be head-counts, overheads to programmes or narrow definitions of impact, in their quest for the “efficiency” so highly valued by the new technocrat philanthropists in particular. Every NGO, national or international, of significant scale or ambition has worked with management consultants from the business sector in strategy development or review. 

While this has had some positive effects, chiefly in enabling greater scale, it has also had unfortunate consequences. It has, for instance, privileged those organisations and causes that are “marketable” over those that address more complex, slow-burn, unfashionable issues that achieve serious systemic and structural shifts in the balance of power. There’s always plenty of support for another non-formal school where donors or their employees can volunteer, less so for mobilisations to ensure the right to education for all; plenty for a programme to distribute vaccines, less so for campaigns to give communities a say in determining health policy.  

In the worst cases it has co-opted, silenced or marginalised those voices that could and should require greatest amplification -- women, children, indigenous communities, lower castes, and poor nations. Add the predominance of an increasingly corporate media focused on profit over purpose, controlled by a few large conglomerates with narrow self-serving interests. Add repressive legislative and fiscal constraints imposed in the name of the “war on terror” or “national security” that restrict freedom of association, permissible activities and funding mechanisms. 

In 2008 alone, CIVICUS’s Civil Society Watch Programme tracked 61 countries that imposed greater restrictions on civil society. These included not only those conventionally labelled rogue regimes but many self-proclaimed bastions of democracy. The risks to civil society as a force for justice, equity, social cohesion and participatory democracy are greater than ever before.    

These risks have been partially mitigated by the increased capacity for communication and collaboration provided by easier access to communications and networking technologies. The ability to work across national boundaries, language barriers and geographical divides has permitted some access to voice, funding and solidarity for otherwise muted groups.  

As with blogging, digital photography and citizen journalism, it could be argued that this too has negative effects, in particular, the ‘Facebookisation’ of both advocacy and philanthropy. In a time when anyone with an Internet connection can create and promote a civil society entity, it is increasingly hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff or to differentiate authentic activists from mouse-potatoes.  

But the greatest impetus and threat to the development and effectiveness of civil society today comes, in my view, from the current confluence of crises -- food, energy, climate and the financial and economic meltdown. This “perfect storm” has enabled mobilisation and collaboration on a far greater scale than ever, as its combined impact reaches every corner of our globalised world. Never before have such numbers of people been affected. Never have the stakes been higher. Never has change seemed more possible. Never has it been clearer that at the root of the myriad problems lies a common factor -- the takeover of governance by private elites at the expense of the vast majority of people and the planet we call home.  

From slums to forests, fishing communities to assembly-lines, indigenous peoples to suburbia -- the people we so often refer to as ordinary are increasingly aware of the connectedness of their causes. And increasingly, though more slowly, willing to mobilise in solidarity with each other. As the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, and mobilisations around the G8, the WTO and the climate conferences have proved, civil society now has the reach, the connectivity, the tools, and the networks to achieve the critical mass necessary to effect substantive change. And it is, in my opinion, albeit at a glacial pace, demonstrating the capacity to overcome traditional divides -- philanthropist versus activist, faith-based volunteer versus radical trade unionist, Northern versus Southern -- to grasp the opportunity. 

(Ingrid Srinath is Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation (

Infochange News & Features, November 2009