Civil Society and the dangers of Monoculture: smart new primer from Mike Edwards

January 15, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the Civil Society coverconceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.

Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as

  • ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam etc)
  • The Good Society: a good thing in itself
  • A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)

‘“What to do” depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association.

Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy.

Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries.’

Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.

‘If, like me, you see virtue in all these approaches, then the logical thing to do is to look for interventions that can strengthen the interactions between different models in order to generate an inclusive associational ecosystem matched by a strong and democratic state, in which a multiplicity of independent public spheres enable equal participation in setting the rules of the game.’

muslim_protesters002_16x9But what he sees instead is institutional monoculture – aid donors and NGOs promoting a single subsection of CS – the bits that look like Western NGOs – with disastrous consequences for the resilience and effectiveness of the system as a whole:

‘the approach of the civil society-building industry that has proliferated since 1989 – with some exceptions – resembles a crude attempt to manipulate associational life in line with Western, and specifically North American, liberal-democratic norms: pre-selecting organizations that donors think are most important (advocacy NGOs or other vehicles for elites, for example, usually based in capital cities), ignoring domestic expressions of citizen action that do not conform to Western expectations (such as informal, village- or clan-based associations in Africa and the Islamic world, more radical social movements or pre-political formations), spreading mistrust and rivalry as fledgling groups compete for foreign aid, and creating a backlash when associations are identified with foreign interests.

The creation of public spheres is usually ignored, apart from occasional support to independent media groups and organizations promoting government accountability. And ignoring Ralf Dahrendorf’s warning that “it takes six months to create new political institutions, six years to create a half-way viable economy, and . . . sixty years to create a civil society,” project timescales are collapsed to bite-sized two- or three-year chunks and accountability is reoriented up the system to outside donors and regulators.

Nurturing civic institutions takes careful and sensitive accompaniment over long periods of time. By contrast, the aid industry resembles a bulldozer driven by someone convinced that they are heading in the right direction, but following a map made for another country at another time. The Coalition Provisional Authority’s insistence that Iraq needed a Ministry of Civil Society in the chaos that emerged after the US occupation is a good example of priorities gone horribly awry.’

And he has some very interesting suggestions for how to put it right:

‘The first rule of thumb is always to look for forms of associational life that “live” relatively independently in their context – not just the “usual suspects.”

Healthy ecosystem. With shark.

Healthy ecosystem. With shark.

They may be conservative-minded mosque associations in Lebanon (which are contributing to the development of tolerance), burial societies in South African townships (which played key social, economic and political roles under apartheid) or labor unions in France and Brazil (which have been prime movers in the burgeoning global justice movement). It is groups like these that occupy the frontiers in organizing new responses to problems of community and association against the background of globalizing capitalism, resurgent nationalism, and the fragmentation they breed.

Second, we should focus on the associational ecosystem by fostering the conditions in which all of its components can function more effectively, alone and together. If the “soil” and the “climate” are right, associational life will grow and evolve in ways that suit the local environment. This requires support to as broad a range of groups as possible, helping them to work synergistically to defend and advance their visions of civic life, providing additional resources for them to find their own ways of marrying flexible, humane service with independent critique, and leaving them to sort out their relationships both with each other and with the publics who must support them, and to whom they must be accountable, if their work is to be sustained.

Third, we should focus as much attention as possible on strengthening the financial independence of voluntary associations, since dependence on government contracts, foundations or foreign aid is the Achilles’ heel of authentic civic action.’

So the litmus test for a good civil society strategy should include questions like

  • What are we doing on the enabling environment to that any civil society group, (even ones we don’t like) can flourish?
  • Do we support a range of partners who don’t look like us, and don’t know or even like each other?
  • Have we helped our partners to learn how to raise funds locally so that they can wean themselves off aid?

Really interesting stuff