Global Policy Forum

Civil Society and Political Power:


By Sanjay Suri

June 20, 2006

What goes by the name of civil society is all very well, usually, but what really can it do? For long civil society groups have been considered a bunch of dubious do- gooders sponging off grants off institutions with money that need to exhibit such grants for their conscience.

Civil society lacks the nuts-and-bolts power of executive authority, or the more sweeping powers of elected or self-appointed leaders. And it has faced continuous derision that it lives off the crumbs of the very institutions it seeks to challenge. But such a perception of civil society is beginning to change. Certainly, people within civil society do not see it that way, and that is a vastly growing number of people now.

"In the United Kingdom for instance there are more members in Amnesty International than there are in the UK Labour Party," Civicus secretary-general Kumi Naidoo told IPS on the eve of the world assembly of civil society groups being held in Glasgow, Scotland, later this week. Some of the leaders of the civil society movement challenge those set of notions about civil society so widely prevalent within political parties, the bureaucracy and most established media.

"Civil society has been over the past decade ahead of governments on many of the key issues of our times," Naidoo says. "Whether we take the issue of land mines, whether we take environment, whether we take HIV/AIDS or the global poverty agenda, or gender equality for that matter, civil society's impact is quite significant in terms of raising difficult challenges of time and putting forth solutions that are more bold, more courageous and more innovative than what many who are constrained by political office allow people to do." And civil society has done this "even without holding formal political power." Civil society has gained to the extent that the political establishment has not delivered - cannot deliver í» what a growing number of people need and expect.

"In view of the inability of the political system to solve many urgent problems, civil society, which represents an infinity of views and ways of thinking, has organised in different ways to express its wish to change and correct the orientation of political management, and put pressure on those who do have political and executive authority," says Mario Lubetkin, director-general of the Inter Press Service (IPS).

And no longer as just a verbal pressure group, he says. "Civil society is no longer waiting and watching but acting, and has achieved many significant results regarding the amendment of erroneous government policies in different countries. Therefore, with intelligence and in cooperation with other partners, civil society can enhance its capacity to indirectly exert political and executive authority to achieve its goals."

The cynics may still be the dominant force, but that domination is at least now significantly weakened. "The roles of civil society and citizens organisations are becoming better understood around the world," says Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) which is organising the assembly jointly with Civicus.

"We are an expression of the commitment that people make to their communities and to tackling the challenges facing our societies across the world," he says. "We give expression to the hopes and aspirations of many as well as supporting practical interventions which have a direct effect on people's lives. In an ideal world civil society would be complimentary to the democratic process, not a competitor to it, but in the current world we are surely right to challenge the inequality, waste and unsustainability of the current order."

At the heart of the growth of civil society is the belief that democracy must express itself between one act of voting and the next. "When civil society organisations, such as environment organisations, promote campaigns to preserve forests and rivers and obtain the support of whole communities in the affected areas, they are actually promoting another form of democracy or politics," says Lubetkin. "This gives rise to a different culture and increases awareness of citizens' rights, which naturally has a strong influence on the actions by political parties."

Participative democracy is a more effective way of marshalling a genuine consensus and drawing on the actual experience of citizens when developing policy and legislation, says Sime. "It seems obvious that simply voting every few years and leaving the rest to politicians will bring democracy into disrepute but this argument has still to be won in many parts of the world, north and south alike."

Naidoo believes that understanding democracy as a vote even damages democracy. "To reduce democracy to a single act of casting a ballot once every four or five years is a misinterpretation of the power of democracy, and is undermining the power of democracy," he says. "It's also not fair to expect governments once elected to possess the full universe of knowledge that's necessary to address all problems, and what we are asking governments to do is not to deprive themselves of the reservoir of knowledge that is to be found within the diversity of civil society."

But he agrees that this argument is still to be won in far too many places. "We think it is unfortunate that it is only a minority of governments that reach out to that policy knowledge to be found in civil society organisations and to consider it as a part of their policy making exercise."

The world assembly in Glasgow this week does not have the stamp of a national assembly or of anything like the United Nations General Assembly. But the leaders at the heart of it believe it is a step forward in bringing together people power in ways that older structures allow no room for. And they do believe they can prove the cynics wrong.

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