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Why is Civil Society important?

Fridays for Future, your cricket club, the local cooperative, or your housing association... all of this is civil society. It is much less researched and much less funded than the private and the state sectors, but for a functioning democracy, it is just as important.

© Civil Society Academy

Civil society is like a social fabric that provides stability to a society. It is where people talk, create, engage, and support each other. But it provides further critical functions such as monitoring of the state and the private sector, advocating for citizens’ rights, and promoting alternatives to the existing mainstream. Notable, in many countries civil society plays a vital role in providing an array of social services.

Here, in my privileged surrounding in Berlin, civil society is all around me:

  • I listen to the news about protests against the COVID-19 lockdown at the Brandenburger Tor.

  • I read that BUND, a large environmental NGO, files a court case against a ring road in my parent’s village.

  • I look down into the streets and see a car from our local social service, which assists the elderly.

  • A letter arrives from the house administration, which represents the owner’s association in my apartment block.

The list could go on forever. Wherever we look, civil society plays an important role: for all kinds of issues, say housing, sports, care for the elderly, or for a rare health problem, you can be sure that an organisation exists that addresses concerns of citizens and aims at building a better world.

In the US, there are 1.5 million charitable organisations and in India 3 million NGOs. In Germany, we have 26,000 clubs dedicated to the most important sport in the world, football. In Canada, the non-profit sector makes up 8% of GDP and employs millions of people. BRAC, considered the largest development NGO in the world, employs 100,000 people alone in Bangladesh. These are impressive numbers, and I find that we do not always appreciate the size of the sector, its diversity, and the vibrancy of civil society.

What happens if it is not there?

However, most countries in the world do not have a diverse and vibrant civil society. This has real implications on daily lives, and on the future of its people.

Let us take a case that is repeated in similar ways millions of times each year around the world: Imagine, that you just became a widow in a remote part of Ethiopia. Even though you have 4 children to feed, the family of your husband decides to take away your land, the only meaningful asset you own. Traditional leadership is on the side of your husband’s family and the courts or state authorities are distant and inaccessible to you as a woman. What do you do? If there are no strong civil society structures, that make you aware of your rights or supports you in your struggle – most likely you would do nothing but accept your fate. Just like countless women did before you.

In their book “Why Nations Fail”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson make a convincing case that strong and inclusive institutions make all the difference. They compare the American part and the Mexican part of the border town of Nogales to show how, since colonial times, the two parts of the town diverge. On one side, settlers have become empowered citizens and there are a diversity of institutions of the state, the private sector, and civil society, while on the other side, autocratic leadership has prevented that to happen in all those three sectors. As a result, the Mexican part of Nogales is much poorer, more corrupt, has way more violent crimes, and lags in virtually all development indicators. And still: Mexico has better-developed institutions than most countries in the world.

Many countries are bouncing back and forward

At the end of the Cold War, many of us expected a triumphant advance of democracy and its institutions – and alongside wealth and happiness for everyone. This has not happened. Instead, many countries are repeatedly bouncing back and forward – towards more democracy, and then again back towards less. Currently, countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Russia, or Venezuela are clearly on a backward trend, while others move in a promising direction, arguably Ethiopia, Sudan or Malawi, and Nepal.

Our appeal is to focus on those countries that have a window of opportunity – for democracy and stronger institutions to take hold and become more resilient. If we do not support citizens in such countries in a determined and swift manner, they might spiral back towards autocracy, and it may take years or even decades for a new opportunity to emerge. Imagine what that would mean for a youngster in Ethiopia or Sudan today! A life full of rights and choices versus one full of concerns and oppression.

5 ways to support Civil Society

Project funding has become the main mean of philanthropists, and international donors to support civil society in the Global South. Or in other words, national NGOs are paid to do certain works in communities. Project funding is an important instrument, but if it becomes a central instrument in civil society support, civil society actors may become dependent, even lopsided, and focussed on service delivery – at the cost of diversity and vibrancy. This has happened in numerous countries around the world – and is still happening.

We promote more holistic support which looks at civil society strengthening from different perspectives and empowers people to build initiatives and engage in topics they are passionate about – so civil society can become as diverse and vibrant as the people that engage in it.

Here is our 5-point agenda for supporting civil society:

1. Build awareness and inspire people:

Civil society needs engaged young people, leaders, activists, and pioneers. We can foster their inspiration and awareness through exchange, training, and supporting their initiatives, whether small or big.

Just like an ecosystem for the private sector, civil society also requires a functional system that supports initiatives and organisations, for instance, to develop talents, meet like-minded people, get money, or help in the registration of your organisation. Especially larger funding organisations can support such an ecosystem from different sides and make a positive change.

3. Incubate initiatives or organisations on the most critical issues

When Henry Dunant founded the Red Cross, he saw the problem of left-behind soldiers on the battlefield, and he acted on it. Sometimes, we wish to multiply this activism and determination to build institutions - but it needs the right people and often a supportive environment. More emphasis should be given to incubating and developing new institutions.

4. Build long-term collaborative partnerships

This sounds like a generic recommendation. However, it needs a lot of energy and a good organisational culture to go beyond funding partnerships – and instead to truly collaborate and co-create with other organisations. This culture of collaboration is an intrinsic value of civil society. However, it does not develop automatically.

5. Supporting dynamic accountability

Civil society organisations (CSOs) should be primarily accountable towards the people they are trying to serve or represent. Donors or any other institution should only come second. This focus on the citizens is also what democracy should be about – and hence, it needs to be promoted, especially in fragile contexts.

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Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2012): Why Nations fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.

John Casey (2016): The Nonprofit World - Civil Society and the Rise of the Nonprofit Sector.

About the Author:

Joachim is passionate about social justice and on a mission to support like-minded civil society actors and social entrepreneurs to become more powerful and innovative. Hence, in 2014 he left his NGO career to build the Civil Society Academy. He is an outstanding facilitator and coach with expertise in social innovation, leadership, organisational change, and advocacy. After more than 20 years in Africa and Asia, he is now based in Berlin.


If you would like to give feedback, or are interested in our courses or support.

Please contact: Joachim Schwarz

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