Civil Society?

The reference to civil society has become so ubiquitous in the developing countries.  What does it refer to?

Take the example of Pakistan.  Here, one often hears of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), which perhaps has the effect of isolating only certain kinds of non governmental organisations and referring to them as the civil society.

When the representatives of the civil society appear on the media they are typically the office holders of one or the other NGO.

Representatives of the Bar or Business organisations are usually not addressed, at least in the media, as belonging to the civil society.  One example of these distinction is the wikipedia reference to the  recent ‘Lawyers’ Movement,’ which speaks of ” The civil society, human rights activists, media, students and especially the lawyers,” as taking to the streets for the restoration of independent judiciary in Pakistan.  Notice that the term civil society here appears as distinct from other elements of society.

Can we say, then, that in Pakistan civil society is generally understood to mean only certain kind of NGOs?

The erstwhile Center of Civil Society at the London School of Economics had defined civil society as follows:

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, and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, 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-governmental organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.

This definition is used by some international organisations such as civicus to map civil society in the developing countries.  However, the local usage of the term does not seem to fit with this definition.  I have seldom seldom come across the term civil society being used for, say, the professional organisations and trade unions in Pakistan.

I am not saying that such usage is good or bad.  Nor am I suggesting that it must be aligned with LSE’s or some other definition. The meanings of terms are always situated in particular practices, and so we should look for the meaning of civil society within the specific settings in which it is put to use.

But, what do you think wsup with the civil society?

Disclaimer: The external websites are quoted on this blog to provide the readers with a range of opinions on any given topic to help them reflect on their own questions concerning the issue being discussed.  This blog does not endorse views expressed on external websites unless explicitly stated

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

6 Responses to “Civil Society?”

  1. There are six different laws under which CSOs have to be registered, it is even more remarkable that presently there are 10 000 to 12 000 active and registered NGOs in Pakistan and 60 000 CSOs if unregistered groups are counted. Numerous journalists, newspapers, and media activists regularly cover social evils, matters of injustice, human rights abuses, and issues of exploitation. Everywhere in the country self help groups are formed, micro finance, health and education programmes get implemented, and organisations working for gender equality conduct awareness campaigns. Their contribution to enhance democratic reform and organise resistance against the ruling elites who on a historical analysis do not intend to substantially support civil society (implying decentralisation of power, strengthening of civil political institutions, independence of judiciary, egalitarian power sharing, safeguarding of human rights and the rule of law, evolution of critical opinion, civil administration and mechanisms against state control) is almost unnoticed by the international community.

    Pakistan is suffering from a number of institutional deficiencies. The judiciary and other state institutions need bolstering in order to protect them from political influence, to give them the power to fight corruption, constrain abuses of power, and provide legal security to organise collective action.

    Civil society in Pakistan is more than NGOs. But its reality may not be captured by the Western definitions, as the one given above in the post, of the term. The sphere is coming into being for multiple reasons and because of the deficiencies of the state institutions.

  2. Thank you Mr. Raza, your post certainly adds to the knowledge about registration and work of CSOs in Pakistan. Regarding some of the work, the detractors, and I have certainly not made up my mind on this issue, would say that when state’s work is taken over by voluntary organisations it atrophies or weakens the state further and so undercuts the long term objective of strengthening public services.
    In the Western contexts, lots of services in the social sector–such as education, health, etc.– are also being delegated to what David Cameron’s calls the ‘Big Society’ in the case of Britain, but which is largely composed of charities or voluntary public organisations. The term NGO is also used for them sometimes, but not as liberally as it is used for NGOs in Pakistan. I feel like observing in the passing that in the case of David Cameron, it is not ‘civil’ but ‘big’ society. The ‘big society,’ argue its detractors, is just another name for state withdrawal from provision of public services.
    But in the Western contexts, irrespective of the ideological underpinnings, when this ‘big society’ sphere is enhanced, it would most likely remain regulated and accountable. Regulated, that is to say, to protect the ‘public interest.’ However, in Pakistan, it is not clear who protects the public interest. Under such circumstances, tt is possible, that the NGOs or Civil Society Organisations become more or less indistinguishable from private concerns, simply because there is no robust public domain. Is that happening in Pakistan? I am not sure, but a valid question to post I think.

  3. Personally I think civil society includes any unofficial group of likeminded people who espouse a cause that they feel safeguards their common interest/s. Even if they are not registered so what, as long as they remain within the bounds of law. It is, however, necessary that they should be able to articulate and disseminate their opinions. The catch comes in here. With our society so socially and economically stratified that many people — who are poor, not highly educated and have no access to the institutions of power such as the media — have no way of letting their views be known.

    I think those of us who have no vested interests should at least voice the opinions of these informal groups on their behalf. If we don’t, frustration can lead to their using means that are not considered legal.

  4. Zubeida, thanks for your comment. So the critical words, you think, are ‘unofficial’ and ‘likeminded’. By the former I think you are suggesting those that are not sponsored by the state, right? So this will include unions and professional groups in the mix. Would it be right to say that the popular and media usage of the term seems to have reserved it only for certain kinds of NGOs?

    As for civil society comprising the registered NGOs, one notices at least two broad kinds: the service deliverers and the campaigners.

    There are some who deliver services that government is unable to deliver because of its institutional deficiencies. The space for them is obviously created, as noted in an earlier comment by Mr. Raza, due to the institutional deficiencies of the government. I say, the non profit services sector is thriving elsewhere in the world as well, but not necessarily due to the institutional deficiencies. Rather, it has come about due to an ideological thrust to downsize the government. Take the example of the aid sector in the US. When the USAID was downsized in the 1990s, the US government began relying more and more on the independent contractors for the delivery of its foreign aid programs. Many existing PVOs extended their existing domestic portfolios and many more were created to respond to this demand and thus a flourishing market place of foreign aid delivery contractors was called into existence.

    Then, there are those that are ‘campaigning’ organisations. Here one can identify an entity such as a human rights group. They are not service providers. I am also thinking of coalitions for education and other advocacy based organisations. But then these are merely the two broad facets of the sort of work that several non-state organisations have come to undertake. It is, strictly speaking, not a basis for distinguishing one organisation from other, because more often than not, you find several organisations as doing both ‘service delivery’ and ‘campaigning’ at one and the same time.

    But notably, the ‘civil society’ organisations at times also appear as competing with for-profit market-based firms in their bids for development funds. In doing this, they become part of a market-oriented practice. Can they be said to, under such circumstances, occupy the market instead of an independent ‘civil society’ sphere? That is to say, irrespective of their intrinsic nature and mandate, they play on the market turf. And this turf requires them to follow the rules of the game, which they do. It seems to me that these organisations keep crossing the borders back and forth from one sphere to the other. This border-crossing seems to be compatible with the definition of civil society that I referenced in the post above. And it is fascinating to think about.

    Thanks again for visiting and leaving your thoughts.

  5. Very good observations. Broadly speaking there are two kinds of NGOs (I mean the non-professional bodies). You have identified them correctly, There are the service deliverers and the advocacy groups. Both are competing for funds and that creates competition as well as many evils which come with money — all the more when the donors are foreign. That is why I think Dr Akhter Hamid Khan the founder of the orangi Pilot Project was right when he insisted on the philosophy of self-reliance. He shunned foreign donors.

    As for the two categories of NGOs, what disturbs me is that they need each other but do not have any links. This weakens them both. We need advocacy groups to bring pressure on the government to change its policies or accede to the demand of a particular sector. Since advocay groups do a lot of research — or they must to be effective — carry out surveys, etc they don’t have time for service delivery. The services people are so busy providing services to the people that they have no time and capacity for research. It would be best if there could be some kind of liaison between them. That should call for periodic meetings between an advocay group and its partners who work at the grassroots level. This will give each of them an understanding of the others. I have been trying to do that but so far I have not succeeded.
    See my article on the Anatomy of advocacy at

  6. Historians and political analysts have described civil society as “the ultimate third way” of governing a society. What that implies is that there is the state and its organs, there is industry or the market, and there is the civilian society.

    Here’s the thing: civil society is not inherently virtuous; it is fractured from within and embraces a wide range of people and organisations, which makes it difficult to define. In India, it can embrace spiritual gurus with vast followings and agendas of their own, NGOs, environmentalists, voluntary agencies with political affiliations, corporates on a social responsibility trip, celebrities looking for free publicity and those who are loosely termed social activists. And then of course, there are the largely anonymous claimants comprising students, teachers, executives, retirees, housewives, et al. What they all have in common is that they are all members of civil society. That actually is the paradox. Civil society is a one-size-fits-all description but it is hard to define because it is so diffuse.

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