Understanding the true concept and functions of civil society

Civil Society Network started to protest corruption after Daphne Caruana Galizia broke the Panama Papers. Since then, it has been at the forefront of issues with the rule of law, good governance and democracy, catering especially to young activists.

Yet the Organisations making up civil society would be wrong in invariably believing that Government, and the politicians who run it, are flawed and their actions need to be tempered. Most of these groups are well funded and use their generous budgets to promote themselves and their causes and undoubtedly have a very important role to play in building and strengthening democracy. 

Civil society is not simply in tension with the State. Because civil society is independent of the state does not mean that it must always criticize and oppose the State. In fact, by making the State at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, effective—and hence more legitimate—a vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the State and promotes their positive engagement with it.

A vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the State and promotes their positive engagement

with it.

While there is much debate about how to define civil society, one thing is agreed: it is not defined by law. It embraces free action and interaction; government may to a certain extent legitimately constrain their action and control them. At first sight, therefore, government may appear inimical to the free play of civil society, at best a necessary evil setting a framework within which it operates.

In fact, an enabling legal environment is necessary for civil society to be fully effective. It facilitates civil society and protects it. But only if it enables, and supports. The bad name that some State institutions may have in many parts of civil society reflects the experience that they sometimes impede, control, even suppress.

By civil society, I would understand the entire range of organised groups and institutions that are independent of the State, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This of course includes non-governmental organisations like Civil Society Network, but also independent mass media, think tanks, academics, and social and religious groups.

To be part of civil society, groups must meet some other conditions as well. In a democracy, civil society groups have respect for the law, for the rights of individuals, and for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions. Part of what the word “civil” implies is tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity.

Civil society groups may establish ties to political parties and the State, but they must retain their independence, and they should not seek political power for themselves. There is always a risk that some groups might arise that seek to monopolise the lives and thinking of their members, not tolerating the right of their members to dissent. Some of these groups may merely be fronts for political parties or movements that seek to win control of the State. Such groups can never be deemed part of civil society and they do not contribute to building a democracy.

What, then, can the independent, voluntary, law-abiding, tolerant and pluralistic organisations of civil society do to build and maintain democracy?

Of course, the first and most basic role of civil society is to limit and control the power of the State, to find ways to check, monitor, and restrain the power of political leaders and State officials when affairs go awry. Civil society actors should watch how state officials use their powers. They should raise public concern about any abuse of power. They can be useful partners to Government in ensuring transparency, access to information, and redefining good governance to control corruption. Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society. However, any democracy also needs a well-functioning and authoritative State.             

Civil society can also promote political participation. They can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens, and encouraging them to listen to election campaigns and vote in elections. They should help develop citizens’ skills to work with one another to solve common problems, debate public issues, and express their views.

And why not, also help to develop the other values of democratic life: tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view? Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable. These values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice. We have outstanding examples from certain entities—especially women’s groups—that have cultivated these values in young people and adults through various programs that practice participation and debate.

Without tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing views, democracy cannot be stable.

Civil society may help to inform the public about important public issues. This is not only the role of the mass media, but of NGOs which can provide forums for debating public policies and disseminating information about issues before Parliament that affect the interests of different groups, or of society at large.

The accountability of civil society remains a sensitive issue. It conflicts with the independence of civil society but some guarantee of integrity is necessary for its credibility. Accountability requirements are, however, fraught with difficulty since they provide a means for improper control over civil society.

Registration is of diminishing public value unless it supports a process of continuing validity. Annual reporting of the basic facts on which registration is based, in particular the organisation’s purpose and place of administration, is a necessary basis for credible registration. Openness about activities and finances is fundamental to ‘transparency’, much lauded as a guarantor of credibility – but exposing civil society to the risk of interference if the reporting authorities have inappropriate powers. While accountability is a legitimate part of privileges for public benefit status, the attractions of wider self-regulation by civil society to provide the balance between credibility and independence are obvious.

If civil society is not transparent, honest, and accountable, then you cannot be a champion of social justice.

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