Why civil society matters

What is a civil society organization (CSO)? I can’t say I know. I continue to struggle to define it. Some conveniently associate it with a non-government organization. It can be an indigenous peoples group, a faith-based organization, a trade union or a university. Their creation can be incidental or responsive. Not all may even know that they are already by classification members of civil society. Others may have just been born of a crisis or a disaster — because there is a need to do more. This makes valid what my friend from Myanmar said: “It is anything and everything that is not government.” If it is, when can we say that it truly is representative of society? When is it self-serving? When is it legit? How do we know it is not fly-by-night?

In developing countries, CSOs are gaining ground. Decision-making processes involve CSOs. If it were a university, it can be your faculty or staff union or your parents association or the student government. They represent a specific concern that those “at the top” may not have a fuller grasp of. They may not hold the same interest, issue or concern as the others, but theirs form part of the framework within which development initiatives need to be pursued. The working assumption is they are stakeholders: they are equally a party to the problem as they are to the solution.

But just as CSOs may be anything and everything that might represent the most specific of interest or advocacy, their presence can easily be abused. Some become stamping pads; they get invited to consultation meetings to satisfy a democratic process or comply with funding regulation. Some are created to creatively get around malversation. Others exist for inherent political agenda. This may explain why CSOs sprout like mushrooms in developing countries.

And the increasing number of CSOs around the world gives rise to the issue of inequality in terms of opportunities. Not everyone has a bite of the pie. One fellow from Africa to this year’s WB-IMF Annual Meetings lamented the higher funding concentration in favor of much bigger and more established CSOs. This becomes worse in countries like Nepal where funding from international development organizations are coursed through governments, not directly to CSOs. This arrangement casts doubt both on the value of CSOs and the integrity of the selection process. With government intervention, it is not far for party politics to come to play.

Why then are international development organizations interested in CSOs?

Simple: CSOs are more familiar with issues on the ground. They deal with grassroots communities, marginalized sectors and the more vulnerable population. They are more immersed in the issue and can easily adapt to local conditions. Under most circumstances, they are the voice of a specific market segment, thus can more effectively mobilize community participation.

As an officer from the IMF described it, the relationship of international development organizations with both government and civil society can be best symbolized by a triangle. At the base, there is government on one end and civil society on the other; the point that connects the two diagonal lines from the base represents the international development community. Considering the stronger link between international development organizations and governments, the role of CSOs is catalytic. CSOs can create that needed friction to get development going, it can also serve as the brakes that hold back governments from covering up irregularities from multilateral funding organizations.

(Note: Blog lifted from markraygan.blog.com. Published October 2014)

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