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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Understanding civil society

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By Muhammed Ceesay

In reality, a wide array of ideas surrounds the real concept of the civil society. In everyday parlance, the term civil society is frequently heard, that many of us, in fact, have unconsciously taken it for granted. This is no enough a reason to pass a general conclusion that we aren’t interested in making head or tail of this very term, but because it sounds to us as so common as ”our mobile phone ring tunes”. It is a reality that, the issues that man normally treats as casual, are the things that have a greater weigh on his live.

As in the academic world, the quest to rummage within embedded issues in society that have grave effects on our daily lives, and producing substantial knowledge about those issues, is considered binding on every single offspring of academia. So I am caught in this trap. As a young up-and-coming technocrat, I commit myself to be ever looked up to as that paragon of knowledge sharing.

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Having said that, I have decided to produce, yet another electrifying piece which I have tried by all possible means to make a piece of cake for every probable reader. This time, my words are to The Civil Society.
In this piece, I have tried to explain the concept of civil society and its roles in effecting development. I have the conviction that contextualizing the term and explicitly portraying its roles in society would definitely be enough to enhance a better understanding for it. Although, it won’t that easy to contextualize the term, but I only hope and pray that I do justice to it.

First, I will discuss what the term civil society means (with clear examples), and then I will succinctly portray the roles of the civil society in effecting development. With this I am optimistic that the reader of this piece will certainly develop well-grounded understanding of this household term. At this juncture I wish to acknowledge the fact that, writing is a task easier said than done.

The civil society: Counting the fact that there is no scientific way of defining Civil Society, the idea behind understanding the term may appear quite daunting without linking it with the other actors in the development arena. Which are the state and the market. And with a list of examples of the core actors within the civil society, one would easily understand what the civil society is all about. And these actors are called the civil society organisations.

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Well, I think I should rush to say that many a time people confuse civil society organisations with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).The reason for this is because NGOs are perceived to be mostly the more well-grounded and stronger Civil Society Organisations. NGOs are part of the civil society. So the civil society is way bigger than NGOs.

The concept of civil society could be traced to have been understood many centuries down the line in Western thinking, as its roots could be traced back in Ancient Greece. The modern idea of civil society emerged in the 18th century, and it started gaining more grounds during the 90s, as there was a renewed interest in it because of an increase in the trend for democracy, and the need to fill widening gaps created by some reform programmes imposed on so many developing countries by the World Bank. Some of those structural reform programmes include the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPS) which certainly put a lot of pressures and conditions on countries that were just dusting from the struggle for independence. For the sake of avoiding drifting too far into other development terms, I wish not to discuss the SAPS.
It is without a smidgen of doubt that no nation has ever registered true development without comprehensive participation of her people in development programmes and interventions.

Defining civil society: From an academic point of view, civil society refers to an arena of voluntary collective action built around shared interest, purpose and value where people associate to advance a common concern. It is an arena because it gathers people and host ideas that grow from within the concern of those individuals. In development, the shortest way to understanding civil society is: That actor of the polity that is neither that state (that is the central government and its institutions) nor the market (that is the economy, trading systems, financial arrangements etc. within the state).

The Civil Society Organisations are totally independent of the state. The key features of the civil society are: it is autonomous; it is separate from the state and the market; it is formed by people with common interests, values or concerns. Examples of civil society organisations (which are the reasons why we say civil society) include: Non- Governmental organisations(NGOs); Faith-Based Organisations (e.g. the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council, The Christian Council); Professional Associations; Trade Unions; Business Associations; Media houses (mostly private or community based); Advocacy groups; Women and Men Cultural groups (locally called ”Kompins” in Wolof and ”Kafoos” in Mandinka); Youth Groups; Community Based Organisations; Self-Help groups; Charity Organisations etc.

Essentially, understanding the civil society has to come from knowing the set of voluntarily set up organisations that are independent of the state. However, theoretically, the civil society is easy to distinguish from the state and the market, but in practice drawing a boundary between these three becomes a little bit more complex. The reason is that they are all development actors and players. What they do could be very similar in nature, yet they are seen are different actors.

Having talked about the concept of the civil society, we would now shift our attention to explaining the roles of the civil society; thus showing how important this actor is in enhancing holistic development.
The relative, but not absolute autonomy is what gives Civil Society organisations the leverage and influence in politics. Although some scholars argued that the concept of civil society is situated within a liberal political philosophy, this is not a statement implying that we will be looking at the roles of the civil society only from a political perspective, but from the economic and social as well.

The proximity of the civil society to local people increases its chances to gain a better understanding of local societal needs; hence participation is encouraged. This is a strength that civil society organisations possess. As a result, they stand in a better position to articulate the voices of the people. In development, the terms duty-bearer and Right-holder all mean to explain the actors and players in the field of development. Generally speaking, duty bearers are those development actors that bear the responsibility to providing development programmes to people, who are referred to as right-holders. So Civil Society Organisations are duty-bearers, but of closer relationship with the right-holders; thus making them of the most influential actors in delivering development to the people. AS a common saying goes: ”He who feels it Knows it”. So because Civil Society organisations are mostly voluntarily formed by people who have common concerns and purpose, it is closer to them and understands their needs best.

Roles of civil society
The whole objective of every state is to deliver development to its people. Development being a human right makes it very imperative to create the space and avenues for participation and inclusion for every right-holder. Allowing people to take part and hear their voices in national affairs that directly affect their lives will definitely put them in the picture of development; hence building that sense of ownership and freedom… the strengths of the civil society can have a positive influence on the state affairs. Civil society is therefore seen as an increasingly important agent for promoting the core values of good governance like transparency, accountability, openness, responsiveness and effectiveness (Ghaus-Pasha. A, 2004). The best security for every state is justice and transparency. This is what the civil society promotes. The civil society is an empowerment tool, for it creates avenues for people to be able to exercise choice and agency.

The increasing global trend toward Democratisation has opened up the political space for Civil Society organisations to play a more active policy-influencing role. The promise of democracy becomes a reality when people’s voices are heard by policy makers (Ghaus-Pasha, A. 2004). In a country where ”you participate, he participates, we participate and he decides” is not a norm, there will be considerate public inputs (even from the remotest regions) that would ensure that whatever the state does, will certainly reflect the needs and aspirations of people within that country. One thing to remember is that ”silence kills democracy”. People need to have a voice. That is to say, in a country where the civil society organisations (which are people’s voices) are well-structured and comprehensively functional, the people are listened to because they (CSOs) commit themselves to putting the welfare of their people first, more than the state does. They are more democratic in operation.

The civil society also serves as a check and balance mechanism, for one of the greatest strengths of the civil society is that it monitors and regulates the actions and inactions of the state; thus it prevents potential government’s domination. This it could do through strengthening the level of political consciousness of a people in a given country (through community sensitization and advocacy programmes) as well as the knowledge of citizenship because once we have knowledge for citizenship and knowledge for governance, we will come to realize that emotions give way to objective reality; and sentiments will give way to constructive reasoning. This will then raise the political awareness of many citizens; hence that will serve as guidance for them to consciously choose the best person they want to be represented by.
Policy influence efforts by the civil society may or may not create conditions that foster greater popular participation in the future. A movement may not achieve its immediate policy objectives, but getting its issue on the public agenda expands the range of voices engaged in the political process, and so expands political space (Ghaus-Pasha, A. 2004). The civil society also promotes the spirit of decentralisation of powers through building local capacities; thus winning the confidence of the central state to transferring powers and functions to lower level actors of development.

From an economic stance, the civil society also plays a vital role in promoting free marketeering, through the development of the private sector. The Civil society, through its influential organisations, can provide an enabling environment for economic liberalization. This is to ensure the promotion of open market systems, as argued by the neo-liberalists, to be the key driving force for development. The World Social Forum which draws a wide number of civil society organisations to discuss development issues has clearly manifested the vibrancy of the civil society in enhancing development.

The civil society organisations can improve the local business climate; enhance new enterprises and livelihood programmes; improve policy for business, through assisting and financing small community projects, rendering loan and credit services to individuals and local business enterprises. They could also be very influential in providing policy advices to both the state and other development actors; hence playing an integral role in economic growth and poverty alleviation.

Social service delivery is also another great role played by civil society organisations. There are a numerous civil society organisations, especially in The Gambia, that are so interested and oriented towards the provision of social services like education, health, sanitation etc., which are as indispensable as oxygen, to human survival. Such services are not ”exclusively-state”; thus the civil society would be an actor to complement the efforts of government. The provision of literacy programmes, implementation of health projects and programmes, enhancing the entrepreneurial skills of local community members, especially women, are part of the many activities that the civil society can provide.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all development programmes earmarked to alleviate poverty in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), which the Gambia is no exception. All of these programmes came along with certain benchmarks, which the state alone cannot achieve. So through the active involvement of the civil society, by the state, in implementing these development programmes, ”quick success” could be registered. The support of the all civil society organisations is unquestionably vital in realising the objectives of development. So relegating or undervaluing the importance of the civil society in enhancing development remains as detrimental to the lives of people as nurturing a totalitarian regime/ system of governance.

However, there is no gainsaying that a wide number of civil society organisations face huge challenges that greatly stifle their activism. Such challenges may include: authoritarian leadership; limited resources (both human and finance); legal treatments etc. Although a good number of civil society organisations are self-driven, many of them (especially community-based organisations) are virtually death in the absence of donors. This is the reason why the state should always work hand in glove with certain organisations to ensure that such organisations are helped to fulfill their mandates.

Civil Society Organisations are providers of relief and rehabilitations. In most War-turned countries, the activities of the civil society organisation in providing refuge to victims, even before the response of the international community, has been globally recommended. During political tensions, their support is always at the disposal of victims.

In The Gambia for example, during the 2016 political impasse, the Bar Association, Social movements (like the Gambia Has Decided), Professional and academic organisations (like the University of The Gambia Staff Association), played a very crucial role in cooling down the political tensions. For example, the staff association of the University of The Gambia decided to boycott exams and all other academic activities at the UTG, if Jammeh continue being incessant to power.

To conclude, I wish to say that: ”In the absence, or say, ineffectiveness of Civil Society organisation, the state would find the execution of her development programme as tedious and impact-less as lifting a log single-handedly”. So it is of great significance that the state constantly rejuvenates her collaboration with the Civil Society.
I only hope and pray that, this little contribution of mine is apt and worth considering in these very moments of the New Gambia.


The author is a trained classroom teacher and a second-year student at UTG

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