CIVICUS Civil Society Index’s contemporary challenges for civil society
By Hannelore Wallner, CIVICUS Civil Society Index Manager
Over the past three years, the CIVICUS Civil Society Index (CSI) has engaged over 5,000 stakeholders in more than 50 countries in one of the largest and most comprehensive evaluations of civil society to date. Through the dedication of our partners, the CSI has generated valuable knowledge on the state of civil society in a wide range of countries as politically, culturally and socially diverse as China, Lebanon, Macedonia, Sierra Leone and Uruguay. As an action-research project, the CSI has also helped to challenge popular myths and raise awareness about civil society among the media, academia, the private and public sectors, and even civil society practitioners themselves.
The preliminary findings of the CSI study provide important insights into the challenges and opportunities faced by civil society around the world. This innovative action-research project highlights numerous issues, such as the changing forms of citizen participation (which privilege faith-based organisations and social movements, rather than NGOs); the importance of indigenous financial resources for civil society (vis-à-vis waning financial commitment of international donors); the critical relation with the state and policy-making; and the new phenomenon of corporate philanthropy and social responsibility.
The CSI is a self-assessment methodology conducted for and by civil society, with the main aim of enhancing the strength and sustainability of civil society, and strengthening civil society’s contribution to positive social change. A unique combination of research elements and participatory activities make up the methodology that is implemented by partner CSOs in the countries. The CSI is based on the hypothesis that the combination of knowledge generation and participation can lead to action and change. The driving principles of the CSI are its inclusive and participatory nature, as well as the full ownership of the implementation process by in-country partners. The project framework relies on common core standards while at the same time allowing for some flexibility in order to ensure contextual validity.
Based on the definition of civil society as “the arena, outside of the family, the state and the market where people associate to advance common interests”, the CSI’s underlying analytical framework utilizes the Civil Society Diamond (developed by Dr. Helmut Anheier) that assesses four dimensions of civil society: structure, environment, values, and impact.
Looking at the four dimensions at the centre of the assessment, the country studies conducted during this phase (2003-2006) show that civil society’s impact in many regions of the world is limited or even restricted by a variety of external factors. The set of CSI studies completed thus far shows us that citizen participation in civil society activities is rather low and, although sometimes galvanized by periods of social or political conflict (e.g. Bolivia and Ukraine), it seldom turns into systematic participation of citizens and organised civil society in policy-making processes. The one exception seems to be Western Europe, where citizen participation is less volatile, and the contribution of civil society to policy-making processes appears to be more systematic and institutionalised.
A weakness that can be determined in most regions of the world is civil society’s infrastructure. It is particularly weak in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and somewhat more developed in post-communist Europe, where infrastructure has been a focus of donor efforts for the last decade. That said, even in this region, institutions providing support to civil society did not usually reach local-level organisations.
The CSI country studies confirm that financial resources for CSOs are limited in most regions of the world. CSOs in post-communist Europe, particularly, are often donor-driven, and to a lesser extent the same problem exists in sub-Saharan Africa. As donor priorities shift or donor commitment declines, civil society’s financial sustainability is likely to become a challenge. This leads to the conclusion that in the future the state is (or will be) the main source of funding for civil society – providing opportunities as well as posing challenges for CSOs. One of the most pressing questions that arise for the future is whether increasing state funding will undermine the autonomy of civil society and its role as ‘watchdog’? Will certain types of organisations be at the risk of being co-opted? In response to this, potential alternatives such as resource mobilisation beyond state support (e.g. membership fees) as well as support from the private sector should be explored.
When assessing the environment dimension, it is the political context, especially in terms of laws and practices constraining civic activism, which often hampers the development of civil society. Interestingly, infringements of citizens’ rights were noted in countries with rather different political contexts (i.e. Scotland, Togo, Russia and China). Importantly, the CSI found that a ‘weak’ state is a main challenge to the development of a strong civil society. In most countries it is the ineffective, corrupt, clientelistic, and unresponsive character of the state that poses obstacles to civil society’s growth and effectiveness. A ‘strong’ state, it appears, is a precondition for a ‘strong’ civil society.
The CSI studies demonstrate that the current impact of civil society is rather low – in many cases due to reluctant governments, which either feel threatened by or do not recognise the importance of civil society involvement. Many country reports show how civil society and government view each other with suspicion and do not engage in meaningful dialogue. Similarly, civil society relations with the private sector are still rather tenuous. Furthermore, the role of civil society in many countries is predominantly that of a service provider, as opposed to an advocate for basic rights.
While civil society upholds important progressive values, such as non-violence, tolerance and gender equity – it lags behind on others. Internal transparency and accountability mechanisms, particularly, are challenges which CSOs need to tackle. It has become apparent in all regions, except for Western Europe, that while mechanisms of transparency and accountability often exist, they are scarcely enforced in the civil society sector.
Civil society is facing a growing challenge in securing financial resources, coupled with potential threats to the sector’s autonomy due to its dependency on state funding. In this insecure funding environment, CSOs will have to find new ways of maintaining and strengthening their capacity to influence policy processes.
Many of the CSI partner organisations, as well as other CSOs in their countries, have actively responded to the results of the study by developing projects to tackle the challenges it identified. According to the study, many CSOs lack the resources and expertise to influence policy making, even when governments are open and collaborative. As a result, some CSOs are now working to strengthen their ability to engage with policy makers. Interestingly, the project itself – which required the consultation of multiple stakeholders such as media, academia and the private and public sectors – acted as an avenue for bridging the gap to help increase civil society’s influence in policy-making.
The first of two volumes of the publication “Assessing and Strengthening Civil Society Worldwide” are being published by Kumarian Press and will be available in mid-2007. For more information on the project, please visit www.civicus.org, or contact Hannelore Wallner at firstname.lastname@example.org