Sep 022008

There are no one-size-fits-all prescriptions available. It is up to individual civil society initiatives to realise the immediate context of their intervention, and to devise a course of action that has actual relevance within the indigenous environment

The process of wealth generation continues, in varying degrees, even across the least developed countries of the world. Be it in the various forms of production, or the extraction of natural resources, countries across Asia, Africa, and South America have been acquiring national wealth since decades.

Gaining independence from the shackles of extractive colonial domination has also provided these countries an unhindered opportunity of utilising their wealth to significantly increase the scope of development activities within national budgets and to provide basic services to all their citizens. In effect, however, the accumulated wealth in a majority of poorer countries is scarcely able to reach the deprived.

The reasons why changing governments of poorer countries continue to fail to change this above reality can vary. Overall budgetary misallocations, lack of capacity of relevant line departments to utilise allocated funds, or else outright corruption of personnel responsible for spending these funds, can all equally deter much needed positive changes to occur on the ground.

In view of this lingering problem of wealth being unable to effectively tackle widespread poverty, the importance of strengthening civil society has been widely acknowledged as a potential solution. However the extent to which civil society organisations are themselves truly representative of poor people needs to be considered. Even if they are so, another crucial question is whether they posses the strategic leverage required to change the national polity.

For civil society to become an effective catalyst for political reform, it needs effective linkages not only at the grassroots level, but also with broader regional or transnational entities. While the former lend legitimacy to the demands being made by civil society, the latter are vital in terms of lending these demands some strategic clout, as well as for securing financial resources for directly fulfilling some of the evident needs on ground. Playing this simultaneous role of reaching out below as well as above is obviously a challenging task.

As far as creating broader networks of influence is concerned, for example, international donors often do step forward to help band together a wide range of civil society stakeholders, hoping that this will facilitate goals like giving a political voice to the marginalised, increasing accountability, and the peaceful management of group interests on divisive matters such as sharing national resources. However, there are contending factors at work here, which often undermine such seemingly noble aspirations. Consider for example the realities of aid, whereby foreign policy goals are promoted under the guise of development aid, which fans much suspicion concerning which donor is funding what initiatives, in which country, and why.

The fear of the current Iranian regime that the US is trying to create insurgency by promoting civil society initiatives, and the crackdown that was provoked due to this very fear just last year, is one case in point.

A similar problem can also occur while trying to create regional networks. In the case of South Asia, while securing funding for collaboration across borders is easy to find, the effectiveness of such initiatives remains largely confined due to existing tensions between the concerned neighbouring countries.

Even at the micro-level, civil society faces many hurdles in promoting goals like equal participation of men and women in social, economic and political life. There are vested interests that oppose these efforts to bring about social change. The feathers of landlords and traditional power brokers like tribal chiefs get easily ruffled when people under their subordination are exposed to notions like self-reliance and empowerment. Even work on gender can provoke contempt against civil society initiatives for seemingly disrupting cultural and moral values. The threats to female NGO workers in Pakistan or Afghanistan are examples of the backlash against such efforts.

Furthermore, building the capacity of civil society organisations to think globally and act locally is not easy. There is an evident need to improve the ability of small local organisations to help better protect the rights of women, children, indigenous groups, minorities and persons with disabilities, promote the freedom of expression and of religion, and to improve social and economic circumstances.

However how these issues should be tackled, utilising what sorts of coalitions, will vary from place to place. There are evident examples of the clergy having been enlisted to advocate the need for birth spacing or family planning in Muslim countries. Conversely, much hatred against the ‘agents of change’ is also known to be emanating from the pulpit. There are thus no one-size-fits-all prescriptions available. It is up to individual civil society initiatives to realise the immediate context of their intervention, and to devise a course of action that has actual relevance within the indigenous environment where it is to be implemented, without resorting to generic solutions.

Even when an appropriate intervention has been devised, civil society organisations need to work hard to ensure implementation. Making positive changes in the lives of downtrodden people can require not only introducing activities within deserving communities but also working with relevant line departments. This means that civil society has to engage in multiple awareness-raising and lobbying activities directed towards both central and local authorities.

There is some evidence of such efforts being underway already. For instance, while citizen-led initiatives for accountability and transparency are still considered critical, there is growing attention being given to the other side of the citizen-state equation, so that citizen watchdog groups on ground can be linked up to parliamentary oversight committees. Such efforts are aiming to achieve sustainable policy changes by simultaneously supporting the capacity of governments to respond to citizen demand, and by linking civil society initiatives to official bodies like groups of parliamentarians sensitive to specific citizen demands like transparency or gender equity.

Although increasing government collaboration with civil society is admittedly quite hard work, but trying to take shortcuts can lead to a major dilution of intended effects. Moreover, it is not only the responsibility of donors to try to promote such activities. It is about time that governments of seemingly well endowed yet poverty ridden countries themselves realise the value of opening up to collaborations with civil society, given that both the governance process as well as the masses in general have much to gain from this effort.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 2/9/2008

 Posted by at 7:01 pm

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