Civil society has always been with us. In fact, it has been present in some way since the earliest forms of human society, although the term is of recent origin. Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, were already speaking about forms of civil society. (1) They describe citizens as persons who engage in the life of the polis and care about its development. Athenian society is never depicted as complacent or passive. They tell stories of citizens with distinct interests and a willingness to fight for them, including through public citizen forums such as the agora. (2) Yet not until hundreds of years later, in the middle of the 18th century, did a formal concept of civil society begin to be defined.
John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, expresses his belief that a government derives from an agreement or social contract among men who agree to give up life in the state of nature, with its risks to survival-like war and civil disturbance, in favor of a more secure life in a civil society. (3) Hegel defines it as a dialectical relationship that occurs between the macro-community of the state and the micro-community of the family. (4) Rousseau goes so far as to equate civil society with the state. (5) This discussion was reignited in the 20th century, during the 1980s, with the development of glasnost in the Soviet Union, the rapid expansion of economic globalization, and the rise of new civil movements across the world.
From ancient Greece to modern times, civil society has been present and has fostered development and stability across nations. Political theorists have shown on the basis of repeated historical experience that civil society plays a critical role in giving legitimacy to the state and also gives rise to movements that delegitimize states that do not follow or address their citizen's will. It is an engineering concept, or a feedback mechanism between citizens and governments. People everywhere have grievances, and they naturally want to air them; they want to be heard. Moreover, state policies and laws are effective only when they are endorsed and accepted by a state's citizens, so politicians who are committed to democracy and long-term stability have a vested interest in strengthening and maintaining well-founded civil societies. (6) A well-developed civil society can protect the state from economic and political crisis and can foster innovation and social improvement. In the words of former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, civil society is the oxygen of democracy as it acts as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. (7)
But the actions of civil society can interfere with vested interests. It is therefore not surprising that many governments have sought to suppress civil society. Governments worldwide are increasingly carrying out a crackdown on civil society, adopting subtle, but deleterious techniques, which, if not countered, could over time have negative consequences for the development, as well as the stability of their nations.
Given the complexity of civil society, research on this field is lacking, and it is difficult to reach clear uniform conclusions about the importance of civil society. This paper is an attempt to lay out some of the main functions and benefits of civil society, show the ways in which governments worldwide are cracking down on it, and propose recommendations on how governments can benefit from a good relationship with civil society by permitting it to act as a valve that will let off social tensions and promote growth and social stability. But this means all voices need to be heard.
Civil Society: A Valve to Let Off Steam
Citizens have for centuries used the networks and mechanisms of civil society as a valve to let off steam and to express their concerns, interests, and wants. Every citizen has expectations of their society and political system, which, when not met, can lead to tensions, frustration, disappointment, and to a desire for change.
Civil society allows for that process to happen naturally and can mitigate, if not prevent, frustrations from boiling to dangerous and unmanageable levels. Civil society funnels tensions using formal and informal mechanisms, whether through discussions, debate, or associations. These mechanisms cannot simply be replicated by a government or business, since formalized or institutionalized structures over time lose their vibrancy. But civil society, given its flexibility and ever-evolving nature, can retain this spark and thereby remain relevant. Its role, admittedly ambiguous and even at times disconcerting, is performed in diverse and often uncharted ways: first, by addressing a citizen's day-to-day need; second, by providing feedback to public authorities and thereby informing government decision makers; and third, by ensuring respect and promotion of the rights of a Funneling expression of citizens' aspirations to shape their daily lives
Civil society is a way for citizens to contribute to the public discourse and shape the community in the way they would like it to see it, and in which they want to live. It allows for the expression of creativity, whether through the arts or entrepreneurial activities; inspires new initiatives that heed citizens' needs, whether it is a health clinic, civic center, or bowling alley; and lets them be a part of the inevitable change in society, giving them ownership of the process. (8) Citizens participate by forming and joining nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and also by engaging in day-to-day initiatives in small groups to achieve joint or common goals. (9) The beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, for example, was sparked by "apolitical and disorganized youth," (10) who for months had expressed their discontent with the system in their close circles, but no one had listened to their concerns. Less dramatic, but equally reflective of the influence of civil society in citizens' daily lives is the platform offered by motorist associations in Russia. These organizations mobilized citizens to fight the corruption of Russia's traffic police, generating media attention and mobilizing support of their actions throughout the country. (11) Finally, it was civil society's ability to express citizens' wills and shape their reality that championed the Paris climate agreement. (12) The broad and all-encompassing nature of the Sustainable Development Goals inspired all sectors of civil society to mobilize and undertake to put great pressure on governments worldwide to sign the Paris Agreement. (13) There is admittedly no one pattern or pre-fixed schedule, but in one way or another, civil society permits citizens to channel their aspirations, as well as their dissatisfaction, if not their anger, into improving their situation.
Providing feedback and informing government actions
In the past, as well as today, civil society has had the capacity to generate pressures and influence a government to take action and ensure that it serves its citizens, not just further its own institutional interests. Civil society, among other things, has protested against autocratic or self-interested governments, leading to the opening of oppressive political systems. (14) Civil society helps governments gauge their citizens' needs and sentiments about government policies.
An example of this mutually supporting relationship between civil society and government can be seen in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has joined the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. (15) Afghans celebrated the first Civil Society Consultation Workshop, at which civil society members and government officials discussed suggestions for principles related to access to information, fiscal transparency and public official asset disclosure, government accountability, and the use of e-governance to promote transparency. (16) So despite ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and its never-ending loss of life, citizens still felt that they could take part in a process that might usher in a better tomorrow.
Another example is Malawi, where the Civil Society Network on Climate Change has successfully monitored and advocated for the implementation of climate change-related policies. The network provided evidence to the National Environmental Policy and thereby helped ensure the policy's implementation. (17) In other words, civil society effectively constitutes the eyes and ears of public authorities, as no authority is large enough, let alone capable of being everywhere to see and do everything.
Ensuring the respect and promotion of rights
The existence of civil society organizations and movements allows for the expression of differing opinions, combating of rights violations, and the promotion of human development, all in a non-violent and evolutionary manner. (18) Civil society plays a critical role in monitoring and restraining the exercise of power by the state, and in holding it accountable for the violation of, or simply ignoring or overlooking a citizen's rights. (19)
In Venezuela, 296 civil society organizations worked on drafting a joint statement, the Urgent Agenda for Human Rights. (20) This document is diagnostic of the current state of affairs of human rights in Venezuela and also provides recommendations on specific actions that should be undertaken in order to safeguard human rights in the country, including economic rights, which the Venezuelan government publicly proclaims. (21) Civil society efforts have the ability to influence not only a government's actions, but also the decisions of corporations, which increasingly shape and affect citizens' daily lives. That was the case for Greenpeace's creative video campaign "Everything is NOT awesome," against Lego's multimillion-dollar partnership with...