Civil society and the emergence of the non-profit sector

The global civil society is a concept largely discussed among international relations scholars. It encompasses the organized social life or civil activity of individual and collective actors in pursuit of various global to local political and nonpolitical goals. [1] The global civil society inhabits the space between the private sector economy and the state. It includes a wide variety of actors with sometimes conflicting objectives: formal representative organizations such as parties, churches, lobbies or trade unions, cohabit with informal functional organizations such as charities, universities, think tanks, mass media; and with more informal social and political entities and their networks such as social forums, ad hoc activist coalitions, diasporas networks causes or internationally coordinated social movements. [2]

Two important elements differentiate the global civil society conglomerate of actors from others: its voluntary nature (non-profit organizations as opposed to TNCs) and civility (as opposed to terrorist groups who resort to violence for accomplishing their goals).[3] In addition, the “global” element of this concept refers to various types of entities: truly global organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with audiences all over the world; organizations with activities or audiences in various countries but that are not really global;[4] and also local entities targeting global institutions in response to global issues.[5]

The emergence of global civil society is linked to the globalization process and the generalization of new ICTs, which reduced drastically the distance between people.[6] The advances in communication technologies, in particular Internet and mobile, have helped these movements and associations grow rapidly beyond the boundaries of states.[7] States let globalization happen as well as the development of a global civil society. According to Rosenau, world politics evolved and became split into two: inter-states relations on one side, and various non-governmental actors that are independent of the state centric world and who often interact with counterparts in the state centric world.[8]

The increasing use of new ICTs and in particular the use of social media by civil society organisations is probably one the most debated civil society phenomenon in the recent years.[9] This blog discusses the concept of civil society.

From civil society to the emergence of the non-profit sector

Global governance has undergone substantial transformations over the past generations thanks to the emergence of new private authorities and the increasing influence of new ICTs and cyberspace on international relations. [10] According to the Center for Civil Society Studies, the non-profit sector was worth USD 1 trillion plus (excluding religious organizations) in 1999 with over 30,000 NGOs operating international programs and 1000 had membership from three or more countries. [11]

As Kaldor states, civil society is “the medium through which one or many social contracts between individuals, both women and men, and the political and economic centers of power are negotiated and reproduced.” [12] It is also the product of nation-state and capitalism, in the sense that it arose spontaneously to mediate conflicts between the market economy and social life. It is also a universal collective expression of individuals: it can be found in all countries and stages of development, although with various cultural expressions. [13]

Among scholars and philosophers who studied this concept of civil society, Aristotle, Hobbes, Ferguson, de Tocqueville, and Gramsci. To understand contemporary definitions of civil society, it is essential to come back to its origins and the history of political thoughts. Indeed, civil society is a process, not an end point. [14] Civil society has been a point of reference for philosophers since antiquity. The concept of civil society was debated along with questions around a good society, rights and duties of citizens, the practice of politics and collective life. [15]

Originally, civil society was defined in contrast to the state of nature. It then was defined in contrast to the state. In classical thought, civil society referred to a type of political association that governed social conflict. Civil society and government were therefore undistinguishable. For Aristotle for instance, the polis was an association that enabled citizens to rule and being ruled. The state corresponded to the civil form of society and civility embedded the requirements of good citizenship. [16]

The concept of civil society was often linked to the idea of minimalizing violence in social relations in the sense that it enabled the use of reason to manage human affairs instead of submission based on fear, insecurity, ideology or superstition.[17] The concept of Societas Civilis implies the rule of law and political community where violence has been minimalized in the organization of social relations (civility). It is a peaceful order with implicit and explicit consent of individuals. [18] Its goal is public security.

This shift comes from the emergence of the nation-state in the late 18th early 19th century: it involved a more extensive and centralized state power, a new individual status from subject to citizen, and a growth in democratic control. [19] The emergence of the concept of civil society as understood today was linked to the centralization of political power in a given territory and the formation of states. [20]

In this understanding, civil society was clearly distinguished from the state: it described a self-regulated group of associations that needed to be protected from the state in order to preserve its role of opposing despotism. James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville represent this understanding.[21] The value of civil society was in their role to protect pluralism, nurture constructive social norms, and a defense against the domination of any particular group. In that sense, civil society was the foundation of a stable democratic polity.[22]

For Karl Marx, civil society was another means for the dominant class to further its interests under capitalism. It also described the ethical life between state and family and is about the rise of market society as a condition for individual freedom.[23] Gramsci reached different conclusions although reasoning in Marxist categories: social society is an arena of contestation. This idea was then taken over by philosophers in the USA such as Hannah Arendt and John Dewey, who developed the idea of a public sphere: a shared social and political experience that underpins public deliberation on main questions of public interest.[24]

In the 20th century, the concept of civil society has been narrowed to social interactions that are distinct from state and market.[25] Indeed, after the fall of the Berlin wall, civil society became increasingly popular in the sense that it became a rallying cry for dissidents in authoritative states and the vehicle for building a society characterized by liberal democratic norms.[26]

Today civil society refers to NGOs, associations, social movements, and the non-profit sector.[27] Often referred as the “third sector” or the “non-profit” sector, civil society contains all types of associations and movements between family and state, where membership and activities are voluntary. This definition includes NGOs, labor unions, political parties and churches, professional and business associations, community and self-help groups, and independent media. It is the “space for uncoerced human association” according to Michael Walzer’s famous definition.[28]

The number of NGOs in the world has risen substantially in the 1990s. India had 3.3 million NGOs in 2009, Brazil 220,000 and Egypt over 24,000 in 2007. In Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya, the non-profit sector provides at least 40 percent of all healthcare and education services delivered. [29] At the international level, the non-profit sector has emerged since early 1990s and constitutes the global civil society: over 56,000 international NGOs and 25,000 transnational NGO networks are active in the world today.[30]

Civil society is now perceived as a crucial counterweight to state and corporate power, as it promotes and sometimes enforces transparency, accountability and good governance.[31] The activist civil society means active citizenship where individual citizen self-organize outside political circles and where they can influence the conditions they live in.[32] In that sense, civil society is the arena of contestation, debate, dialogue and pluralism. It is both a source of civility and incivility.[33] It became a political empowerment.

The growing interconnectedness due to the generalization of new ICTs and the globalization enabled the emergence of islands of civic engagement in countries suffering from military dictatorship. Civil society groups bypassed their national states to appeal to international networks and institutions. The relationship between local civil society groups and transnational networks and institutions participated in the construction of a framework for global governance.[34] The civil society became global.

[1] Kaldor, Mary, Anheier, Helmut, Glasius, Marlies (2003) Global civil society 2003. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, p.159.

[2] Clark, Ann M., Friedman, Elisabeth J., Hochstetler, Kathryn (1998) The sovereign limits of global civil society: a comparison of NGO participation in UN world conferences on the environment, human rights, and women, World Politics, Vol.6, Issue 1, p.15.

[3] Ibid, p.35.

[4] Florini, Ann (2000) The third force: the rise of transnational civil society. Washington, DC: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, p.7.

[5] Gaventa, John (2001) Global Citizen Action. London, UK: Earthscan Publications, p.276.

[6] Kaldor, Mary, Anheier, Helmut, Glasius, Marlies (2003) Op Cit, p.37.

[7] Powell, Frederick W. (2007) The Politics of Civil Society: Neoliberalism Or Social Left?. London, UK: Policy Press, p.117.

[8] Rosenau, James N. (2003) Distant Proximities: Dynamics beyond Globalization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p.257.

[9] Edwards, Michael (2014) Civil Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, p.viii.

[10] Ruggie, John G. (2004) Reconstituting the global public domain – Issues, actors, and practices, European Journal of International Relations, Vol.10, Issue 4, p.507.

[11] Ruggie, John G. (2004) Op Cit, p.510.

[12] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Global Civil Society: An answer to war. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, p.46.

[13] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit, p.3.

[14] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit, p.20.

[15] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.4.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit, p.3.

[18] Ibid, p.7.

[19] Ibid, p.17.

[20] Ibid, p.31.

[21] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit, p.5.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit, p.10.

[24] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.7.

[25] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit , p.14.

[26] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.9.

[27] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit , p.20.

[28] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.18.

[29] Ibid, p.19.

[30] Ibid, p.20.

[31] Ibid, p.12.

[32] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit , p.8.

[33] Ibid, p.9.

[34] Ibid, p.5.