Who owns civil society? 

INDEED, in more recent years, the sudden mention of the words “civil society organisations” (CSOs) into the everyday discourse and narrative of development, politics, government circles or donor priorities, is noisesome, like the rush of air as it feels a vacuum.

Source: Who owns civil society? – NewsDay Zimbabwe February 20, 2019


All sorts of interesting and mixed scenarios are emerging around civil society.

In Zimbabwe, for instance, it is getting attention for agitation or the persistent stirring up of public opinion and in the process gaining or losing credibility or confidence. And what’s more, for getting more associated with the social media – the bane of the ruling Zanu PF regime.

In several developing countries, Africa included, where the State has been forced to retreat from exercising repressive and autocratic governance systems, the vacuum of power and of practice have been filled in large parts by various bodies of civil society organisations.

The Zimbabwe government, on its part, has responded by shutting down the Internet, a part of the whole social media conundrum in order to curb the so-called freedom of choice and expression being exercised by civil society. Was this, in a way daring “whoever owns civil society to own up”?

In the so-called “transition” countries, societies have found themselves overnight with neither government, value systems nor even food security.

Instead, the void has been filled by programmes and projects to strengthen civil society.

Experts note that civil society is more than just the sum total of all non-governmental organisations in a country.

Clearly, it is within this fraternity that many people initially seek today’s CSOs.

Yet still, the question still persists without a clear response: Who is and who owns civil society organisations?

According to anthropologist Chris Hann, civil society denotes an “entity or a group of people or social movements that point to an impoverished view of social life”.

Where many CSOs have been criticised as problem-pointers rather than solution-seekers, they can, according to Hazel Henderson – a leading alternative futures thinker – quickly move to more positive and prescriptive agendas.

According to Henderson, CSOs are often forced to be innovative because existing public institutions cannot respond to their proposals.

Whether it be in politics, development and environment fraternity, CSOs, since time immemorial, have come and gone, representing diverse interests.

Thus, with or without these responses from such public institutions, they have persisted in driving these interests and agendas, many times ruffling the furthers of the State.

In The Emerging Role of Civil Society, Bruce Shearer excitedly describes how “new elements of civil society have emerged with unparalleled rapidity and energy in countries throughout Africa, Latin America, Asia/Pacific and the Middle East.

“They build upon and add to the already present political parties, labour unions, workers’ cooperatives, business associations, membership organisations and religious bodies.
“They also include hundreds of thousands of informally organised local citizens’ groups – community associations, citizens’ movements, social service clubs, savings clubs and advocacy networks alongside NGOs and additional thousands of supportive institutions concerned with networking, financing and servicing”.

They all come in diverse shapes and sizes.

It is this innovative spirit, many times stimulated by poor governance systems and a desperate shortage of resources that has led to the emergence of networking as a new form of communication, first encapsulated by the Networking Institute in Massachusetts, in the late 1970s.

Basically, the art or science of going as directly as possible to a source of knowledge, one needs to share and networking has now permeated much social behaviour in every country, Zimbabwe included. With the advent of advanced technology, networking is scaling new heights.

Notes Henderson: “Because they can tap and organise information laterally across borders, corporate and government boundaries, CSOs can rapidly synthesise overlooked and new information into new approaches and paradigms”.

However, other experts observe that there has been an explosive growth in organisations registering as CSOs in recent years.

Many of these are formed by ex-civil servants whose positions have been eliminated in the scaling down of State responsibilities.

There has been anxiety and even irritation by governments and other long-established CSOs that these organisations are not value-driven, but opportunist attempts to echo and establish foreign interests and agendas or to some extent, access whatever funding is available in a time of hardship and scarce resources.

Other civil practitioners worry that the opportunists may be or have already set the tone for the whole sector, possibly prejudicing the work and reputation of other CSOs, and limiting their ability to engage in collaborative activities with the government and business sector.

According to the United Nations, the advent of advanced technology or the fourth industrial revolution has been the powerful engine of change in the relationship between CSOs and the world body: “The breaking down of States’ monopoly on the collection and management of information leads to their relative decline, while instantaneous access to information and the ability to use it provides non-State actors with knowledge. Knowledge is power and the ability to mobilise public opinion is to master the world.”

Thus, in many instances, advanced technology has led governments to fear CSOs or NGOs and has, therefore, attempted to deal with them, or to try to manage them and even worse still, to shut down the whole technology system, willy-nilly.

Governments are, indeed, often reluctant to grant CSOs and NGOs the importance they so fixedly believe they deserve at policy levels.

They claim that these bodies lack accountability and representativity.

The same accusation is also thrown at governments by the same bodies that they are not transparent and accountable and hence also need constant monitoring, with effective checks and balances in place, which governments interpret as regime change agendas.

Whether CSOs are “owned” or not, the truth is that accountability and transparency are the two key issues that could make CSOs and government seeing, feeling and counting on one another.

They need to take each other seriously as partners in governance, at the same time holding on to social contracts and exercising political will, the two which are currently lacking.