Civil society – Definition

Civil society or civil institutions refers to the totality of civic and social organizations or institutions which form the basis of a functioning democracy. Civil society groups advocate and take action primarily for social development and public interest.While there are a myriad definitions of civil society, the London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society working definition is illustrative:

Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women’s organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy group.

Examples of civil society institutions:

The term is currently often used by critics and activists as a reference to sources of resistance to and the domain of social life which needs to be protected against globalization. However, within the United Nations context, the phrase “civil society” has been a source of some controversy, as its meaning also includes businesses as well as private voluntary organisations – see United Nations: Partners in Civil Society (http://www.un.org/partners/civil_society/home.htm)

Defining Civil Society

There has been a dramatic expansion in the size, scope, and capacity of civil society around the globe over the past decade, aided by the process of globalization and the expansion of democratic governance, telecommunications, and economic integration.  According to the Yearbook of International Organizations, the number of international NGOs was reported to have increased from 6,000 in 1990 to more than 50,000 in 2006. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have also become significant players in global development assistance, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimating that, as of 2006, CSOs provided approximately US$15 billion in international assistance.
CSOs have also become important actors for delivery of social services and implementation of other development programs, as a complement to government action, especially in regions where government presence is weak such as in post-conflict situations. Perhaps the most recent and visible case of CSO involvement in post-disaster relief occurred in Asia during the post-Tsunami reconstruction after 2006.
CSOs’ influence on shaping global public policy has also emerged over the past two decades. This dynamism is exemplified by successful advocacy campaigns around such issues as banning of land mines, debt cancellation, and environmental protection which have mobilized thousands of supporters around the globe.  A recent manifestation of the vibrancy of global civil society has been the World Social Forum (WSF) which has been held annually since 2001 on different continents, and which has brought together tens of thousands CSO activists to discuss global development issues.  Another example of the vibrancy and importance of civil society is the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), an international civil society campaign advocating for debt relief and greater aid to poor countries. In 2008, GCAP is estimated to have mobilized more than 116 million citizens to participate in the Stand up against poverty events held in cities throughout the world.
The civil society sector is not only emerging as a clear societal actor in many parts of the world, it is also quite varied in its nature and composition.  For this reason definitions of civil society vary considerably based on differing conceptual paradigms, historic origins, and country context.The World Bank has adopted a definition of civil society developed by a number of leading research centers: “the term civil society to refer to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations”.

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