What Actually is Civil Society?

Posted on February 21, 2012 in Society

By Astitwa:

In the last few months we must have been bombarded with the term ‘civil society’ countless times. But, how many of us have really explored its scope beyond Anna Hazare’s so-called India Against Corruption? In a democratic country even though the government and its leaders are elected by the citizens, it may happen that the government is callous in carrying out its responsibilities. An inefficient government can prove to highly detrimental for a developing nation as ours poor. To avert any such extreme cases of failure and also to provide keen insights and analysis to the government regarding policy making, advisory groups founded by citizens, also called as civil society are extremely necessary.

There is no fixed definition of civil society. It can be any non-for-profit organization independent of the state, self-generating, self-reliant consisting of citizens, independent mass media, think tanks, universities, religious, environmental and NGO groups. The soul of a civil society group or organization is its mission and commitment to engage in constructive efforts that can lead to betterment of life of the citizens. Civil societies, hence, act as an interface between the government and people. They are unlike business units, corporate or other profit oriented organizations which may have vested interests in advising government on policy measures. There are several right and left wing organizations that promote interests of a particular caste, religion or group of people. So, do we call them civil society? Well, as aforementioned, there is no particular definition of civil society so we can’t exactly state if some organizations like RSS in India, or the Ku Klux Klan in USA, can be called as civil society. But definitely, if we go by democratic principles, we can easily figure out that neither civil society promote parochial views nor are they fundamentalist or radical in any way.

The core mission of a true civil society is to be the voice of the people by respecting and promoting constitutional laws. A civil society champions solution of problems and concerns in a democratic way thus respecting the constitution of the country. Now that we know the ethos and basic motivation behind the formation of civil society, let us understand how civil societies make a democracy stronger and efficient.

Civil society plays a crucial role in strengthening democracy. A civil society expresses the concerns of the citizens to the government using several democratic principles like peaceful protests, complaints in the form of petitions, by seeking the Right to Information, litigation and several other measures. Here’s how civil societies make a country perform better on many fronts.

Responsive Agent: When we talk of civil society, we generally add a negative connotation to it, in the sense, that it is meant to criticize the government and incessantly oppose the state. The fact is that civil society, even though is independent of the state, it must not always overtly criticize the government. Its main objective is to act as a platform for positive engagement of citizens and government making the officials more responsive, effective and legitimate.

Election Watchdog: By carefully monitoring election campaigns, civil society organizations by the help of network of like minded organizations can ensure that elections are free and impartial. Any illegitimate activities can be directly reported to the election commission.

Create Awareness: Civil society can act as an important force to spread awareness amongst the masses regarding several issues like voting, environmental rights, health issues, democratic education, corruption, legal rights and numerous other subjects.

Foster Unity: To keep a democracy stable, a nation must be united, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or any other differences. Civil societies can break any such barriers by promoting interests at a national level. Theatre, drama, arts, dance, sports, movies and folklores are most effective instruments used in this process to make everyone a part of the bigger whole.

Represent People: Civil society basically acts as the bridge between government officials and people. It can raise voice of a large or small section of the society who want some issues to be discussed in the parliament. These can by anyone, right from a labour union, auto drivers, students, farmers, women, transgender, homosexuals, doctors, lawyers to human right workers. By establishing contact with specific government departments, civil society can help certain groups significantly.

Resolve Conflicts: As nations integrate more closely, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage interests of people in diverse ethnic groups. In several cases, the middle path is always beneficial for the state and the people. But if either of them becomes stiff, it can lead to unwanted protests or strikes leading to severe economic losses. To avoid that, civil societies with their think tanks and public debate forums can help in effective mediation of the core issues.

Promote Democratic Principles: Civil society groups are a representative of the society and if its members promote and practice values like tolerance, healthy debate, moderation, active listening, empathy and compassion, it can help in building a nation with responsible citizens.

Finding Policy Loopholes: Civil society can suggest and advice government on several public policy issues making the policies more favourable for people and the nation. It can also complain against corruption and inefficient government officers and departments.

It is beyond any doubt that civil society has the potential to help a nation grow efficiently. Civil society members must also be discreet in their approach in dealing with several matters, as they are not legally constituted bodies. They must never attempt to cross the line and overtly pressurize the government on the name of rights and democracy. As long as civil society acts only as a monitoring body for the democratic government, it is surely a boon for the country.