What is civil society

The term “civil society” generally is used to refer to social relations and organizations outside the state or governmental control.  Sometimes it is also taken to mean outside the economic or business sphere as well.  Usually “civil society” refers to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and associations that people belong to for social and political reasons: churches and church groups, community groups, youth groups, service organizations, interest groups, and academic institutions and organizations, for example.  It also refers to the activities of these organizations.

Though independent of the governmental structure, these organizations frequently become involved in political activities. They try to influence governmental decision making and participate in a variety of public participation processes.  As such, the establishment and maintenance of a healthy civil society is extremely important for the successful development and operation of democratic political systems.

During times of crisis created by war, the structures of civil society often disintegrate or are forcefully closed.  The same thing happens when authoritarian or autocratic governments see civil institutions as a threat and close them down.  This greatly weakens the integrative system, and leads to social relations based largely on fear and force.  Key to overcoming such a society is the re-establishment of a multitude of social and political NGOs, which give people a voice in the affairs of their life, give them a sense of belonging and integration with other countrymen and women, and connect them with their democratic system in a meaningful way.

Once civil society has been eliminated, its recovery is very slow.  It can be aided significantly by outside assistance–by international NGOs coming in and helping the local people start parallel organizations of their own.  Training fledgling organizations in organizational and advocacy skills can be helpful, as can training in goal setting, option analysis, and conflict resolution.  Yet it is important that organizations be able to form in their own way to meet their own needs–they should not simply be little models of outside organizations that work in different places and different cultures.

Although civil society exists independently of the state, it is dependent on the state’s acceptance to be able to grow and flourish.  People must have the freedom to associate, to speak freely, to publish, and to participate in social and political processes without fearing repercussions.  Without such freedom, civil society will be stunted at best.

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