Can democracy supporters let civil society be itself?

Susan Dodsworth

Civil society is a central part of the democracy support tool-kit.

Those who seek to promote democracy almost universally identify strong and vibrant civil society as an essential driver of political reform. Supporting civil society is popular because it offers the tantalising prospect of fostering change from the bottom up. Adding to its appeal, civil society provides democracy supporters with an alternative to engaging directly with governments, which are often highly repressive or corrupt. It also promises (or more accurately, appears to promise) a way to support those working on sensitive issues, such as human rights, without interfering in domestic politics.

Democracy supporters want to help civil society because it is an important political actor. Yet, paradoxically, many democracy promoters continue to implement programs in a way that denies or ignores this truth; they engage primarily with professionalised, advocacy-centred NGOs, who they encourage to campaign on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology. This problem arises with respect to development aid more broadly, but it is particularly problematic in the context of democracy support because it perpetuates a de-politicized vision of what civil society is, and what it ought to be. It is understandable that both donors and democracy supporters fall into this trap; more technocratic civil society actors are typically better set up to engage with international partners, and are less likely to trigger resistance from authoritarian governments. However, in reality many civil society organisations are not impartial or evidence-based, but are campaigning bodies established to promote a specific perspective. Moreover, these political variants of civil society are essential to the health of democracy.

The discrepancy between the motivation for and practice of civil society support is well established, but has proved difficult to remedy. In 2010, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a review of donors’ civil society strategies. It authors observed, ‘All donors now acknowledge that the term includes other associational forms, including trade unions, “traditional” associational groups, and faith-based groups.’ Yet despite the rhetoric of inclusion, the donors continue to prioritize a particular type of organisational structure, built around formal, professionalized organizations. In its recent Civil Society Partnership Review, published in November 2016, DFID highlighted this issue. It noted that grassroots organisations, such as smaller local NGOs and faith-based groups, are often better positioned to achieve lasting impact, admitting that DFID still needs to become better at engaging with these kinds of actors.

In our most recent policy paper for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Nic Cheeseman and I discuss several ways in which democracy supporters might expand the range of civil society organisations that they engage. One is to ‘borrow’ the multi-party dialogue format that is often employed by the Netherlands Institute for Multi-Party Dialogue (NIMD) and develop an equivalent version for civil society. Instead of trying to negate or ignore political divides, this approach would aim to work around them by fostering tolerance and mutual respect between those at different ends of the political spectrum. Rather than depoliticising civil society, such a strategy would seek to reduce distrust and foster collaboration between adherents of rival views and beliefs.

In some countries, large civil society forums already exist. However, they are typically seen (by both donors and local governments) as a means of getting civil society to agree on a common position, rather than means of capturing a diverse range of opinions. Governments sometimes use disagreement within civil society as an excuse for ignoring it, asserting that it needs to speak with a single voice if it wants to be heard. Democracy supporters can help to resolve this impasse by encouraging governments to develop consultation processes that accommodate a range of perspectives.

More inclusive strategies for supporting civil society do have risks. There is growing evidence that as external support for civil society grows, so too does the risk that authoritarian incumbents will retaliate, employing a variety of tactics to close political space. Broadening the kinds of civil society that donors support could exacerbate this risk, but taking no risk at all might also prove counterproductive. Playing it safe all the time will leave us with an impoverished version of civil society and a superficial form of democracy. Democracy supporters cannot work with all types of civil society all the time; to attempt this would be both impractical and foolhardy. They do, however, need to find ways to let civil society be itself whenever this is possible.



(Photo: Top: WFD’s, EU funded programme in Uganda supported local CSOs, GWED-G and REACH, to raise awareness about the implementation of CEDAW)

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