The role and impact of civil society organisations (CSOs) in voicing public demands has dominated recent headlines in many parts of the world.
This has resulted in a renewed discussion on how such groups are able to influence public behaviour as well as highlight government failure.
Many are also questioning whether CSOs should be involved in political activism. There are also worrying reports of growing political repression and the shrinking space for CSOs to operate in many parts of the world.
Civil society is generally understood as “the arena between the household and the state”.
The term thus includes a diverse group of formal and informal groups—charities, faith-based groups, professional and business associations, trade unions, social movements, advocacy groups—that promote societal interests by acting independently of the state and the market.
In practice, however, the boundaries between the state, civil society, family and the market are often blurred and contested—requiring constant negotiation. Indeed, it is sometimes not clear whether CSOs and the state play separate roles or occupy separate terrains—civil society may be embedded in State structures, often working with the State, or working in a limited role by only demanding some state services.
Moreover, while CSOs may sometimes work in opposition (openly), they may also work underground (hidden from view).
Following the growing distrust in the ability of the state in low-income countries to undertake economic and political reforms, CSOs began to be viewed in the late 1980s as having a comparative advantage over the state in providing public services as well as in consolidating democracy.
However, the continued presence of pervasive patronage networks in many countries mean that CSO activities do not always strengthen democratic freedoms. Establishing an NGO may simply be an alternative process of power accumulation.
There are numerous channels for CSOs to influence political affairs, including transparency initiatives (budget and expenditure monitoring) and contentious action (protests and advocacy campaigns). CSOs can also represent marginalised people in formal areas of policymaking.
They can additionally convene new spaces for deliberation and claim-making while at the same time conducting training activities and disseminating information aimed at fostering greater citizen engagement in public affairs.
Several studies in the past couple of decades conclude that the key features that explain successful policy engagement by CSOs include strong organisational capacity, access to adequate financial resources, and a high level of perceived legitimacy by the government.
By adopting confrontational approaches that challenge powerholders, CSOs may strengthen and protect the rights of citizens. However, if citizens begin to view CSOs to be all-important, such activities may also risk damaging the legitimacy of a weak state. Striking the right balance, although difficult, appears to be key.