ngos and civil society

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                           William Reuben
                           The World Bank

Presented to the Workshop on International Studies in Planning
          and to the Transnational Contention Group
                         Cornell University
                          February 22, 2002

          Cornell University Workshop on Transnational Contention
                          Working Paper #2002-01

1. The Babel Tower.
2. Tell me: Who are those guys?
2. Transformation of civil society: From representing interests to
representing values and lifestyles.
3. The dilemma of “operationalizing” civil society representation and
4. Accountability of development agencies

1. Social Science’s Tower of Babel

I do not want this lecture to share the fate of the Tower of Babel,
where we all think we are constructing a common understanding of
issues related to civil society and end up with different meanings and
understandings. There are so many definitions, or perhaps lack of
definitions, of civil society that you may easily find yourself in a
situation where you’re arguing with your neighbor about the color of
different dogs who have the same name.

Let me therefore share with you what I understand by “civil society.”

Civil society is more than just the aggregate of organizations who call
themselves members of civil society. Overall, like the state and the
market, it is a specific sphere of social interaction, which has its own
rationale and dynamics. Civil society materialized with the emergence
of citizens’ organizations that had relative autonomy from the state,

and that employed a different rationale than that of business
establishments. Like state institutions and unlike business
establishments, they are mobilized on behalf of collective values and
public interests. Like business entities and unlike the state, they have
a private nature. It is this specificity what confers to civil society a
particular social dynamism and a specific role in modern social

Although it is true that the state, the market and civil society are
social spheres with their own rationale and relative autonomy, they
can only be fully understood through their intimate interrelation. The
shape of civil society and its role in social transformation can only be
appreciated in connection with the roles played by the state and the
market in the evolution of a particular society, and vice versa.
Therefore, civil society can only be understood as the result of the
specific political and economic background of a given country.

Civil society is a diverse and changing phenomenon. Its shape and
composition, its importance and strength and its relationship with the
state and the market change from region to region, from country to
country, and from one to another historical period. It is important to
note that:

    Existing levels of social capital, political regimes, legal
      frameworks, cultural environments and external influences
      generate different forms and expressions of civil society, and its

         ability to influence public decisions affecting development. In
         short, civil society is not monolithic or static, but rather diverse
         and dynamic.
     Not all forces present in civil society play a positive role in
         development. There are organizations which are opposed to
         social change and technological innovation, there are others
         which are in favor of social or cultural segregation, and still
         others linked to drug trafficking or economic mafias.
     However, increasing evidence shows that, as a whole, civil
         society is a determining factor in the development process,
         comparable to the market or to the state. A strong involvement
         of civil society organizations in development policy formulation
         and implementation highly contributes to mobilizing social
         forces for poverty reduction and to creating the required
         consensus for the accomplishment of sustainable
         development targets. It brings transparency to public action
         and creates effective environments for decentralized design
         and implementation of development policies and programs1.
     In recent years, civil society organizations have taken on a
         stronger role as international actors through transnational
         networks and alliances of civil society organizations2 (i.e. The
         International Campaign to Ban Landmines, transnational
         networks at the Earth Summit and Beijing, the World

  OED, Annual Review of Development Effectiveness. Towards a Comprehensive Development Strategy, January 19,
2000. pp. 53-54.
  See: Edwards, Michael, Future Positive; International Cooperation in the 21st Century. 1999, p.p.177-185. Keck,
Magareth and Sikkink, Katheryn. Activist Beyond Borders, 1998. The Third Force. The Rise of Transnational Civil
Society. Florini Ann Ed. 2000. O'Brien, Robert, et. alt. Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic
Institutions and Global Social Movements. 2000

         Commission on Dams, Jubilee 2000 Coalition, World Social
         Forum, Protests against WTO, the WB and the IMF, etc.) This
         recent trend has given analysts reason to speak of an
         emerging transnational or global civil society. The boundaries
         between local, national and international civil society are
         becoming blurred and imprecise.

Civil society encompasses all associational activity of private actors
in the public realm. It comprises a wide variety of private
organizations that have a presence in public life, geared by a not for
profit rationale. As such, these organizations act outside the orbits of
the family, the state and the market, although they maintain close
relations with these other spheres of social interaction. Beyond
NGOs, farmers organizations, trade unions, community groups,
professional guilds, political parties, informal networks, faith-based
associations, student organizations, academic bodies and business
chambers are among other, different expressions of civil society.

This profound diversity of organizations, this unequal set of forms of
membership and objectives, makes social representation of civil
society something hard to grasp. These organizations sometimes
represent the interests and values of their members; in other
occasions, they express the interests of others, based on ethical,
cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations3.

 For further discussion, see Hudock Ann. C. NGOs and Civil Society: Democracy by Proxy? 1999; The Bank’s
Relations with NGOs: Issues and Directions, The World Bank. Social Development Papers, 1998. See also: NGO and
Civil Society Unit. Consultations with Civil Society Organizations. General Guidelines for World Bank Staff. The
World Bank, 2000.

2.Tell me: Who are those guys?

Not a long time ago, Mr. Ali Badjo Gamatie, Minister of Finance of
Niger said in a press interview:

      “You consult, but the government is in charge. The
      government makes the decision. That’s what I wanted to
      make clear. Now, I know the NGO has a sexy appeal as
      civil society. You go in some of these countries; I don’t
      know what civil society means. Before I got to this
      position, I knew what it was. Now, I don’t know. Anybody
      who left office would create his NGO, and then, that’s civil
      society. You know that.”

A lack of clarity on the issue of representation of civil society
organizations is affecting their ability to influence public policy and
have a stronger role in development. On all his recent tours to client
countries, James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, faces the
same question about the participation of NGOs in development
advocacy: Tell me. Who are those guys? To whom are they

Representation of civil society organizations and particularly of NGOs
has gained ground as an issue in the last decades because of the
increased presence of democratically elected governments in
developing countries.

Elected officials now systematically question the legitimacy of local
and above all international NGOs who claim represent the interest of
the people and the poor of their countries. They argue that a lack of
clarity of their representation leads to unaccountable organizations.
To whom are you accountable if you do not know for sure who you

2. Transformation of civil society: from representing interests to
representing values and lifestyles.

In recent decades, civil society has undergone profound
transformations in response to dramatic changes in social
relationships and complex economic processes. One of the most
profound transformations affecting the very structure of civil society
has to do with the representation of social interests. The transition
from societies organized around clearly defined productive sectors to
societies organized around increasingly diffuse economic processes
has changed the way social interests are represented.

The representation of social interests has moved away from class-
based organizational models to less clearly defined, micro-social
models. Societies have moved from a civil society divided into large
social interest blocs, based on productive status, to multi-layered,
highly diversified civil societies.

Sector-based civil society operated around clearly defined blocs
representing specific interests. These blocs subsumed other interests
such as gender issues, the use of natural resources, or disparate
beliefs and values. Thus, civil society was shaped by relationships
between labor, peasant, and craftsmen organizations and by various
corporate associations representing trade, industry, and agricultural
and livestock sectors.

Over the past decades, the productive apparatus in developing
societies has undergone radical transformations, and so has civil
society representation.

Mass migration and urbanization, the inordinate growth of the service
economy accompanied by the proliferation of occupations, an
increasingly informalized economy, have all helped to dilute large
interest-based blocs and permeate society with a richer, more
complex dynamism in which the representation of some key social
interests formerly obscured by predominant blocs is now able to

Other nuclei of confrontation and convergence have acquired new
visibility and importance alongside traditional models of
representation of interests. Gender, ethnic diversity, alternative
lifestyles, diverse religious values, the relationship with nature, and
the concept of neighborhood have come to the fore front of public life
and have changed the face of contemporary civil society, which has
become increasingly diverse and multifaceted.

This trend has been reinforced by the importance and pervasiveness
of electronic communications, which permit greater flexibility in
transmitting a multiplicity of interests and in establishing connections
between diverse small organizations over and above (or underneath)
the large traditional blocs. Globalization is now adding new
complexity to the issue of representation of civil society, formerly
confined to the limits of the nation-state.

We are witnessing a new wave of reach and challenging literature on
the phenomenon of civil society globalization4. Most actors agree that
one of the main challenges global movements face is accountability:
Internal accountability and accountability to third parties. The blurred
character of transnational networks undermines clear rules of
engagement and accountability. At the same time, the flat structure of
transnational networks does not guarantee horizontal power relations
within the network.

This new civil society structure, rich in its diversity and its means of
expressing the most varied interests, has not necessarily resulted in
improved accountability. Pressure groups have become more
diffused, and forging lasting alliances is more complicated.

 The crisis of the Nation-State has deep implications for social identities and therefore for the mechanisms
social representation in the global World. “…the national basis for civic solidarity has become second
nature, and this national foundation is shaken by the policies and regulations that are required for the
construction of a „multicultural civil society.” Habermas J. The Postnational Costellation: Political Essays,

3. The dilemmas of “operationalizing” civil society
representation and accountability

Contemporary civil society’s new, diffuse structure presents complex
challenges for what I would term “operationalizing” the representation
of its interests and its accountability Traditional sector or class- based
civil society organizations are membership organizations. Labor
unions, craftsmen’s guilds, peasant unions, and employer
associations, then, have clear representational structures based on
internal election processes. Leadership is formal or is formalized by
these mechanisms of representation.

Formal internal elections and clear lines of accountability legitimize
those who sit at the negotiating table, serve as spokespersons for
trade association interests, or make decisions on behalf of their
constituencies. These processes are comparable to mechanisms for
political representation and accountability in democratic states. In
membership organizations, accountability derives from
representation. Authorities are accountable to those who elected
them, and elections are the most important mechanism to hold them

However, representation and accountability in non-membership
organizations in contemporary civil society are a much more
complicated issue. The worst mistake is trying to assimilate these
structures into traditional models of representing social interests.
Since they are not member organizations like most of the NGOs, no

one can pretend that they represent their membership. This would
also be the worst mistake that the leaders of these organizations
could make in attempting to represent what is not theirs to truly claim.
Non-membership CSOs do not represent groups, or specific
segments of society. They rather represent values, beliefs and

Therefore, the immediate question is how these organizations can be
accountable if they do not have a membership that would hold them
responsible for their performance. The only possible response to this
question is that these organizations have constituencies from which
they derive power and legitimacy. In the case of development NGOs
–either operational or advocacy ones- this constituency is made up of
the poor in developing countries, who are the population affected by
their actions and in the name of whom they derive money, power and
legitimacy. Like the World Bank, UNDP or any other international or
national development agency, development NGOs need to elaborate
mechanisms of public accountability. Accountability to the poor and
not only to their donors and owners.
In this case, representation derives from accountability. It is their
accountability what confers credibility and representation to these

The Accountability of Development Agencies

In the age of ICT even small organizations can be publicly
accountable. If NGOs together with the World Bank and other

development agencies want to hold governments accountable to the
public and particularly to the poor, it is necessary that these
organizations also become accountable to the poor.

There are many examples that they can follow, and mechanisms and
tools they can apply and implement:

 Beneficiary town halls making use of local media, where
   authorities and heads of NGOs participate in public scrutiny
   forums broadcasted by local radios
 Community procurement, where communities hold procurement
   rights or directly manage the money to buy collective services and
 Participatory budget design and monitoring a la Porto Alegre,
   where communities make choices on public investment
   allocations, and monitor expenditures
 Participatory budget analysis a la IDASA in South Africa, where an
   independent group analyses budget allocation according to the
   interest of a specific social group
 Participatory expenditure reviews and surveys
 Online dissemination of institutional and project budgets linked to
   local media
 Scorecards and participatory performance evaluations like it is
   done by poor communities of Manila
 Self designed, imposed and enforced NGO codes of conduct, like
   those existing in the Philippines and in South Africa.

NGOs, with other international and national development institutions
might consider these mechanisms to become more transparent and
accountable to the poor.

These mechanisms, alongside with a new generation of benchmarks
and standards that would measure performance based on principles
of “do good” instead of on the present safeguard principles of “do not
harm” would make a difference in creating a more transparent and
accountable development environment.

If development organizations all make a common effort of public
accountability and accountability to the poor, we would be
inaugurating a new era in development aid. An accountability that
would consist on returning to the poor the moral power and legitimacy
that all development agencies, national and international,
governmental and non-governmental, derive from their common
mission of fighting poverty.

There are common efforts they can work for. In the context of national
development plans and poverty reduction strategies they can
establish accountability compacts by which the poor can hold all
development institutions accountable for their poverty reduction
actions. By doing this, they would be already accomplishing part of
their own mission, because by now, the poor would be empowered by
holding development agencies accountable to their mission.