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Role of civil society in democracy today

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“No fundamental social change occurs merely because of government acts. It’s because of civil society that the conscience of a country, begins to rise up and demand – demand – demand change.”

Joe Biden.

According to UN, Civil society is the “third sector” of society, along with government and business. It refers to the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens. Examples of civil society organizations include:

  • Religious and other faith-based organizations
  • Online groups and social media communities
  • Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other nonprofits
  • Unions and other collective-bargaining groups
  • Innovators, entrepreneurs and activists
  • Cooperatives and collectives
  • Grassroots organizations

The National Dialogue Quartet of Tunisia comprising of the civil society institutions, which has negotiated for a consensus-based constitution and led to transition towards robust democracy, has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace prize. This emphasizes the role of civil society in maintaining the values of democracy.

History

Civil society organizations have been a part of the society since ancient times. In ancient times, civil society was marked by the individual contributions towards philanthropy leading to the societal development. For example in Hinduism, Rishi Dadhichi donated his bone marrow to make a club to save Gods from the demons. However with the development of the civilization the need to cooperate became more evident. The modern day NGOs are a reflection of these social groups which were made for the people by the people inside a community and were aimed at welfare of the community.

Cicero, a Greek Philosopher, also deliberated upon civilas societas before 400BC. He was referring to civil society, a society of citizens, who were free and equal participants but had unequal abilities. It has been seen to correspond to notion of “Rationalization of life-world” through the power of the people to imagine, reflect, organize, communicate and act voluntarily for public interest. Thus, state and civil societies have always had that tussle between exercise of power and the welfare of people. But even after these obstructions, civil society has played a vital role in the development of society, advent and strengthening of democracy.

Roles

Civil society promotes the concept of democracy by contributing as:

  • Watchdog — against violation of human rights and accesses/ failures of the executive. The NGOs like MKSS, trade unions like CITU, religious groups etc ensure that transparency is practiced in the administration, equal rights are ensured to all the citizens and no injustice is meted out to anyone.
  • Promoter — of the interests of weaker sections of society like deprived sections, farmers, SC/STs, women, etc. The establishment of Apni Mandi in Punjab by the farmers is an example of the rising of civil society. Self help groups, cooperatives, and micro-financing organizations like Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, by socially aligned groups are examples of civil society empowering the poor and needy ones.
  • Agitator on behalf of aggrieved citizens. When citizens are fed up of the administration of the executive seek to redress the grievances through other modes. Civil society can act as the agitator or congregator of the aggrieved citizens. The rise of India Against Corruption was phenomena where civil society acted as agitator for the citizens. It further strengthened the democracy of India and the belief of the people in the system of democracy.
  • Civil society dons the double role as an educator. While it advertises the schemes and policies of government, it also spreads awareness about the rights and responsibilities of citizens. These rights and responsibilities are basic tenets of democracy. Further, it also indicates the pulse of the masses to the executive in order to enable the executive to work for welfare of people.
  • Service provider — the government and administration has its own constraints of budget and will power to reach every nook and corner of the country. In the areas which remain out of the reach of administration civil society acts as the service provider for the people. The work done by Swades Foundation in the area of rural empowerment is a example NGOs acting at service providers.
  • Mobilizer of public opinion. No policy framed by any government can be so meticulous that it can fit all. Therefore the executive always feel the need to know the requirements of the citizens in order to frame better policy. At this stage, civil society comes to help the executive by mobilizing the public opinion and highlighting the beneficial as well as drawbacks of any public policy.

However, against these important roles to play in a democracy, civil societies have their own drawbacks and concerns which hamper its effectiveness. The first and foremost concern for the civil society in today’s times is that they are being labeled and discriminated against according to the whims and fancies of party in power. The intelligence network has been left loose to probe their activities and they are not being allowed to work up to their efficiency. Their funds are being frozen and they are being maligned through the media so that they lose their credibility.

Along with this, civil society suffers from trust deficit in the areas of Scheduled Tribes. It also has the constraints of resources which adversely impacts their functioning. Furthermore, the system of accountability in the Civil Society organizations is also a bone of contention. The preachers of transparency sometimes themselves lack the same.

But it is not that the model of civil society is failing in keeping up the values of democracy. Rather in modern times, with more youthful population and virtually connected world, the use of civil society has attained more significance. The advent of World Social Forum in the backdrop of World Economic Forum is an example of how complex the functioning and the role of civil society has attained. The Umbrella movement in Hong Kong to stabilize the democracy has shown that civil society still is a vibrant one and it is not fading away.

In modern avatar, with advent of digitalization and low airfares, the efforts of civil society have become more interconnected across the world. The success of The Jubilee campaign against the policies of WTO, cancelling the unjust debt of the poor countries, proves the harmonized efforts of civil society.

Finally, role of civil society in democracy can be summed up in the words of David Blunkett, a legislator in UK, that “Changes to parliamentary procedures won’t transform the lives of the people whom I represent. Decentralizing, devolving decision-making and renewing civil society will.”

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