Conceptualizing and Practicing Civil Society

Conceptualizing and Practicing Civil Society

July 8, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.09,No. 24, July 08,2016, Ashad 24,2073)

Civil society is a contested concept. There are probably as many definitions of it as there are those who have written about it. The most fundamental problem is the very latitude of the notion of civil society. The relationship between the government and civil society is often a kind of love and hate around the world, so as in Nepal. However, development space is non-negotiable.

Concepts of civil society have a rich history, and the term ‘civil society’ has been an issue of debate since it regained currency in the development debate in the 1990s. The global developmental 'failures' of both State-led planning and marketization produced a search for a 'third way' emphasizing civil society.  According to Michael Edwards, “The fall of Communism and the democratic openings that followed, disenchantment with the economic models of the past, a yearning for togetherness in a world that seems evermore insecure, and the rapid rise of non-governmental organizations on the global stage” are the main reasons responsible for civil society taking center of the international stage in conceptualizing development.

There is substantial debate about its boundaries and makeup because the associational realm is made up of both various interest groups and identities. Civil society is the existence of a multiplicity of social classes; the variety of social groupings based on gender, generational, racial, residential and national differences; and the importance of ‘private’ social relations within the family and within voluntary associations of very many kinds.  These social relations are not to be equated either with the State or with the economy because they involve different forms of social relations and are not homologous in structure.

Civil society as a concept has emerged over a long period of time as a way of describing the ways people have structured their relations to achieve collective purposes. The origin of civic engagement goes back to the dawn of human community. Some civic engagements were the result of deliberate collective action to advance the interests of relatively excluded people challenging the status quo.  In Nepal, groups were formed during the period between the early and mid-twentieth century to express social and political awakening of oppressed people, which had considerable effect in bringing down the autocratic Rana rule in 1951. 

In the UK, citizen groups were formed in the late sixties in Lambeth in London, as an expression of working class anger to defend themselves from the side effects of local government’s development policy and the local government then adopted a community approach in an attempt to correct the anti-democratic shortcomings of corporate management. We can also see the emergence of new social forces – associative structures seeking to find their place in urban government in Poland and Brazil. These associations often originate from pressure or interest groups (e.g. committees for the modernization of roads or construction of schools) and then engage with urban government. Czech, Hungarian, and Polish activists wrapped themselves in the banner of civil society, endowing it with a heroic political quality, which is where the real problems of current usage of civil society arose - over idealization and over politicization of civil society. 

Civil society is a domain in which ‘society’ interacts with the State, not to subvert and destroy it, but to refine its actions and improve its efficiency. In Nepal, civil society comprises a vast range of organizational and associational forms and sizes, identities and values such as local institutions, NGOs and social movements constituted by groups of people. The make up and boundaries of civil society are not fixed, but continually reshaped as people and organizations change their social roles due to culture (language, religion, gender), legal (freedom of speech and assembly, access to justice), political (rule of law, government accountability) and institutional conditions (equal opportunity, freedom of information, donor interventions). While civil society often gets portrayed as a harmonious sector, it is argued here to be a forum both for collaboration and a space for debate and competition, and exploitation and oppression.

The government attitude towards NGOs is generally not positive in Nepal, particularly on rights-based advocacy and resource mobilization. There are confusions about INGOs, and they are seen as competitors than collaborators in development. INGOs are part of the civil society movement, same mission as NGOs, but international in scope working across the world to deal with humanitarian and long-term development issues.  There are key questions in moving forward on this agenda. How do we build stronger partnership between the Government, NGOs and INGOs? How do we ensure structured dialogue in which the voice of the poor and marginalized people in heard and respected when policy discussion are made and implemented? How do we best leverage support for common goals beyond political ambitions and affiliations?

The government as the agent of the State has responsibility for regulation, facilitation, coordination and monitoring of I/NGO activities. The government must remove policy confusions and support I/NGOs so that they don’t have to deal with the two agencies for the same issue. And, most important is to protect and maintain development space by addressing insecurity that is getting a concern for INGOs particularly in the earthquake affected districts at this time in the country.

Dr. Manandhar is an expert of international development. Currently, he is working as Country Director of The Lutheran World Federation. He is the Chair of the Association of International NGOs in Nepal (AIN). He is also a visiting faculty at the Kathmandu University. He can be reached at 

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