The 21st century has seen enormous shifts in dominant perspectives and power balances: with national security agendas dominating international relations and development assistance; the rise of Asia as the fulcrum of global economic development; financial meltdowns in North America and Europe; global assertions of new coalitions of emerging economies influencing global governance; and citizens' movements across different regions demanding democratic freedoms.
As a result, the civil society perspective based on values of solidarity, equity and inclusion finds itself under increasing pressure. Recent trends that have led civil society to a crossroads include intermediary NGOs and professionally-staffed national and international non-profit organisations who are assumed by many to be the mainstay of civil society. It should also be noted that ODA and OECD began to confine the in-country roles of civil society as subordinate to state development (see the Paris and Accra declarations).
Countries in Asia (China, India, Indonesia, South Korea) and elsewhere (Russia, South Africa, Brazil) have expanded their international ‘aid’ to developing countries, without reference to civil society - primarily by stressing state- and market-led approaches. Economic globalisation has also given wealth and influence to private business to shape development policies, including sectors such as sustainable development, education, and health care - which were previously the forte of civil society
Other trends include the global financing of civil society which is increasingly now shifting to private foundations, away from national and global governance institutions. Also the concentration of ODA in a few African countries is creating a ‘new breed’ of external NGOs opening ‘shops’ to access additional funds. Large sections of civil society actors in hitherto excluded regions and languages (such as the Muslim world) mistrust global governance institutions. Humanitarian contributions in post-disaster situations continue to significantly dominate civil society activity.
INTRAC is one of five civil society support organisations (along with CDRA, South Africa, EASUN, Tanzania, PSO, The Netherlands, and PRIA, India) involved in a reflection process about the future of civil society around the world. This will address the question of 'what are the roles, capacities, contributions and limitations of civil society in the changing local and global contexts?'
You are encouraged to join in by sharing thoughts and materials, documenting emerging stories of civil society, and facilitating discussions with your partners and networks. From these reflections, the group will produce publically available materials for practitioners and policymakers.
There are many other contradictory trends. These changing contexts offer both opportunities and challenges for the future development of civil society.
There are also many other key questions to consider such as what are the roles of civil society in emerging, middle-income societies? And how do civil society associations interact with political parties and elected legislatures?
Brian Pratt, Executive Director, INTRAC