Civil society is widely understood as the space outside the family, market and state (WEF, 2013). What constitutes civil society has developed and grown since the term first became popular in
the 1980s and it now signifies a wide range of organised and organic groups including nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, social movements, grassroots organisations,
online networks and communities, and faith groups (VanDyck, 2017; WEF, 2013). Civil society organisations (CSOs), groups and networks vary by size, structure and platform ranging from
international non-governmental organisations (e.g. Oxfam) and mass social movements (e.g. the Arab Spring) to small, local organisations (e.g. Coalition of Jakarta Residents Opposing Water
Civil society roles include:
- service provider (for example, running primary schools and providing basic community health care services)
- advocate/campaigner (for example, lobbying governments or business on issues including indigenous rights or the environment)
- watchdog (for example, monitoring government compliance with human rights treaties)
- building active citizenship (for example, motivating civic engagement at the local level and engagement with local, regional and national governance)
- participating in global governance processes (for example, civil society organisations serve on the advisory board of the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds).
Civil society has created positive social change in numerous places throughout the world. For example, WaterAid UK provided over 1.3 million people with safe drinking water in 2017/18, whilst in El Salvador, the government passed a law in 2017 banning environmentally and socially harmful metal mining practices following civil society action since 2004. However, questions about civil society’s value, legitimacy and accountability are increasingly. Reasons for this include:
- recent NGO scandals, such as Oxfam workers in Haiti
- a growing disconnect between traditional CSOs and their beneficiaries
- a tough funding climate which has encouraged some CSOs to ‘follow the money’ and move away from their core mandates
- the growing role of new social movements which are able to connect with and mobilise large numbers of people
Increasingly researchers and practitioners are focusing on the role and value of diaspora communities and their potential contribution to international development. In 2017, diaspora communities remitted over USD 466 billion to low and medium-income countries (World Bank, 2018). Remittances fund both family members’ needs and investments in co-development
projects and entrepreneurship. The potential role and value of diaspora communities in development is widely recognised, for example, in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Key issues in maximising the potential of the diaspora are reducing transaction costs associated with remittances and capacity building for diaspora civil society groups.
Academics, researchers and practitioners are concerned about “closing space” around civil society. Closing space refers to governments enacting regulatory, legislative or practical restrictions on civil society, including foreign funding for CSOs and limits on the rights of freedom of association, assembly and expression (see, for example, Rutzen, 2015). Constraints on civil society began following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, with a second wave of restrictions following the Arab Spring (Rutzen, 2015). Both developing and developed countries are enacting restrictions (Rutzen, 2015). Practitioners and researchers are actively seeking ways to enhance civil society’s resilience and sustainability (see, for example, the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, who have launched a global consortium to identify specific remedies). Other important trends in civil society include the changing funding climate, the role of technology and the role of faith groups.
There is a wealth of literature related to civil society, its roles, values and trends. This includes both academic and grey literature. Consequently, this report provides a brief overview of selected issues and a small number of examples. It highlights the trends closing spaces and the role of diaspora communities, but each of these could easily constitute its own separate report.
Potential avenues for future research include:
- The increased focus on demonstrating impact: northern donors and international organisations are increasingly calling for CSOs to demonstrate impact as part of their funding requirements. Future research could examine the effects of this on different sized and resourced CSOs, as well as the different models for measuring impact (see, for example, WEF, 2013, p. 16).
- State strategies for closing spaces: what strategies do states use to demobilise civil society and how have these strategies changed over time? Kreienkamp (2017) argues that our empirical knowledge of the restrictions CSOs face remains limited, consequently, our understanding of why and when states seek to demobilise CS remains limited as well.
- The growing role of the private sector in national and international governance and its implications (CIVICUS, 2018, p. 14).
- The changing funding climate: foreign funding is a common government justification for restrictions on CSOs. This is occurring at the same time as CSOs are facing a tougher, more competitive international funding climate (see, for example, the 2016 introduction to the Open Global Rights debate on closing spaces).
- Civil society sustainability: researchers argue that civil society is at a crossroads and action is needed to increase its sustainability. USAID, CIVICUS and the West Africa Civil Society Institute have developed measures to assess civil society sustainability.
- Impacts on gender and sexual minorities’ organisations and movements: these can be a particular target of closing spaces, which can increase communities’ marginalisation (see, for example, Mbote, 2016).
- The role of faith groups: religious affiliation is decreasing in Western Europe and North America, but is increasing in the rest of the world. Faith-based social, economic and political associations and movements are disrupting the status quo in many parts of the world in the pursuit of social justice.