In June 2012 the World Economic Forum launched the project, The Future Role of Civil Society, to better understand the eco-system civil society works in and discuss different models that civil society can use to collaborate with different actors including government and international organizations. One of the outcomes of the project is a report that was published two days ago as the World Economic Forum was starting. The report is the product of interviews with 200 leaders from civil society, business, government and international organizations, and includes data from 80 expert interviews and five strategic foresight workshops.
The main argument of the report is that civil society has been changing in dynamic ways. Especially in the international development community, the word has been associated with the NGO community. However, today civil society represents a wider range of both organized and unorganized groups and that boundaries have been blurred as a lot of new organizational forms are being experimented. This is definitely a closer definition to what civil society is really about. Even though they defined civil society as a wide range of organized and unorganized groups, their analysis unfortunately leaves a huge part of what they describe as civil society out. The study has predominantly engaged members of organized civil society that are international and largely English-speaking. Regrettably, therefore the report provides a Western analysis to what civil society is and should be.
The report accepts the fact that the role of traditional actors in international development need to be redefined as not only geopolitical power is shifting from Europe and North America but also old funding models are not working. The report also admits that political pressures can curtail the viability of civil society actors in a country. Yet, the report still imposes a role, which may not always be very feasible to civil society, as “an enabler and constructive challenger, creating the political and social space for collaborations that are based on the core values of trust, service and the collective good.” We need to pay more attention to the role of governments in what civil society can do. It’s true that in the last twenty years at least globally both formal and informal civil society groups are involved in partnerships with government and businesses and consulted on social issues by international agencies such as G20 and the United Nations. However, this doesn’t necessarily show that all governments are interested in consulting civil society initiatives in their countries or having partnerships with them to find solutions to social problems.
The report argues that as the word is becoming more hyber-connected and new sources of funding have been emerging, civil society will need to look for unusual sources for inspiration including engagement through technologies, getting younger generations and players in emerging economies involved and measuring impact. While governments are scaling back social provisions, private sector have started to discuss and invest in social issues and that new patterns of global economic and political power are being created. Civil society with all these changes, also needs to build collaborations with businesses and governments. Multiple sector models are the future of civil society. Hybrid business models will offer new solutions to old problems and will create channels to transfer knowledge, resources and values across sectors. The report ends saying “the evolving civil society is larger, more energetic, better connected and more engaged than ever before. By uncovering and developing cross-sectoral opportunities, these energies and networks can be translated into powerful and positive outcomes for society.” However, I am not sure whether this statement is globally applicable. It might apply to well-funded international organizations but not to grassroots organizations. I agree that civil society will be more effective if it builds collaborations with actors from multiple sectors. Yet, the feasibility of that suggestion in different countries also needs to be discussed. So, we need to be careful when and how we use the term since the Western model of civil society does not necessarily represent what is else out there.
Civil society is an incredibly diverse system and we should be very careful not to overgeneralize. Reports such as this one might not have the view of the grassroots organizations but they should at least address the issue. Diaspora organizations such as Turkish Philanthropy Funds are specialized in the countries they work with and they can provide the view of civil society from those countries. Transnational initiatives such as the World Economic Forum who is interested in making progress on social issues of fundamental importance should recognize the unique assets of diaspora organizations and should involve them in conversations on the future of civil society going forward. What civil society is and where it stands in a specific country cannot be explained by over-generalization.