Civil Society Movement

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When is civil society a force for social transformation? Michael Edwards

When you look at the numbers, the growth of civil society has been remarkable: 3.3 million charities in India and 1.5 million across the United States; NGOs like the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee that work with hundreds of millions of people; 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90 per cent of them launched since 1975. That’s not counting all the street protests, social movements and informal community groups that are often omitted from the data. In the UK, for example, these latter outnumber registered charities by more than four to one.

These statistics are mightily impressive – except when compared to the problems that civil societies want to solve. You could argue that things would be worse without the involvement of these groups. There’s also evidence to show that they’re making inroads around the edges of poverty and injustice.

But there’s no sign that the underlying structures of social, political and economic violence and oppression are being shaken to their roots.

As a result, fewer people in the world are dying young, and basic indicators of health and education, income and employment are getting slightly better – at least for most people in most countries. However, economic inequality is rising, democracies are being hollowed out, climate change is worsening, and discrimination based on race, gender, ability and sexual orientation remains endemic.

Social movements have helped to challenge these underlying problems, and they’ve successfully unseated dictators in many parts of the world. But they haven’t been able to secure lasting gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

Expecting civil society groups to achieve these gains by themselves would be foolish. However, given the rapid growth of all these organizations, shouldn’t they be having at least some impact on the deep transformation of self and society? What is going wrong?…

At its core, civil society has always been a deeply human construction, a way of “rearranging the geometry of human relationships” and not just cementing the bricks and mortar of NGOs and other groups. That, too, is being lost to the tide of corporatization and technocratic management.

Reversing the decline of civil society as a force for transformation will be exceptionally difficult, because the processes of hollowing out and separation, of commercialization and muzzling have become so deeply embedded. Any group that bucks these trends will be isolated and undermined. Philanthropists will deny them funding, politicians will curb their rights to organize, corporations will co-opt their language and their tactics, and other, less radical groups will try to colonize their work and capture their supporters.

But since civil societies are ours to lose, they are also ours to reclaim, to refresh and re-energize against the background of a constantly shifting landscape of opportunities, tools and techniques – social media and social enterprise included.

The destruction of civil society is easy, and it’s happening around us now. Its re-creation is much more difficult, a task akin to accumulating all the ‘snow’ that eventually makes the ‘iceberg’ of everyday citizen action.

That may sound like too little, too late, or simply take too long, or be too much work in an era when instant gratification is demanded. But it will be worth it. After all, it was an iceberg that sank the Titanic.

The full text of this article is available at

The Palestinian statehood dead end: isn’t it time to focus on civil society as a transformational strategy?

The defeat of yet another UN resolution on Palestine shows the ineffectiveness of statehood-focussed efforts in the Palestine-Israel stalemate. It is not that the goal of a Palestinian state is unimportant or unjust – it is that it is unachieveable in anything like the forseeable future.

The human cost of this focus on statehood over the last 4 or more decades has been huge. The demoralisation amongst Palestinians is now very deep, matched only by the intransigence amongst Israeli authorities. There is a stalemate here that breeds resentment, bitterness and hopelessness.

The alternative path is to focus on civil society. It is to view interactions and relationships between Palestinians and Israelis as the locus for change, not the pronouncements of officials or the resolutions passed or defeated in international councils. Some might say both are important: in reality the public focus is almost entirely placed on statehood rather than civil society.

What would a civil society focus on Palestine-Israel look like?

In schools, it would mean ending the segregation of Palestinian and Israeli children and students, co-locating education facilities, and sharing curriculum on language, history and culture.

In sport, it would mean integrating leagues and competitions across Israel and Palestine.

In business, it would mean maximising trade across national borders, and intentionally building up workplaces comprising both Israelis and Palestinians.

In aid, it would mean removing funding from NGOs which do not bring Israelis and Palestinians together in creating practical trust-building solutions.

Instead of other countries pouring in aid dollars to either Israeli or Palestinian sides of the fence, aid should be made contingent on de-segregation of projects based on nationality and religion.

International subsidies could be made available specifically for Israeli products sold in Palestine, and Palestinian products sold in Israel.

International civil society could drive this civil society focus, mobilising initiatives and resources for this agenda of de-segregation, social interaction and mutual trust-building, and against perpetuation of the status quo.