Civil Society

Another useful way of referring to civil society is that it is “the associational life of citizens” – whenever citizens get together around some topic or issue that is important to them, they associate together to a greater or lesser degree of formality; and this association is the motor which drives citizens to do something. We are used to thinking of the “something” as something useful, something developmental, something valuable – and this is usually true. We should, however, be aware that some associations of citizens get together around an issue or topic that is unacceptable and uncivil – the Klu Klux Klan, for instance, or the Interahambwe.

If we can identify citizens that are prepared to work together to do something that helps themselves, or helps other people that are in need of help, we are at the start of the process of working with civil society organisations to support development. In the best of all possible worlds this would introduce us to conscious, committed citizens who are clear about what needs to be done, what they can do to help, and what resources of time, energy and money they are prepared to bring to the problem. This is the situation where the citizens are best placed to be active and effective at addressing problems and seeking positive outcomes. They are motivated by a desire to help and to be a part of that help. My own experience has taught me that government bodies rarely match the dedication, commitment and creativity of such exemplary civil society bodies, and that working with, supporting, and strengthening CSOs is both satisfying and effective.

It is not always so exemplary, however: there are many civil society organisations which are not so attractive, and many ways in which they work which are less than exemplary. Some of them are:

  • CSOs which are not self-starters, and not conscious of what are important issues – such CSOs take their lead from others
  • CSOs which do not have commitment to do what needs to be done – such CSOs will do what they are paid to do
  • CSOs which have no spirit of sacrifice or voluntary contribution – such CSOs will only do what they are paid to do
  • CSOs which believe that they know better than the people they are intending to help – such CSOs will not work in a participatory way and are likely to treat the citizens as passive recipients of their assistance
  • CSOs which do not know what they are doing – such CSOs feel that that their enthusiasm and commitment takes away the need for for competence and expertise
  • CSOs which are long on enthusiasm and short on organisation – such CSOs may dissipate their effort uselessly.


CSOs which, however, appreciate that they are most useful when they are most competent offer the opportunity to learn, to develop and to make a substantial difference.

NGOs which offer to help CSOs be effective need to be aware of the variety of possible CSOs that offer to work with them, and are able to identify the best CSOs, assess their capacities, and identify the best ways to help them optimize their strengths – both internally within the CSOs and in the CSOs relations to others, Governments, Parliaments, the Media, the Public, and foreign agencies.

Those that I have worked with which seemed to me to be smartest at understanding CSOs, and designing ways to help them be most effective are Pact, a US NGO specialising in capacity building of CSOs; CIVICUS, an international association of CSOs, PRIA, an Indian pioneer of CSO capacity building; INTRAC, a British organisation for capacity building of NGOs and the Centre for Civil Society Studies of the John Hopkins University in the USA. Their websites reveal the range of different tools for analysis, support, and strengthening that they have devised and used.


Six of the most useful books I have worked with are:

“Beyond NGOs – CSOs with development impact”
Richard Holloway and John Beauclerk

Civil Society in Action – global case studies in a practice based framework
John Beauclerk, Bran Pratt, Rath Judge

Striking a Balance – a guide to enhancing the effectiveness of NGOs in international development
Alan Fowler

The Virtuous Spiral – a guide to sustainability for NGOs in International Development
Alan Fowler

Civil Society
Michael Edwards

Democratizing development – the role of voluntary organisations
John Clark. Earthscan 1991


One difficulty that afflicts both CSOs and NGOs which support CSOs is the idea that they have the answers, and that the citizenry are likely to be passive recipients of ideas and assistance from the CSO or the NGO via the CSO. there are two basic concepts that i have found very useful to re-educate CSs and NGOs which have such attitudes: both of them depend on identifying the capacities that people have rather than concentrating on their vulnerabilities and needs:

The first is called Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis and was first conceptualised by a book called Rising from the Ashes – development strategies at times of Disaster” by Mary Anderson and Peter Woodrow, from Harvard University. They then developed the “Disaster and Development Workshops – a manual for training in Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis” in 1990. Their ideas were taken up by Action Aid and CARE, but these days have been subsumed to a great extent in climate change literature. Although the Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis was originally designed in the context of Disasters, I found the methodology very valuable for all development work. I was trained by them in Bangladesh in 1991, and very much subscribed to their perspective “the basic thesis is that any development initiative is sustainable if it builds on local capacities and tackles deeply rooted vulnerabilities”. Their materials help you to identify both the capacities and the vulnerabilities of a community.

The second is the concept known as “positive deviancy” which was originally developed in nutrition field in Indonesia n the early 70s by Jerry Sternin at Save the Children. The basic idea here is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges – in other words to learn from those with capacities. OXFAM supported an organisation in Indonesia called CD Bethesda to do just this, and it seemed to me not just effective, but indicative of a very valuable attitude. The book which describes the idea is called “The Power of Positive Deviance” by Pascale, Sternin and Sternin. 2010, Harvard Business Press.

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