The Role of Civil Society Organizations in the Global Movement for Democracy / Carl Gershman

Posted on 2013/04/21


The Role of Civil Society Organizations in the Global Movement for Democracy
Remarks by Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy

The Conference on Challenges for Civil Society in the Emerging World Order
Valencia, Spain

The term “civil society” came into vogue in 1989 when the social forces that gathered under this banner successfully carried out the great peaceful revolutions against communism in Central Europe. As Victor Perez-Diaz has noted in The Return of Civil Society, the precedent of civil society preparing the way within an authoritarian context for a transition to democracy had been established in Spain during the previous decade. But it took the Central European transitions to put civil society on the map, as it were – to make it part of the conventional wisdom of contemporary political discourse. Since that time, the term has come to signify different forms of activity and organization. It often refers to the networks of citizen organizations independent of the state that promote civic engagement in countries trying to consolidate democratic institutions. In the more established democracies, it is also understood to mean the independent “third sector” that mediates between citizens and both the political and economic sectors in each country.

The meaning and role of civil society is continuing to evolve today in response to the revolution in communications technologies and the phenomenon of globalization. Increasingly, the advocates of the third sector see the need for civil society itself to become globalized so that it can represent the broad interests of society in relation to the predominant political and economic institutions and processes that shape the present world order. The challenge confronting civil society, in this view, is to develop new forms of international collaboration that will enable ordinary citizens to defend their interests and identities in the face of powerful global forces that often seem beyond anyone’s ability to control.

Before proceeding to suggest how this challenge might be met most effectively, it is necessary to understand both the strengths and the limitations of civil society in establishing and preserving democracy. Its strengths are perhaps most evident, and therefore most readily understood, when it represents the interests of society against an authoritarian state. This is the model of transition in Spain and Central Europe – a process by which the political elites and more educated and urbanized segments of the wider population, acting in opposition, gradually become familiar with the values, procedures, and expectations that underpin a liberal democratic order.

Often there is very little that is orderly, peaceful, or inevitable about this process. It occurs in the context of dictatorial rule and is a form of resistance to the state, albeit nonviolent
and democratic. The organizational style is often confrontational, though the activities may involve little more than defending and advocating human rights and disseminating uncensored information. The key point, and the source of controversy, is that these activities invariably assert the interests of society against the state.

Significantly, the process of transition initiated by civil society, once it culminates in the downfall of autocracy, demands that the role of civil society itself be transformed. Instead of working in opposition to the state, groups representing civil society have to help fashion a democratic state that is responsive to popular needs and attitudes. Their task in the post-breakthrough period is neither to subvert the state nor to defend it uncritically, but to monitor its performance and insist on its accountability and transparency. Civil society must also encourage citizen activism in solving practical problems, foster tolerance and inclusiveness, and begin the difficult process of bringing social reality and respect for rights into line with the new democratic aspirations and values.

Building a democratic state is a task that civil society cannot perform alone. From a situation where it was the principal instrument for creating a democratic opening, it must now define its new role in relation to other actors – political leaders and other government officials, judges, businessmen, teachers, bureaucrats, and many others — who are also indispensable to the establishment of a democratic system. The process of consolidation is especially difficult because the new state is inevitably an outgrowth of the previous autocratic state and must depend upon many of the same people for its administration. The emerging democratic state is also extremely fragile, prone to corruption and abuse, and incapable of reversing all of the failures associated with the previous government. Under such circumstances, civil society cannot be simply an instrument for venting popular frustration and dissatisfaction. It must find a way to make democracy work, or at least to help society take meaningful, perceptible steps in the right direction.

To do this, civil society must establish a cooperative relationship with the democratic political parties. Often this is not an easy task. In new democracies, which lack a stable party system, parties often serve as the personal instruments of ambitious individuals, not as representative institutions that allow citizens to participate in the determination of government policies and programs. Even where they are well established, parties may become oligarchic and cut off from popular pressures and opinions. In such cases, they may seek to use civil society organizations to acquire a political base and a legitimacy they would not otherwise have.

Thus, while civil society must guard its autonomy, it retains a profound interest in the development of parties that can serve as efficient channels of participation and that offer policy choices and options for which they can be held accountable at the polls, as well as for their performance in office. Without them, there cannot be the periodic and orderly transfer of power, which is the substance of democratic politics. Civil-society groups can represent specific interests and needs. But they can’t translate their actions into decisions, nor can they assemble broad coalitions that can produce a governing majority. Thus, while civil-society groups can articulate a clear message, it is the parties that perform the critical role of working out the compromises and trade-offs that enable societies to hold together despite their many cleavages and different, sometimes conflicting, priorities. Civil society can initiate democratic transitions, but only parties – with the support of civil society – can consolidate and institutionalize a democratic system.

In a word, political parties and civil society are mutually dependent. If parties become cut off from the grass-roots and lose their legitimacy and support, they leave a vacuum that opens the way to demagogy and tyranny. Parties are not the only institutions that suffer under such conditions; civil society does as well. One has to look no further today than Venezuela, where a populist autocrat, having swept aside both the traditional parties and the rule of law, is now trying to subdue the unions, the media, and the church.

Mentioning Venezuela raises the larger question of the impact on individual countries of global economic and political trends. The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has made a point of linking the social crisis of poverty in Venezuela to the “neo-liberal” world economic system – in other words, to globalization. His point is well taken in the sense that the requirements for democratic development today go well beyond the institutional arrangements in any particular country. To be sure, there is no substitute for getting it right internally – for putting in place what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan (in their recent study Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation) call “the five arenas of a consolidated democracy:” namely, civil society, political society, the rule of law, the state apparatus, and economic society. Here President Chavez has shown little appreciation of what Venezuela itself must do to put its own house in order. Still, getting to the point where the five arenas of activity identified by Linz and Stepan complement and reinforce each other is powerfully affected today by global political and economic forces.

It follows from this analysis that civil-society activists should think about forming networks and alliances of three different kinds:

Cross-sectoral domestic alliances: There is no substitute for defending democracy at home and fashioning domestic alliances between civil society and democratic forces active in other arenas, among them political parties, institutions that promote the rule of law, institutions responsible for democratic governance and service delivery at all levels, independent media, and the different components of economic society, including entrepreneurs, trade unionists, policy intellectuals, and officials of financial institutions. While civil-society groups will inevitably be preoccupied chiefly with their own sets of issues, there should be some leaders of civil society who appreciate the importance of cross-sectoral cooperation and the need to create space for discussion and the exchange of ideas and proposals within a broader community of democratic practitioners and intellectuals. Where crises develop that threaten democracy, activists should consider forming coalitions to defend the democratic process and groups or sectors whose rights are infringed or in jeopardy. Where democratic values are assaulted by radical populists, fundamentalists and others who seek to exploit public frustration with corruption, crime, and poverty, such coalitions should seek not only to address specific problems of society but restore trust in the value of public service and the dignity of politics.
International civil-society networks: Civil-society activists should seek to take advantage of the technological and communications revolution, which offers the possibility that previously disadvantaged and excluded groups can become empowered by developing new techniques of advocacy and political networking. By adapting their work and strategy to the new global conditions, they help make it possible for those most in need to benefit from economic development, to participate in determining their political future, and to affirm and defend their cultural and religious identities. Clearly, though, globalization also offers the more ominous prospect of a world divided between those who are able to adapt successfully to the requirements of economic modernization, and those who are unable to do so and thus fall further and further behind. As this process develops, it could unleash counter-forces of criminality, terrorism, and fundamentalism which prey upon rich and poor countries alike and threaten the values of pluralism, justice, and human security upon which democracy rests. Forming networks of affinity can offer the protection of solidarity to those groups that are most exposed to danger, and they can also provide practical support in the form of resources, technical assistance, and sharing best practices which can lift groups out of isolation and help them find new ways to meet the challenges of living in a global environment.
Developing regional and global, cross-sectoral networks: If it is necessary to form cross-sectoral networks domestically, it is also important to look for new ways to establish them on a regional and global basis. One significant effort of this kind is already underway – the World Movement for Democracy (WMD), which was founded last year in India and which held its Second Assembly in Sao Paulo, Brazil, earlier this month. The WMD brought together NGOs from all regions of the world and more than 80 countries to share experiences and develop common plans of action for dealing with most of the critical challenges facing democracy today: How to assist democrats living in dictatorships; Fighting corruption in party financing and election campaigns; Sharing innovative solutions to the problems of transition; Resolving ethnic and religious conflicts; Removing barriers to economic participation by small entrepreneurs and protecting workers’ rights in a global economy; Strengthening civil society, NGOs, parties, and other actors in semi-authoritarian countries; Preparing for break-through elections and maintaining standards for monitoring elections; Strengthening the role of ombudsmen in securing transitional justice, and of parliaments in fighting corruption; Strengthening local government and federalism as instruments of decentralization and effective governance; Diminishing the gap between human rights laws and their implementation in new democracies; Building conditions to eliminate discrimination and racism; and Spreading democracy education in challenging political and cultural environments. These were just some of the problems tackled by democracy practitioners in cross-sectoral and cross-regional workshops. There were also regional networks established in Asia, Latin America, and Africa; as well as new functional networks in the areas of democracy research institutes, democracy support foundations, local government, civic education, women, youth, and parliamentarians. Common to all of these meetings and networks was the goal of developing new strategies for using the Internet and other media to strengthen international cooperation among NGOs and empower local groups with new information, skills, and techniques.
The World Movement for Democracy is just one effort to respond creatively to the challenge of globalization. It faces an enormous task simply to implement the scores of recommendations and action agendas that flowed from the workshops. As the WMD develops, it will attract new networks and also inspire others to develop their own global initiatives. Civil-society organizations and networks have a critical role to play in this process, perhaps the leading role. But they must think offensively, as it were, forming coalitions and using new technologies to advance their interests and empower their constituents. This is a far more ambitious role for civil society than preparing societies for democratic transitions. But it builds upon that earlier role and positions civil society to be a powerful force for meeting the immense new challenges of our global age.

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