Civil Society and the dangers of Monoculture: smart new primer from Mike Edwards

Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the Civil Society coverconceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.

Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as

  • ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam etc)
  • The Good Society: a good thing in itself
  • A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)

‘“What to do” depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association.

Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy.

Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries.’

Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.

‘If, like me, you see virtue in all these approaches, then the logical thing to do is to look for interventions that can strengthen the interactions between different models in order to generate an inclusive associational ecosystem matched by a strong and democratic state, in which a multiplicity of independent public spheres enable equal participation in setting the rules of the game.’

muslim_protesters002_16x9But what he sees instead is institutional monoculture – aid donors and NGOs promoting a single subsection of CS – the bits that look like Western NGOs – with disastrous consequences for the resilience and effectiveness of the system as a whole:

‘the approach of the civil society-building industry that has proliferated since 1989 – with some exceptions – resembles a crude attempt to manipulate associational life in line with Western, and specifically North American, liberal-democratic norms: pre-selecting organizations that donors think are most important (advocacy NGOs or other vehicles for elites, for example, usually based in capital cities), ignoring domestic expressions of citizen action that do not conform to Western expectations (such as informal, village- or clan-based associations in Africa and the Islamic world, more radical social movements or pre-political formations), spreading mistrust and rivalry as fledgling groups compete for foreign aid, and creating a backlash when associations are identified with foreign interests.

The creation of public spheres is usually ignored, apart from occasional support to independent media groups and organizations promoting government accountability. And ignoring Ralf Dahrendorf’s warning that “it takes six months to create new political institutions, six years to create a half-way viable economy, and . . . sixty years to create a civil society,” project timescales are collapsed to bite-sized two- or three-year chunks and accountability is reoriented up the system to outside donors and regulators.

Nurturing civic institutions takes careful and sensitive accompaniment over long periods of time. By contrast, the aid industry resembles a bulldozer driven by someone convinced that they are heading in the right direction, but following a map made for another country at another time. The Coalition Provisional Authority’s insistence that Iraq needed a Ministry of Civil Society in the chaos that emerged after the US occupation is a good example of priorities gone horribly awry.’

And he has some very interesting suggestions for how to put it right:

‘The first rule of thumb is always to look for forms of associational life that “live” relatively independently in their context – not just the “usual suspects.”

Healthy ecosystem. With shark.
Healthy ecosystem. With shark.

They may be conservative-minded mosque associations in Lebanon (which are contributing to the development of tolerance), burial societies in South African townships (which played key social, economic and political roles under apartheid) or labor unions in France and Brazil (which have been prime movers in the burgeoning global justice movement). It is groups like these that occupy the frontiers in organizing new responses to problems of community and association against the background of globalizing capitalism, resurgent nationalism, and the fragmentation they breed.

Second, we should focus on the associational ecosystem by fostering the conditions in which all of its components can function more effectively, alone and together. If the “soil” and the “climate” are right, associational life will grow and evolve in ways that suit the local environment. This requires support to as broad a range of groups as possible, helping them to work synergistically to defend and advance their visions of civic life, providing additional resources for them to find their own ways of marrying flexible, humane service with independent critique, and leaving them to sort out their relationships both with each other and with the publics who must support them, and to whom they must be accountable, if their work is to be sustained.

Third, we should focus as much attention as possible on strengthening the financial independence of voluntary associations, since dependence on government contracts, foundations or foreign aid is the Achilles’ heel of authentic civic action.’

So the litmus test for a good civil society strategy should include questions like

  • What are we doing on the enabling environment to that any civil society group, (even ones we don’t like) can flourish?
  • Do we support a range of partners who don’t look like us, and don’t know or even like each other?
  • Have we helped our partners to learn how to raise funds locally so that they can wean themselves off aid?

Really interesting stuff






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19 Responses to “Civil Society and the dangers of Monoculture: smart new primer from Mike Edwards”
  1. matt desmond

    Nice summary Duncan.
    A fourth school of “thought” is increasingly dominant in practice – CS as a conduit to vital donor revenue for sustaining the cost-structures of international agencies.

  2. matt desmond

    I have two written verbatims from Oxfam Country Directors – but they could be individual misinterpretations of organisational policy. What really convinced me was when we started formally asking HQ’s what their policy was on sharing “indirect costs” with local implementing agencies. This is a simple litmus-test that any FPTP participant can use.

      • matt desmond

        Happy to share the CD quotes – thx to your blog I now have 5 from just Oxfam. I have them in confidence so is email OK? Later we can ponder why they are “in confidence”.

        My current context is Myanmar, so another source would be the INGO Forum survey last year on Indirect Costs Recovery, in which Oxfam was a participant. I don’t have the results but you will be able to access them as they are “strictly and absolutely confidential (that word again) to INGOs”. I have heard that 22/23 of the participating INGOs reported a policy of retaining the CSO share of this budget-line, and that the 2nd most cited reason was that these funds are used for HQ and RO overheads. Could be the subject of a future posting?
        We’ve not met but I sense that you are more convinced by what you hear directly rather than what you read. So I suggest again that you pop your head out the door and ask about Oxfam policy on indirect costs. The response(s) will certainly inform this discussion.

        Great blog .. and this is a fundamental topic. Best wishes.

  3. Apollo Gabazira

    Dear Duncan – a very good read, thank you. This is related to a subject i have written about recently and provides excellent insight into some of the questions i ask in that blog..

    Civil society, in its current state, simply raises too many unanswered questions and without fundamental change, we will continue to see a sector that appears rudderless at times, yet if well ‘packaged’ has the potential to change the world….

  4. Joel Hafvenstein

    Interesting stuff indeed. Does Edwards echo any of the cautions from Masooda Bano’s Breakdown in Pakistan? Anyone asking “how do we support partners who don’t look like us NGOs” should be aware of Bano’s story: local Pakistani collective action groups (religious and secular) which had been achieving good results thanks to volunteer networks and local fundraising found both of those drying up as soon as they began accepting “civil society strengthening” assistance from outside NGOs.

    Bano might be a bit over-ambitious in suggesting a general theory of what motivates civil society “joiners” — like the local volunteers and donors who jumped ship once their local organisation started “looking like an NGO” by paying its leaders good salaries and sending the privileged English-speaking members to workshops in the Mariott — but whether or not the Pakistan cases reflect a universal dynamic, it’s surely one to watch out for in other contexts.

    • Vern Hughes

      Excellent comments, Joel. Your citation of this Pakistani experience reflects my experience too, in Australia. But NGOs and their funders are in denial about this, because as soon as they concede this reality, their raison d’etre disappears. This is the nub of the issue – the interests of the development NGOs run counter to the interests of communities. This insight is the key to changing the debate around civil society, NGOs and development.

      • Duncan Green

        Dear Vern and Joel, yes, I think Masooda Bano’s work is really interesting and important. What I don’t know is the extent to which Pakistan is sui generis in the extent to which CSO members equate the arrival of outside funds with corruption and loss of authenticity (and therefore leave as soon as CSOs get funded). But if you accept that argument, there seem to me at least two possible responses. One is, as Vern argues, that NGOs should stay out of it, for fear of killing with kindness (or self interest, depending on your degree of scepticism). But the other is more along the lines of David Booth and Sue Unsworth’s argument for arm’s length aid via intermediaries who can break down large chunks of aid into non-destructive quantities, given in ways that do not destroy the recipients. That’s what Mike Edwards argues for, using local foundations as intermediaries. Any views?

        • matt desmond

          ME’s push for local foundations is a really useful alternative, albeit with deep challenges. At a country level, donors are usually open to a variety of intermediary mechanisms – so long as they funnel the money through specific sectors and localities, and to stipulated objectives and frameworks. His books frequently cite the exclusionary and/or counter-productive nature of funding for civil society. Making the support for civil society more effective needs more than a change in “fund management”.

          • matt desmond

            Another alternative we are working on is to reverse the contractor/sub-contractor hierarchy. CSOs as implementers will contract directly with donors, and will sub-contract the “project management” or “capacity development” work if they don’t want to, or are unable to, do it. These are hard yards, but sooner or later the system will tip.

        • Vern Hughes

          This is a great discussion. The question I am interested in, after 20 years of reflection on these matters, is how do we reform the way aid and development works so as to eliminate the corrosive effects of aid on civil society in recipient countries?

          One response is to try to stop the aid at source, from the supply side. This is a respectable position to hold, but politically it is very difficult to prosecute, because governments and donors feel obliged to continue it (whether or not poverty is being alleviated). There is a ‘moral pressure’ to continue aid in spite of all the evidence that it simply feeds a self-perpetuating industry of INGOs.

          The alternative course is to try to change the way aid and development works. The trouble with this position is that every INGO says constantly that it is working differently, more collaboratively, more responsively, more efficiently. Furthermore, in the last 20 years, INGOs have absorbed every ‘new’ method of working into their business plans, so that the corporate identity and infrastructure of the INGO are protected and advanced regardless of every ‘reform’ and ‘innovation’ proposal.

          It is also clear that efforts by the industry to ‘self-regulate’ and ‘reform itself’ bear as much fruit as efforts by any other contentious industry to do the same (coal-fired electricity, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, sex industries).

          What’s missing is a reform movement in aid and development that is external to the interests of the INGOS and funders. There are individuals, academics, whistleblowers and ex-workers, who write about these issues and put forward arguments for change, but the industry surges on regardless and can quite comfortably marginalise these individual efforts.

          A first step to doing this differently is to get together a network of reformers, independent of the interests of INGOs or funders, to develop a reform agenda. Is anyone interested in this? I’m up for it.

  5. Vern Hughes

    The key issue in Michael’s primer is his identification of 3 approaches to civil society. This is not ‘arcane’, it is critical to get this right. Unfortunately, this is a very pragmatic framework that Michael adopts, because only the first approach (associational life) is an authentic understanding of civil society. The other two (the Good Society, and protagonists in debate) are not definitions of civil society at all, but are put forward, I suspect, to draw in players from other backgrounds (government, academia, funders) . This pragmatic approach unfortunately weakens Michael’s argument, because he is duty-bound to find a role in strengthening civil society for players who might be better advised to vacate the field and allow others to do it. Governments and NGOs in many cases clearly undermine civil society, even when they parade their stated intention of strengthening it. These issues demand urgent discussion, and Michael Edwards has again prompted us to take this discussion seriously.

  6. Masood Ul Mulk

    I would have serious questions about the conclusion that Bano reaches in her research even in Pakistan. I work with thousands of community organisations in Pakistan which generate their own electricity, get their own drinking water, run their own schools and build their own bridges. These were all groups that were doing their own little things before we ever reached them. But the resources that came in their hand gave them the big jump and without them they would have been without these services which brought big change in their lives; even without them they would have existed still doing many useful things in their villages. (at a lower level of equilibrium as someone would put it.) The conclusion that getting aid into villages creates dependence and dissipates strong groups is partly true. Aid can do both things by getting people together to do things which even the State has failed to do or simply make them so dependent that people who built some of the most difficult infrastructure projects over the centuries are not willing to even lift a pebble. The difference between the two is how aid is delivered and its not necessarily the way Bano suggests. At least a wider and more in depth look at this question would reveal this. Interestingly, I found that the biggest dissipater of collective action in some of these communities was not external aid. It was when government brought in subsidised wheat into these communities that many of them stopped maintaining their irrigation channels. Why waste time working on the channels to get water to grow wheat when you could work off farm, earn an income and buy the wheat. Civil society should be about a set of values, the type of organisation, the nature of leadership etc will vary across cultures and contexts.

  7. MJ

    There is a striking juxtaposition of this article with the poll to the right in which a majority of voters have agreed with the plea that “International aid agencies should be more active in supporting the gay rights movement in Africa”. #justsayin

        • Vern Hughes

          If an aid agency has a specific charter to support gay rights in Africa, then it should do just that. However, most aid agencies do not have such a charter, nor are they funded to do that work from either public or private donors, no matter how much individual supporters of gay rights in the UK or North America might like that cause to be supported.

          This raises another big question about the purpose of aid and development. Increasingly, aid agencies seem to have a multi-purpose, multi-issue agenda, oriented to issues that are politically fashionable. Whether aid actually alleviates poverty, or eliminates it, seems to be almost irrelevant now to the role aid agencies seem to want to play.

          In issues of domestic politics, questions like this are usually subject to wide-ranging public debate. In aid and development, the public debate is lacking, leaving the aid industry itself to do all the talking, about itself, for itself. The absence of this public debate, and public scrutiny, has been a problem for a long time, and has allowed this politicised mission-creep to take place unchecked.

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