The growing importance of civil society has also brought with it a variety of constraints and pressures. In a reiteration of some of the maladies that have been inflicted on civil society, it can be pointed out that civil society has not been conceptualized tightly, which is why varied perspectives on its meaning, nature, and composition have come to camouflage its very essence. It has been observed by Neera Chandhoke (1995, op.cit.) that just as the attention paid to the State has failed to account for civil society, the focus on civil society fails to comprehend its complex relationship with the State. For instance, in India, civil society is seen by most theorists as a volatile association of social groupings, which are based on caste and kinship linkages, or on religious mobilization as much as on voluntary social associations.  The problem with this kind of formulation, she maintains, is that it fails to distinguish between counter-civil society movements. Society, in this perspective, has collapsed into civil society. The civil society is thus being treated as a residual category, as an authentic collection of everything that is not the State. It has become a conceptual ragbag, consisting of households, religious denominations, and each and every activity, which is unconnected with the State.

Community identities, as has been observed, have always been fluid in India. This fluidity gives considerable scope for political entrepreneurs to reshape the boundary and the concerns of the identity of a community. In recent years, the process of modernization and participatory politics and access to media, and other technological devices have actually increased the mobilization potential and sharpened the self-image of splinter ethnic groups and sub-national identities, quite contrary to homogenizing efforts of the modernizing elite (Bardhan, 1999).

When civil society is seen as a tradition, the internal contradictions between communities and within communities are completely overlooked. Andre Beteilli (2000) argues that the well-being of modern institutions can be guaranteed only if civil societies are understood as comprising truly autonomous bodies. In the view of Dipankar Gupta (1999), there is a need to be wary of giving in to traditional solidarities and associations, as they are unfavorable to modern institutions.

Civil society by itself therefore, observes Neera Chandhoke (2004), has no teleological virtue unless it is accompanied both by an interrogation of the sphere of civil society itself and a project for democratizing civil society. And a call for rolling back the State has no particular virtue unless it is accompanied by a determination that the oppressions of civil society will be dismantled. The ability of civil society to prevent the State from exercising absolute control is an essential but not a sufficient condition for democracy. The existence of civil society as a sphere of participation, deliberation, dialogue, and contestation is no indication of the capacities of individuals to participate in all these activities.

Critics have even pointed out the various limitations of the idea of ‘social capital’ in explaining State-society interactions in the context of developing countries.  It has been felt that there are a few potential problems associated with the development of civil society institutions that would nurture social capital. Looking at the State-civil society institutions developed in an authoritarian environment and what the State can do to enable the growth and expansion of those institutions, the emphasis is on the ‘recursive cycles’ of interaction between the State and civil society actors.  Putnam’s work is derived from the historical experience of Italy and suggests that a country’s stock of social capital is inherited. Social capital with Putnam’s framework thus cannot be accumulated (Sobhan, op.cit.).

As we have read earlier on in this Unit, civil society organizations are generally equated with NGOs.  This tendency limits our understanding of a broad process of interaction among different types of organizations. The concept of civil society points out Alan Whaites (op.cit.) has been ‘grabbed’ by NGOs as one relating closely to their own natural strengths.  On the surface, civil society is intimately connected with the role of local community associations or groups, and with the indigenous NGO sector. In the globalization scenario, it needs to be kept in view that among the donor agencies, the interest in civil society has been associated with the evolution of the conditionality of aid in the 1980s. Donors have begun to re-appraise the role of civil society in providing a foundation for sustainable democracy. The combination of donor, NGO, and UN interest provides the background to what has been termed as the civil society ‘grab’.

The States, as has been observed by The Baogang (op.cit.), are adopting new strategies, using NGOs for their own purposes.  Some critics see the recent quests for community control as little more than a State-orchestrated managerial reform to take over institutions. Other critics view it as an interpretation between the State and community spheres that is more than genuine community control.  Still, others portray it as an attempt to redress profound crises that are now confronting capitalist classes.  Both State-centered and society-centered approaches are now proving problematic and inadequate.  Importantly, it is believed that the civil society approach is itself problematic if it does not take cognizance of global civil society.

The idea of global civil society combines elements of both anti-state and anti-nation positions. The growing size, sophistication, and influence of the Global Civil Society Organizations (GCSOs) have been facilitated and actively encouraged by one major factor-the Neo-liberal consensus that emerges from the power centers in the West. Among other things, the consensus dictates: a) The State, particularly in third world countries, should withdraw from the social sector, b) The market should be freed from all constraints, and c) Communities in civil society should organize their own social and economic reproduction and well-being. The State has been liberated from its traditional responsibilities of providing the conditions for human flourishing (Chandhoke, 2002).  This stance is particularly problematic in the context of ‘governance’, as the State has to assume the role of facilitator and catalyst in bringing about just and egalitarian governance.  We have already read in the earlier Units of this Course that the Neo-liberal State’s rollback ideology is misplaced in the context of developing countries like India.

The vision of civil society sans a well-defined role of the State is thus replete with serious consequences, which not only weakens civil society but also jeopardizes the future of GCSOs. It has been pointed out that by drastically reducing the importance of proximity, the new technologies change people’s perceptions of community. The potential for building a global civil society might come at the expense of a weakened identity with one’s State and with the civil society within one’s country (Schechter, op.cit.). In the absence of a global public space and an opportunity for dialogue, a robust global community may remain a distant dream.

There is a need to look into the role of media in building civil society.  It has been seen that instead of a positive role, the media many a time camouflages important issues.  The mediascape, for instance in India, seems to give its subscribers a sense of collective identity and participation in public affairs. At the same time, it also reduces the discussion of vital issues to simple caricatures, leaving people interconnected but dangerously uninformed.  The mediascape has the power games to displace the substantive with the symbolic (The Hindu, March 23, 2003).

The developments in administration such as the Public Choice approach and now the New Public Management (NPM) make an endeavor to provide alternatives to bureaucratic hegemony. But while the Public Choice perspective seeks to reduce individuals to utility maximizers and focuses on individual interest, it does not provide the mechanism for arriving at a collective general interest.  The NPM, on the other hand, treats the citizens as mere clients and consumers.  The Pluralistic, Communitarian, New Public Administration, and Network Agency perspectives give due regard to community, non-bureaucratic institutions and values, but do not attempt to develop the idea of autonomous, self-reflective, humane, and conscientious civil society with an accent on genuine public interest.

Francis Fukuyama in his original essay ‘The End of History’ (1989) offered a vision of a world purged of ideology, in which history has come to an end because there are no alternatives to the institutions of the present representative democracy and the market. The future would, be the endless repetition of more of the same, with politics centered on bureaucratic problem-solving, limited social engineering, and liberal compromise (Cf Hirst, 1994).

This indeed is a very pessimistic projection of the socio-economic and political reality. If one goes by it, the alternatives to absolute State or market control over the production and provision of goods seem almost elusive. A ray of hope could be democratic decentralization, participative decision-making, and community management of resources through different civil society organizations which can surely solve the problem to some extent. Voluntarism and associationism have been a part of the culture in developing countries, their pertinence needs to be harnessed, more so, in the globalization context. The very fact that the number of community organizations, voluntary agencies, self-help groups, and non-public, nonmarket associations has grown tremendously in the last decade is a step in the right direction.

Additional Notes:

Challenges Confronting the Civil Society in the 21st Century


In the intricate tapestry of societal dynamics, civil society stands as a crucial pillar, acting as a voice for the voiceless and a watchdog for justice. However, the path it treads is fraught with challenges that demand thoughtful consideration and strategic navigation. In this exploration, we delve into some of the prominent challenges faced by civil society in the 21st century.

Inclusivity and Representation:

At the heart of the civil society’s mission lies the commitment to inclusivity and representation. Yet, achieving true diversity in voices and perspectives remains an elusive goal. Minority groups, marginalized communities, and those with limited access to resources often find their voices drowned out by the cacophony of more privileged counterparts. The challenge, therefore, lies not just in advocating for inclusivity but in creating platforms that genuinely amplify the voices of the underrepresented.

Technological Transformation:

The rapid evolution of technology presents both opportunities and pitfalls for civil society. While social media and digital platforms offer unprecedented avenues for communication and mobilization, they also bring forth the challenges of misinformation, online harassment, and the erosion of privacy. Navigating this digital landscape requires not only technological savvy but also a keen understanding of the ethical implications that arise when harnessing the power of information.

Resource Constraints:

The civil society often operates on the fringes of financial stability. Non-profit organizations and advocacy groups grapple with resource constraints that hinder their ability to address pressing issues effectively. Funding challenges not only limit the scale of their initiatives but also force them to allocate resources strategically, sometimes at the expense of long-term, sustainable solutions. The perpetual juggling act of securing funding while staying true to their mission poses a formidable obstacle.

Globalization and Transnational Issues:

In an era of globalization, issues transcend national borders, necessitating a collective response from civil society. Tackling transnational problems such as climate change, refugee crises, and global health emergencies demands unprecedented collaboration. However, navigating the complex web of international relations, differing cultural contexts, and conflicting interests poses a significant challenge. Building effective networks and alliances becomes imperative for civil society to address issues that transcend geographical boundaries.

Erosion of Civic Engagement:

Despite the interconnectedness facilitated by technology, civic engagement faces a crisis. Apathy and disinterest among citizens in participating actively in civic processes pose a threat to the very essence of a vibrant civil society. Overcoming this challenge requires not only reinvigorating traditional forms of engagement but also adapting to the changing ways in which individuals connect with societal issues. Striking a balance between the virtual and physical realms of civic participation becomes crucial in rekindling the flame of engagement.


As civil society grapples with these challenges, it stands at a crossroads, requiring adaptability, innovation, and sustained commitment. Inclusivity, technological adeptness, financial resilience, global collaboration, and civic engagement are not isolated hurdles but interconnected facets of a complex landscape. The collective efforts to address these challenges will define the role and impact of civil society in shaping a more just and equitable world. It is not just a journey; it is a labyrinthine quest for a better future, and the civil society must navigate it with resilience and determination.

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