The contemporary meaning of civil society, as we just read, regards it as a noncommercial sphere that works in tandem with the market and the State. Its aim is not to dislodge the State or the market but to better their condition by applying pressure on the State and the market in the form of protests, participation, mediation, and information. The current meaning of civil society, it has been felt, is more in tune with the Cosmopolitan rather than the Pluralist or Elitist view of democracy that does not curb the State or restrict civil society. In fact, it talks of the enhancement of nonstate and non-market solutions in the organization of civil society as well as increasing the role of global civil society.  It is believed that civil society can constructively contribute toward building a positive relationship between the State and the market.

The recent reemergence of civil society has been more of a response to excessive Statism in East European nations. The social movements in Poland were characterized as the rise of ‘civil society against the State’. And the Polish movement was defined as the ‘rebirth of civil society’. It is being seen as the salvation of both socialist and capitalist societies suffering from an overdose of bureaucratic rationality (Chandhoke, 1995, op.cit.). The concept of reconstruction of civil society has also been revived in the West. In former West Germany, the Welfare State is seen as a mechanism by which to repoliticise the economy and dissolve the sharp boundaries between the State and the society. In France, there has been a totalitarian expansion of capitalism, which engulfs all spheres of social activity under a single dimension of economic activity (Baogang, op.cit.).

Robert Putnam’s ‘Social Capital’ has brought the age-old issue of civil society to the forefront.  Rahman Sobhan (1998) feels that Putnam actually attacks the social science tradition that views “The actors of the State and society locked in a zero-sum game and argues that highly active civic associations are strongly associated with effective public institutions.  Norms and networks of civil engagement have actually promoted economic growth instead of inhibiting it”.  Robert Putnam, as has been pointed out, shows that the regions of Italy that have both flourished economically and suffered less corruption are those that have fostered social capital formation. These are regions where citizens are more trusting of one another in civil society (Brathwaite and Strang, 2001).

Rahman Sobhan (op.cit.) also adds that Putnam’s approach is essentially society-centered. The nature of the distribution of power in society and the quality of civics will determine whether a vicious or virtuous circle dominates the governance structure. The role of the State is seen as a dependent variable. Putnam emphasizes a symbiotic relationship between the State and the community. The State’s action or policy contributes to the development of trust and networks of civic engagement among members of the community and they in turn become sources of discipline and information for the public agencies as well as dependable agencies for implementation of public projects.

There are many other reasons for the renewed interest in civil society. It has been put forth and has become a theme of compelling interest throughout the world, as citizen activism and democratization encounter post-Cold War realignment of religious fundamentalism, economic development, and other forces. Public fatigue with tired party systems has sparked interest in civil society as a means of social renewal. Especially, in the developing world, privatization and other market reforms offer civil society the chance to step in wherever the governments have retracted their reach. Finally, the Information and Technology revolution has provided new tools for forging connections and empowering citizens (Callahan, 2002, op.cit.).

In the globalization context, the growing role of NGOs and the global civil society has also characterized the reemergence of civil society. Bilateral and multilateral aid donors have switched significant fractions of their budgets from national governments to NGOs (Pearce, 2000). The 1990s have seen a surge in civil society as well as global society organizations. The proliferation of NGOs throughout the world has spurred interest in what has been called “the space of uncoerced human association” (Fisher, op.cit.).

In recent years, the social capital concept appears to have caught on with influential global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.  The idea of civil society has now taken on a political dimension as some donors have become preoccupied with ‘Good Governance’.  This tendency has acquired an economic as well as moral rationale with the World Bank in its 1991 report, democracy projecting as not only ethically desirable but also more efficient (Whaites, op.cit.).   The World Bank is beginning to recognize that civil society plays a critical role in helping to amplify the voices of the poorest people in the decisions that affect their lives, improve development effectiveness and sustainability, and hold governments and policymakers publicly accountable.   The success stories of the sustained voluntary efforts need to be taken note of in order to strengthen the civil society.

Additional Notes:

The contemporary context of civil society is characterized by a dynamic interplay of various factors, including political, social, technological, and global developments. Here are some key aspects of the contemporary context of civil society:

1. Technology and Communication:

  • Digital Activism: The advent of the internet and social media has transformed the way civil society operates. Digital platforms have empowered activists and organizations to mobilize quickly, reach a global audience, and raise awareness about various social and political issues.
  • Online Advocacy: Civil society organizations (CSOs) leverage online tools to conduct advocacy campaigns, collect signatures for petitions, and organize virtual events. Online advocacy has become a vital component of contemporary activism.

2. Globalization:

  • Transnational Networks: Civil society organizations increasingly operate on a global scale, forming transnational networks to address cross-border issues such as climate change, human rights, and global health. These networks facilitate collaboration and the sharing of resources and information across borders.
  • Advocacy at International Forums: CSOs engage in advocacy and lobbying efforts at international organizations, such as the United Nations, to influence global policy decisions and hold governments and corporations accountable for their actions.

3. Social Movements and Activism:

  • Grassroots Mobilization: Civil society continues to be a catalyst for grassroots movements, including those related to climate change, racial and gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. These movements often use decentralized, leaderless structures and social media to organize and amplify their voices.
  • Civil Disobedience: Nonviolent civil disobedience and protest actions have gained prominence as means of drawing attention to social injustices and advocating for change.

4. Challenges and Threats:

  • Repression and Backlash: In many countries, governments have responded to civil society activism with repression, including restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, the harassment of activists, and the imposition of restrictive legislation.
  • Co-option: Some governments and corporations attempt to co-opt or influence civil society organizations, potentially compromising their independence and integrity.

5. Intersectionality:

  • Contemporary civil society recognizes the intersectionality of various social issues, acknowledging that people’s experiences are shaped by multiple factors, including race, gender, sexuality, and economic status. As a result, advocacy and activism are increasingly inclusive and intersectional.

6. Civil Society and Public Health:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the role of civil society in public health. Many community organizations, NGOs, and volunteers played a critical role in providing relief, information, and support during the crisis.

7. Environmental Concerns:

  • Climate Activism: Environmental concerns have driven significant civil society activism, with youth-led movements, like Fridays for Future, pushing for urgent action to combat climate change.
  • Conservation Efforts: Civil society organizations are actively involved in conservation initiatives, wildlife protection, and sustainability efforts to address environmental challenges.

8. Social Innovation:

  • Civil society is increasingly involved in social entrepreneurship and innovation, developing new solutions to social and environmental problems that combine market-based approaches with a focus on positive societal impacts.

The contemporary context of civil society is marked by a complex and evolving landscape in which technology, globalization, social movements, and emerging issues intersect. Civil society continues to be a powerful force for advocating for social justice, human rights, and positive social change on both local and global scales. However, it also faces numerous challenges and requires adaptability and resilience in response to changing circumstances.

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