Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Importance of Civil Society in Democratization Process

Civil society groups often make their peaceful rally in front of Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

As Western Europe and North America are enjoying a satisfactory level of civil society, some post-communist countries and most African countries have little progress or even regression in civil society development. Civil society is a significant component of democracy, apart from rule of law and separation of power. Democracy is meaningful when there is a strong civil society, which have strong participation in the socio-economic development, political decision-making process, and implementation of constitutions and other laws of a country.

 Given the importance of civil society, various international assistance around the world are directed to less-developed and developing countries, especially Cambodia and other countries in Asia, to help invigorate the civil societies through active participation of local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, United States and European Union have provided large amount of financial assistance to international and local NGOs in Cambodia in order to stimulate active participation of Cambodian people at local and sub-national level. After decades of civil wars and chaos, now it is time for Cambodia to improve its status in both regional and international fora. Cambodia has succeeded in proving to the world that it has capability to achieve national reconciliation with its own national efforts without outside intervention. For instance, the world leaders have congratulated the recent of successful political settlement between Cambodian People Party (CPP) and Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on 22 July 2014 to end the political stalemate after national election last year. The two leaders also agreed on electoral reform, especially the reform of the National Election Committee (NEC). The main reform that has been agreed upon under the deal between the two leaders is the overhaul of the composition of the NEC, with four members to be chosen by the CPP, four by the CNRP, and one from civil society mutually agreed upon by both groups. The candidate selected by both parties is Mde Pung Chhiv Kek, the head of the Cambodian rights group Licadho. This decision on new composition of NEC reflects the importance of civil society participation in the political reform of Cambodia. 

In the context of well-functioned civil society, the public could express their interests and opinions, participate in social activities for the benefits of the whole society, and even share their concerns on government performances toward their communities and at the national level. Particularly, civil society has its influence over the government’s decision making process through forums, public debates, referendums, demonstrations and even protests. Furthermore, an active civil society can bring legitimacy for government and vice versa. 

So, civil society is the driving force of democracy in which freedom of expression are protected and promoted to improve one common good, the social prosperity. Several democracy scholars have expressed their views and findings of civil society in order to promote development of democracy. So, various questions have been raised such as “Is it primary elites who make, shape, and consolidate democracy? Or does the public matter? Is so, how, when, and to what degree?”; and “Is it actually correct to assert that post-communist civil society is particularly weak? I hope that after reading this long article, you may have some understanding on the roles of civil society and its significance in contributing to democratic process.   

1.      Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America
- Tocqueville examines the form of government established in America on the principle of sovereignty of the people, its mean of action, impediments, advantages, and dangers.
- The states which now compose the American Union all have institutions with the same external aspect. Political and administrative life is concentrated in three active centers, which could be compared to the various nervous centers that control the motions of human body. The township is the first in order, then the county, and finally the state.
-   The township is the only association so well rooted in nature that wherever men assemble it forms itself. Therefore, communal society exists among all peoples regardless of their customs and their laws. Communal freedom is not the fruit of human effort. It is seldom created, but rather spring up of its own accord. However, the strength of free people resides in the local community.
-  County and township are not constituted everywhere in the same way, but it is said that the organization of township and county in the US everywhere depends on the same idea that each man is the best judge of own interest and the best able to satisfy his private needs. So, township and county are responsible for their special interests. 
-    No nations are more liable to fall under the yoke of administrative centralization than those with a democratic social condition. It is a permanent tendency in such nations to concentrate all governmental power in the hands of the only poor which directly represents the people, because apart from the people there is nothing to be seen but equal individuals mingled in a common mass.

In short, Tocqueville stressed on outlook of the civil society in township of New England in which he insisted that the strength of free people resides in the local community. He made a strong reflection of social conditions that sustained democracy in US. Though he has elaborated on some structure of local government in US, his study make it clear that local community is the best place where civil society take root and thrive. However, neither the relationship between the civil society and the political decision making process nor its importance to politics in US were mentioned in his book. He is too much focused on administration rather than implication of the civil society to political affairs.

2.      Larry Diamond. 1999. Developing Democracy.
-   Civil society is the realm of organized social life that is open, voluntary, self-generating, at least partially self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.
- Being essentially market-oriented, actors in civil society recognize the principles of state authority and the rule of law and need the protection of an institutionalized legal order to prosper and be secure. Thus, civil society not only restricts state power but legitimates state authority when that authority is based on the rule of law.
- Civil society encompass a vast array of organizations, formal and informal, including economic, cultural, informational and educational, interest, developmental, issue-oriented, and civic (group that seek to improve the political system and make it more democratic).
-  Five features of democratic civil society generally and of individual organizations are important. First, it concerns how an organization formally governs its own internal affairs. Second, it concerns the goals and methods of groups in civil society, especially organized associations. Third, one of main features of civil society is its level of organizational institutionalization. Fourth, pluralism, by some degree, is necessary by definition for civil society: no organization that is civil can claim to represent all the interests of its members. Fifth, the final feature is density of the sheer number of associations.
- Civil society advances democracy in two generic ways: by helping to generate a transition from authoritarian rule to electoral democracy and by deepening and consolidating democracy once it is established.
- The more active, pluralistic, resourceful, institutionalized, and internally democratic civil society is, and the more effectively it balances the tensions in its relations with the state, the more democracy will be to emerge and endure.

-In a nutshell, Diamond has a systematic and theory-based research on civil society and its importance to transition to democracy and democratic consolidation. By providing definition of civil society, he made distinction between civil society and “society” on the basis of public interest and also the distinction between civil society and the civic society based on a general theoretical gap. Features and function of civil society are highlighted with detailed examples of some countries (Chile, South Korea, etc). Yet, he did not identify the roots of civil society so that it can develop as a solid foundation for democratic regime.   

3.      Robert Putnam. 1993. Making Democracy Work
-   A detail study of civil society was conducted by Robert Putnam in Italy in which the level of institutional performance of each of Italy’s twenty regions is shown. Seeing Italy from a North-South direction, he finds that the northern regional governments as a group have been more successful than the southern parts of Italy.
- Socio-economic modernity and civic community are the major factor that differentiates the successful regions in the North from the unsuccessful ones in the South. Socioeconomic modernity is the results of the industrial revolution and “civic community” is the patterns of civic involvement and social solidarity.   
-  In Italy, much of its transformation to modernization has occurred within the last generation, although it had begun at the end of the 19th century. Change has touched all parts of the peninsular but, as from postindustrial Seveso to preindustrial Pietrapertosa indicated that the North is much more advanced than the South.
- Civic community involves civic engagement, political equality, solidarity, trust, tolerance, and associations. The most important element is political equality where citizenship in the civic community entails equal rights and obligations for all. Then, the vibrancy of associational life is one of the key indicators of civic socialibity. In contemporary Italy, the civic community is also closely associated with levels of social and economic development.
-  Social disharmony and political conflict are often thought inimical to effective governance. However, no evidences have offered the slightest sustenance for the theory that social and political strife is incompatible with good government. No correlation between conflict and the civic community were found. According to his observation, there are regions of high performance and low conflict, such as Veneto, but there are also successful and conflict-ridden regions, such as Piedmont.

-To conclude, most of Robert Putnam’s work focused on different level of civil society in Italy based on North-South direction. His main finding is that the level of civil society in the North is much higher than that of the South due to different level of socio-economic performance and institutional development. His work made a reflection of civil society on all aspects of social life and politics in Italy. However, he only focused on the patterns and roots of civil society without mentioning any theoretical framework of political culture lying under civil society which reflects norms, values, and attitudes.   

4.      Mark Morje Howard. “The Weakness of Post-communist Civil Society”
-The weakness of post-communist civil society in Europe (Bulgaria, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, etc) leads to a host of important questions on its weakness in participation in civil society organizations in the period of 1989-91.
-World Values Survey has provided evidences which show that in a wider cross-regional perspective, post-communist countries do have relatively lower levels of organizational membership.   
-  While the weakness of civil society does not necessarily mean that post-communist democracy is in danger of collapse or breakdown, it does hamper the development of the “civic skills” that are important for supporting and consolidating a democratic system, and it also ensure that many post-communist citizens lack the institutional representation and political “leverage” that could be provided by active voluntary organizations.
- Although this trend of non-participation is unlikely to change rapidly or decisively, there are two possible mechanisms for improvement: generational change and a more active and supportive role on the part of the state.
- However, though there is overall barring unforeseen improvement in the way new institutions and policies are implemented, we are unlikely to see dramatic changes in the pattern of non-participation throughout post-communist Europe.
- The consistently low levels of participation in civil society organizations in contemporary post-communist Europe can best be understood by taking into account the common elements of the communist experience, as well as the events of the last decade. In particular, three important factors are common to the wide array of societies in post-communist Europe: 1) the legacy of mistrust of communist organizations; 2) the persistence of friendship networks; and 3) post-communist disappointment. Taken together, these three factors help explain the lasting weakness of civil society in the region.
-In consequence, there are two implications for democracy. First, the lack of engagement and participation by ordinary citizens can be viewed as indicative of hollow, procedural, and formalistic character of post-communist democracy. Second, a more optimistic interpretation would suggest that the absence of a vibrant civil society poses no obstacle to democracy and democratic stability.
- In short, post-communist democracy is neither thriving nor on the verge of collapse. Instead, it is likely to continue to “muddle through”, with elites and institutions that vary widely in their styles and performance and a citizenry that remains disengaged from the public sphere.
- There are some steps that can be taken to help encourage more post-communist citizens to take part in organizational activities. First, one obvious effort would be to improve economic conditions, particularly in those countries in which many citizens face near-catastrophic economic obstacles. Second, to strengthen post-communist civil society, it involves a reappraisal of the role of the state and its relation to voluntary organizations.

-In sum, although he emphasized the apathy of participation in civil society of the post-communist countries in Europe based on world value survey and his own field research, his argument on the three common factors in post-communist society that has weakened civil society are not so convincing as each countries has different political and social setting, especially the political culture, despite the fact that they all have experienced through communism.  

5.      Gyimah-Boadi. “Civil Society in Africa”.
-The African young civil societies were in the forefront among many forces that terminated entrenched authoritarianism in Africa and brought about the beginnings of democracy in the early 1990s.  
- The third wave hit Africa in late 1989, when civil servants, teachers, and traders in small French-speaking republic of Benin demonstrated to demand an end to autocracy and economic mismanagement.
- Significant contributions to democratization have also come from Christian churches and their national organizations.
-  However, civil society is too weak to redress state-society relations in favor of the latter. Despite the return to formal democracy and the promulgation of constitutions, officials still retain enormous power. Furthermore, the contribution of civil society to democratic consolidation is even more disappointing in the key areas of economic reform and development.
- Another problem is that there is pervasive fragmentation of civil society in Africa. Core societal groups, such as secular, religious, sports, entertainment, are all incline to parochialism. When they do become engaged in national politics, it is only concern with how the state can serve their interests. Hence, they usually either support the state, or can easily be coopted into doing so. Additionally, these organizations are exclusionary and often chauvinistic and are unwilling to into alliances with other groups.  
- The patrimonialization of political power and its use for private gain make politics a high-stakes, zero-sum game in which incumbents defend and challengers desperately attack. In such a high charged atmosphere, compromise and moderation are early casualties, and the limited stock of civic competence and democratic capital is easily dissipated.
- Though the outlook for democratization in Africa is sobering, it still has some grounds for hope of improvement. The first is an effect of neoliberal economic reforms, especially privatization as this measure will lay the material basis for civil associations that are fully independent of the state. Second, the increasing trends toward political liberalization and pluralism may give civil society its best-ever opportunity to flourish. Third, there is greater willingness to give direct assistance to local NGOs and pro-democracy civil associations from multilateral and bilateral donors. Fourth, new information and communication technologies present an opportunity to civil society.  Finally, Africa’s many civil associations are improving their knowledge of one another and deepening their collective awareness of pivotal role that they must play in fostering democratic governance, resulting in greater cooperation, assertiveness, confidence, and perhaps efficacy.

-   All in all, the author touched upon the most challenging problems of civil society in Africa where most NGOs are not neutral and dependent on state supports. In addition, there is a lack of networking among those NGOs in order to have check and balance on the power of state. According to their essay, it looks so pessimist to see civil society in Africa even though the third way of democracy reached it in the early 1990. It is really interesting that socio-economic development has favorable effects on civil society in Africa as the continent is rampant with poverty issue. Their finding not only provides reflection of civil society in Africa, but it also project the same problem faced by civil society in other less-developed countries in the world, including Cambodia.  

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