Reflecting on civil society worldwide

Finn Heinrich

In the late 1990s, when CIVICUS designed its Civil Society Index (CSI), there was a lot of hype around the term ‘civil society’ and its alleged powers to curb corruption and authoritarian governance and to redress social exclusion, poverty and other social ills.

Through the Index, CIVICUS sought a more nuanced and realistic understanding of civil society. It has now completed the full implementation of the CSI in 53 countries and published the findings in the Global Survey of the State of Civil Society.[1] What have we learned from this about the state of civil society around the world?

Unlike most other research projects on the topic, the CSI has sought to combine a comprehensive assessment of civil society with a participatory approach in order to stimulate reflection, action and policy proposals. In the 53 countries, more than 7,000 representatives from civil society, government, donors and other sectors took part in the consultation.

Generally speaking, this approach has been vindicated by the project’s large number of ‘signs of impact’. For example, the CSI has informed a number of policy initiatives, such as the new Macedonian government strategy on government-civil society cooperation and a UNDP-sponsored project to improve the legal environment for CSOs in Cyprus. It has also stimulated closer inspection of CSO transparency and accountability in many countries. A case in point is a regional project to develop new tools for accountability in Latin America under the leadership of the Institute for Communication and Development in Uruguay. Also, 90 per cent of national CSI partner organizations plan to use the CSI in the future as a tool to track the development of civil society in their country.

One of the difficulties of combining research and action in this way is balancing the need for country-specific information and internationally comparable data. Despite some criticism from the academic community, CIVICUS has always maintained that the tool’s primary objective is to provide local stakeholders with information about their own country context. In general, through open and self-critical engagement with the research community, CIVICUS has managed both to learn from innovations in the growing field of civil society studies and to contribute to them. This is highlighted, for example, by Howard and Anheier’s critiques of the CSI approach in the Global Survey.

Key issues facing civil society worldwide

As Carmen Malena’s contribution to the Global Survey attests, the vast differences in political, social and cultural contexts, and the extent to which they affect specific forms of civic activism, make it difficult (if not impossible) to identify any global patterns. Nevertheless, the CSI’s comparative analysis throws up some interesting results that point towards common challenges for civil society around the world.

CSO accountability

Increasing the transparency and accountability of CSOs in order to maintain and/or increase civil society’s legitimacy emerges as the most common challenge, identified by two out of three participating countries and topping the ‘usual concerns’ about financial sustainability, human resources and sectoral infrastructure. The CSI’s comparative analysis finds that ‘first generation’ efforts to tackle the accountability challenge, such as codes of ethics, have yielded limited results owing to their voluntary nature. The authors of the chapter on CSO accountability comment on the lack of ‘success stories of existing self-regulatory mechanisms’, the exceptions being ‘a Dutch bureau and a number of policies set up by professional associations to regulate activities of their individual members’. They recommend the adoption of new approaches with more ‘teeth’, following recent innovations such as the redress and complaints systems adopted by the Australian Association of NGOs and by child sponsorship NGOs in the US or the principles underlying the new International NGO Accountability Charter.

Civil society without citizens?

The CSI studies note the challenge for civil society of marrying its role as a crucial voice for citizens (particularly marginalized groups) in the public sphere with its involvement in welfare provision as a partner of the state and foreign donors. Prioritizing the latter over the former almost inevitably leads to a loss of public legitimacy, support and eventually societal influence, as the examples of a highly donor-dependent CSO sector in many African and post-Communist European countries show. This challenge is captured well by the Bulgarian CSI report, provocatively entitled Civil Society without the Citizens. Rooting CSOs in their local communities, argues the author, will not automatically happen, but requires a concerted effort by civil society, state and donors. Could it also be that many CSOs have found a rather comfortable place among the powerful and have no incentive to get their hands dirty at the grassroots?

Effective democratic governance

If we were to single out the most critical condition identified by the CSI for civil society to be able to flourish, it would probably be the existence of an effective and democratic state. It seems that civil society is more vibrant, better resourced, more stable and better organized in those countries where the rule of law is respected by both citizens and the state, the government is receptive to citizens’ voices, and the state is strong enough to meet people’s basic needs.

While this might sound like stating the obvious, it is clear that the international aid community has not paid enough attention to the symbiotic link between a vibrant civil society and an effective state. While in the past civil society has often been strengthened in opposition to the state, there is a danger that future policy trends, such as the Paris Agenda, will turn this strategy on its head by focusing solely on the state at the expense of civil society.

Pointers for the future

As these examples show, the CSI has unearthed a wide range of insights into the current challenges facing civil society. It is hoped that its analysis and recommendations will be taken up by policymakers. But with a study as extensive and complex as this, there is inevitably room for improvement. One specific area is to strengthen its relevance as a process and as an information resource for those institutions that seek to support civil society actors in their promotion of the public good. Generating greater policy impact is likely to widen the usefulness of the CSI tool as the project enters a new implementation phase. This phase will be launched in early 2008 when CIVICUS will call for statements of interest from potential CSI national partners. Given the extremely high levels of interest, it is envisioned that the next project phase will again include 50-60 countries from all parts of the world.

1 V F Heinrich (ed), Global Survey of the State of Civil Society, Volume 1: Country Profiles. V F Heinrich & L Fioramonti (eds), Global Survey of the State of Civil Society, Volume 2: Comparative Perspectives. Kumarian Press, 2007. The chapters cited in this article are from Volume 2.

Finn Heinrich is Senior Advisor at CIVICUS. Email

For more information
Contact CSI Project Manager Janine Schall-Emden at or go to


Comment Rayna Gavrilova

Finn Heinrich’s piece on the CIVICUS Index emboldens me to make a strong statement: we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the structure and role of civil society worldwide. For years practitioners and theoreticians of civic engagement have struggled to reconcile the Tocquevillian understanding of civil society with the formally organized non-profit organizations that have become known as the third sector. Today, this third sector is stronger and larger than ever; it has also become more professional, more efficient and more self-sufficient, to the point where modern societies are unthinkable without it.

Recognition of this has led to a predictable public reaction: if CSOs have to be ranked on the same level of public usefulness as government and business, then the standards of government and business should be applied to them. Hence the universal preoccupation with accountability, transparency and representativeness so convincingly reported by CIVICUS and singled out by Heinrich.

What about the other element of the civil society concept: civil society as the guardian of the public interest, with CSOs raising the hottest issues and standing for unpopular, novel or unorthodox ideas, with active citizens contributing their commitment, time and money to advance the public good in an organized way? Well, the number of organizations performing this important social role is reassuringly high.

What I perceive as the paradigm shift I refer to above is that more and more CSOs find their support not among citizens at large but from governments and businesses. Modern democratic states and corporations have come to understand the role of the CSO as indispensable for the normal functioning of society. The instruments and categories of the 20th century still exist, but the relationship between them is changing radically.

Heinrich’s third observation goes to the core of this change: civil societies thrive in democratic societies where law rules. The deficits of democracy will be addressed by these new relationships and networks between government, business, CSOs and the media. New policies, new approaches, new standards will be needed. And this transformation will benefit enormously from serious, global and thoughtful research such as that offered by the CIVICUS Civil Society Index.

Rayna Gavrilova is Executive Director of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe. Email

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

US and European philanthropy must collaborate

Barry Gaberman