Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the nonprofit sector by Lester Salamon et al

Characteristically ambitious, the report on the Johns Hopkins Institute international comparative non-profit sector research is entitled Global Civil Society. Does the book live up to this promise? Does it define civil society on a global scale?

The research is the first systematically comparative and methodologically rigorous map of the economic dimensions of the non-profit sector in 22 countries, from six different regions. The extensive material is condensed into a large but manageable and attractive volume, easy to navigate and read. A concise overview chapter is followed by individual country chapters — each similarly organized with clear graphics. Key comparative results are compiled into a set of summary tables in an appendix.

The regional groupings are slightly quirky: most countries are described by region, but Japan is presented as an ‘other developed country’ and not as the Far East. Is this an example of the US imperialist perspective that the key defining characteristic is the scale of the economy? The presentation of the results continually implies that bigger is better: the non-profit sector is ‘a US$1.1 trillion industry’, ‘the world’s eighth largest economy’, with ‘more employees than the largest private business in each country’.

The research conveys an ambiguous desire to project these images of size and power alongside depictions of the sector as ‘a highly fragile organism, the lost continent on the social landscape of modern society’. This tension arises largely from treating the aggregate findings on 22 countries as a definition of global civil society. In fact the non-profit sector emerges as extremely varied — leading the researchers to construct an invaluable typology consisting of five distinct patterns of non-profit structure.

Overall, not surprisingly perhaps, the research shows that powerful economies have powerful non-profit sectors, while developing economies have developing sectors. Non-economic indicators are given less weight. While it is noted that ‘in many ways the new legal frameworks emerging in [Central and Eastern Europe] appear to be superior to those in the West’, and that ‘the [Czech] sector constitutes a growing economic force and is a significant contributor to political as well as social life’,  it is none the less concluded that the sector in this region ‘remains a pale reflection of its counterparts elsewhere in the world’.

This project has been a tour de force of practical and theoretical international coordination. A major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the sector worldwide, this is a rich resource for future researchers and should be on the reading list of everyone involved in the non-profit sector.

Cathy Pharoah is Head of Research at CAF. She can be contacted via email at

Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the nonprofit sector by Lester Salamon et al  $34.95  Center for Civil Society Studies Publications
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