CIVICUS civil society index – Strengthening civil society’s infrastructure

Finn Heinrich

Over the last decade, donors have been increasingly recognizing the need for programmes to strengthen civil society. What has been missing, however, is a tool to gauge the current situation and specific needs of civil society in a particular country. This is where the CIVICUS Civil Society Index can be of help.

Since the early 1990s, civil society has become one of the major policy and development buzzwords, particularly among the international donor community. Whereas the first years of civil society support were marked by a slightly exaggerated expectation of the role civil society might play in social and political change, funders are now more realistic in their expectations of donor-supported civil society development.

At the same time, donors are increasingly recognizing that, in order to strengthen civil society, one has to ‘go beyond’ formal NGOs. However, one major difficulty in applying a broader civil society support strategy is identifying and then reaching those places within a particular country where what Alan Fowler coined the indigenous ‘civic energy’ is located. In addition, it is being recognized that successful civil society support programmes have to place local civil society in the driver’s seat and respond to the priorities identified locally rather than setting them externally. As a recent NORAD position paper states, ‘the support should try to capture and strengthen the streams of interventions that are rooted in civil society itself’.[1] In general, there is a growing recognition of the need for concerted and systematic civil society strengthening efforts that are based on an understanding of civil society in each country.

How the CIVICUS Civil Society Index can help donors

While donors were reviewing their approach to civil society support in the late 1990s, CIVICUS was developing and pilot-testing a tool to assess and build the capacity of civil society. The CIVICUS Civil Society Index (CSI) enables civil society organizations (CSOs) all over the world to assess the state of civil society in their country, with a view to identifying its strengths and weaknesses and setting priorities for action. The CSI is run by national-level CSOs. A national workshop bringing together various civil society actors and a broad range of stakeholders, including governments, media, donors, academics and the public at large, is a key event in this initiative. The findings are disseminated widely. At present, the project is being implemented in more than 60 countries globally.

Such a locally driven assessment of the state of civil society has a lot to offer the donor community. It can increase their understanding of the civil society arena and provide information about how civil society contributes to broader social change. It also presents donors with a locally developed civil society action agenda, owned by civil society actors that are able and willing to carry out specific interventions.

More specifically, the CIVICUS CSI will deliver:

· a comprehensive yet accessible country-specific report on the state of civil society, detailing its strengths and weaknesses in four key dimensions – structure, external environment, values and impact of civil society;

· key priority areas for civil society intervention, as agreed by a broad range of civil society stakeholders;

· a meeting ground for these stakeholders to come together, share their views and discuss crucial issues and developments.

At an international level, the CSI has been designed to provide cross-country comparisons of the state of civil society through the application of a common analytical tool while maintaining enough flexibility to account for country-specific conditions and forms of civil society.  The application of the tool in more than 60 countries over a period of three years will generate a comprehensive knowledge base about the current state of civil society and help identify successful initiatives and practices among participating countries. Through joint capacity-building and reflection events, the CSI is also creating an international network of civil society practitioners and researchers with experience in action-research, with the aim of strengthening civil society.

CIVICUS and its national partners are currently seeking support from donors for  applying the tool at country level.

For further information on the CSI, please contact Project Manager, Finn Heinrich, at or visit

1 Norad (2002) Direct Support to Civil Society (Position Paper) p4. See

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