PCDForum Column #31,  Release Date May 1, 1992

by Rajesh Tandon

The recent emergence of powerful democratizing forces in Eastern Europe,
Africa, Latin America, and Asia presses us to acknowledge that the greatest
threat to the democratic function of society is the continuous effort of the
modern state to dominate the institutions of civil society. The time has come to
establish the clear supremacy of civil society and to assure the accountability
of both state and business sectors to the sovereign people.

The increasingly commonplace references to the organizations, voluntary
associations and networks of civil society as a third sector represents a
welcome recognition of the roles of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
However, this formulation also implicitly affirms the primacy of the state (the
"first" sector) and even business (the "second" sector) over
civil society distorting reality and denying fundamental democratic values. To
the contrary, the historical role of civil society and the democratic principle
of people’s sovereignty both point to the essential primacy of civil society as
the only legitimate first sector.

Long before the institutions of the modern state and the corporate economy
became dominant most matters of governance, production, environmental resource
management, culture, values, health and education came under the jurisdiction of
the institutions of civil society family, clan, community, and neighborhood

Following the second world war many newly independent countries of the South
embraced a concept of the state alien to this social, cultural and political
milieu. As the state consolidated its power, it began to take over more and more
of the economic, political, cultural and social functions of civil society. Not
only did it regulate markets, fix prices, provide employment, set wages, and
regulate the money supply, it also moved to control art, music, culture,
education and health care.

In so doing it began actively to dismantle historically rooted associations,
neighborhood and voluntary organizations and citizen initiatives. Labelled as "obstacles"
to progress, or "enemies" of the state they were slowly replaced by
various state agencies, including state sponsored and dominated NGOs. Of
particular importance, the state stripped civil society of its material base,
making all land, forest and water resources state property and in many cases
facilitating their transfer to a few private hands. The associational life of
the people continued to survive and thrive only in distant rural communities
(mainly tribal areas and remote mountain regions) where the power of the state
was note able to dominate.

The needs of state administration homogenized education, health services,
economic models, dress, language, and music leading to a steady decline of
social diversity and pluralism. With the instruments of education and
communication (such as TV/radio) under its control the state established a form
of moral and ideological hegemony that constricted citizenship and the
participation of people in governing their own lives and communities. The
national interest came to be equated with the interests of the state and its
ruling forces even though most states represent a confluence of political and
economic interests that rarely includes the poor and marginalized.

The role of the active citizen, who in traditional society had engaged in
government and community life and in the production of culture, economy and
society, was reduced to that of a "client" of the state bureaucracy, a
mere passive "consumer" of the culture, products and policies produced
by the state in the name of development. The civic and political roles of
citizenship were lost.

The concept of "public" must be redefined to recognize that
everything involving the public interest, including social services, need not be
monopolized by the state. Civil society is itself a public formation. The
appropriate role of the state is to create enabling conditions for civil society
to "manage" the public affairs of the community. Consequently, our
concern must be to increase the accountability of NGOs to civil society, not to
the state.

Recognition that NGOs are public institutions of civil society explodes the
myth of the moral superiority of the state over NGOs and highlights their
appropriate political and ideological roles in strengthening the material,
institutional and ideological bases of civil society. In such roles they expand
and systematize popular knowledge, enhance social control over education and
science, promote philosophical and normative debate around public issues, and
facilitate the social distribution of power and the accountability of the state
to civil society. This presents a tall order for development NGOs and an
inescapable challenge.

Rajesh Tandon is coordinator, Society for Participatory Research in Asia
(PRIA), 42, Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi 110 062, India, and a
contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was
prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his paper "Civil Society,
The State and Roles of NGOs."

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