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 associations.

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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