'Civil society' and 'NGOs' can't eclipse government


The concept, older than de Tocqueville, is freshly nourished and deeply important -- but sharply limited.

September 12, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America from France in the 1830s -- see his "Democracy in America" (HarperCollins, 792 pages, $20) -- he identified voluntary associations as the particular genius of this country. They seemed everywhere, in social life, the arts and in political life, focusing public opinion, providing services and moderating the often harsh conclusions of the political and economic systems.

In this century, as wars and the economy have become global, a phenomenon has arisen called "civil society," which projects de Tocqueville's voluntary associations onto a planetary screen. Today, the role of such organizations in national and international life has become the focus of an intense debate that is reflected in a raft of books and is argued in key national journals. Do these nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have a major role in affairs previously thought the exclusive role of governments? Are these organizations a legitimate replacement for governments?

Last May 11, 8,000 men and women from around the world met at the traditional capital of internationalism, The Hague, to define the role of NGOs in fostering world peace. The corridors swarmed with people, many in their national dress, discussing in a hundred languages how their organizations could network, sway public opinion and influence governments.

The consensus at The Hague was that governments are not enough to deal with the world's problems, whether those be ethnic conflicts, gross violations of human rights, traffic in nuclear and conventional arms, land mines, or economic inequality. Civil society, that is, groups of citizens placed between governments and the economy, were needed to work out conflicts below the governmental level, provide services and come up with ideas. Where such groups a hundred years ago, when the first Hague peace conference had been held, were separated by national frontiers, now they were united by e-mail and the Internet.

As detailed in "State of the World, 1999" (W.W. Norton & Company, 259 pages, $13.95), civil society has been highly influential in achieving international conventions on the environment, on land mines, on international criminal jurisdiction, on the arms trade and on the settlement of ethnic disputes. It has insisted, with partial success, that women's voices be heard in local, national and international decision-making. It has delivered food and medicine to victimized groups, provided information through the Internet to citizens of countries stifled by politically controlled presses and fostered the creation of small businesses and marketing groups threatened by international conglomerates. NGOs have also had an important role as think tanks and test sites for social reform, providing solutions to governments hampered by unimaginative, bureaucratic thought.

Basking in these legitimate successes, some advocates of civil society see it not as a supplement to governments but as their replacement -- not only at the international level but at the national level as well. They argue that, with the globalization of the economy, governments will soon be passe, and that civil society alone can make up its anticipated shortcomings.

In his "Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea" (New York University Press, 285 pages, $18.50), John Ehrenberg, a philosopher of civil society, skillfully traces its long history, starting with the Greeks. When he comes to the present, the prospect in this country is indeed challenging.

He writes, "Three decades of deindustrialization and political reaction have come together in relentless attacks on the welfare state, static or declining standards of living for tens of millions of families, heightened levels of stress at work and home, unprecedented levels of cynicism about political institutions, and widespread contempt for public figures."

Is civil society adequate to handle this challenge?

First of all, Ehrenberg and others argue cogently that NGOs or voluntary associations are not necessarily benign. At The Hague or at the United Nations, a system of self-selection and cooperation makes them generally a potent and benevolent force, but other nongovernmental organizations have been highly destructive, oppressing ethnic groups from the Balkans to Chiapas, fostering the international arms trade or serving as mercenary groups on behalf of disreputable governments or dictators.

In the United States, "civil society" includes not only the Red Cross and Amnesty International, but also the Klu Klux Klan and the NRA. It is important, then, to decide if we are using "civil society" as a descriptive term referring to nongovernmental organizations of any type, or as a normative one, for organizations we may approve.

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