A new role for civil society organizations

HONOLULU (March 13) -- The task of governing, particularly in developing nations of Asia and elsewhere, is too important – and perhaps too complex – to be left to government alone.

Thus, according to a policy brief developed jointly by the United Nations University and the East-West Center through a recent conference held in Honolulu, it is critical to recognize and encourage the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the promotion of good governance in emerging nations.

But Sept. 11 and its aftermath, including the global war on terrorism, has restrained or even disabled many civil society organizations. This "narrowing of the public space" for movement by these vital organizations is an ongoing problem that must be addressed, the policy brief concludes.

One way to protect and preserve the crucial role of CSOs in the development of good governance might be through the creation of a permanent forum for such organizations -- a "People's Assembly" similar to – and parallel with – the United Nations General Assembly itself, the brief argues.

The goal of equitable, sustainable and open societies in which all citizens share equally in both benefits and burdens is absolute, the policy brief asserts. Civil society organizations, if allowed to flourish and participate, can play a crucial role in helping governments reach this goal.

Just what are civil society organizations? They range from well-known international groups such as Human Rights Watch or Oxfam through less well-recognized, but equally important, groups such as those working with slum dwellers in India or the Bar Association of Pakistan, whose membership of attorneys played a key role in challenging the authority of former President Musharraf.

A key point in the policy brief is that civil society groups have changed in their role – from a monitor and sometimes corrector of state actions to an active participant in governance. But these groups face a variety of problems as they step up their efforts to be full participants in governance, the brief notes.

For example:

--In highly industrialized Japan and South Korea, a "severe regulatory environment" tends to tamp down the efforts of civil society and non-governmental organizations.

  -- In other areas, such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan and Indonesia, civil organizations are visible and active, but highly dependent on outside sources of funding. That means the program priorities of international donors sometimes trump the needs and aspirations of local beneficiaries.

One promising role for civil society organizations, the policy brief suggests, is in bridging the gap between local governance structures and global institutions. These organizations can cross borders and connect the local with the international. In return, they can help ensure that the benefits of globalization get down to the local level, the report argues.

Unfortunately, say the lead authors of the brief, Shabbir Cheema and Vesselin Popovski, efficient governance that leads to economic growth does not necessarily translate into economic equality or the spread of democracy. In fact, far too often, the opposite occurs. And that is a fruitful place for civil society organizations to expand their influence.

"Gross inequality resulting from economic expansion is contributing to the failure of the 'business of democracy,'" Cheema and Popovski argue. And that's where the role of CSOs is crucial.

 "CSOs are traditionally concerned with power relations between the state and its citizens. More than ever, they should be responding to informal sources of power than may impact poverty reduction equally," the report says.

In the end, the report says, civil societies may find themselves adopting a "space" in the scheme of things that works between and with global actors and local governments to create opportunities for the poor to empower themselves.

The policy brief on the work of civil society organizations was based on research conducted for Civil Society Engagement in National and Global Governance Project sponsored by the East West Center in Honolulu, the United Nations University, Harvard University and Soka University. The Project Director is East-West Center Senior Fellow Shabbir Cheema.


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center