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NGOs and Civil Society: Realities and Distortions


NGOs and Civil Society: Some Realities and Distortions

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As with the concept of 'culture' itself (Kroeber and Kluckhohn, 1952), it is a basic mistake to assume that the concept of 'civil society' is understood in the same way, whether between cultures or within any culture. Robin Guthrie (1994) clarifies the distinction from Anglo-Saxon and French perspectives. Its value may even derive in part from the ambiguity associated with the term as admirably explored by Keith Tester (1992) and Paul Ghils (1992).

A wide variety of modes of association into groups is a reality for some. But social and individual development is not necessarily believed to require the existence of many of them, especially the less common. The nature of the development of individuals and groups to some form of maturity through a variety of social contexts has not yet been effectively defined. And for many, the degree of individual suffering in the world renders quite absurd any discussion of development within society that does not concentrate on basic human needs. For some cultures and perspectives, however, it is the failure to cultivate the possibility of association in its many forms which reinforces the ills engendered in the world.

The purpose of this paper is to explore ways of moving beyond the limitations of the many particular ways of discussing 'civil society'. It endeavours to identity broader issues of relevance to public policy formulation in response to the challenge of 'civil society' to governance as indicated by Yehezkel Dror (1995).

One of the difficulties is that 'civil society' itself is discussed through a variety of terms whose partial equivalence has not been effectively explored. These include: nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), voluntary associations, nonprofit sector, not-for-profit sector, charitable organizations, benevolent societies and third sector. Depending on who uses these terms, they may, or may not, include bodies such as labour unions, trade associations, professional societies, or legally unrecognized (and even illegal) bodies such as cartels and crime rings. In many cases it is not what a particular approach includes that is as significant as what is effectively excluded and why (Judge, 1994), as shown in Table 1.

Many modern protagonists fail to recognize that the debate about the nature of 'nongovernmental organizations' (NGOs) has been in progress since the beginning of the century. Many of the points concerning the relationship between governmental and nongovernmental organizations have been made many times over -- some of them over a period of decades.

There is therefore merit in reflecting on the collective ability to process these questions in new and fruitful ways. There is a sense in which it is in the interests of many to avoid clarity and conclusion and simply to perpetuate the discussion. And there is the continuing interest of others to arrive at simplistic solutions if possible. The debate is complicated by a degree of unwillingness to recognize some weaknesses in the present arrangements.

Times have changed in that the credibility of all international institutions and programmes is questioned to a greater degree, notably in the case of the United Nations. There is increasing scope for organizations to act independently, especially when any form of collaboration with other bodies, and especially the United Nations, is fraught with unproductive dynamics that constitute an unreasonable drain on resources.

The purpose here is to attempt briefly to indicate the range of contexts within which the debate on 'nongovernmental organizations' takes place and which give it different emphases and flavours. It is too readily assumed that the truths emerging from one such context are applicable or relevant to others. 'Nongovernmental organization' continues to escape simplistic definitions.

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