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From Conference on Hunger and Poverty (IFAD)(1995)

IV. The Search for a New Paradigm -- Civil Society: Development from the Roots Up

24. In contrast to the mainstream paradigms of development, and partly as a result of an increasing disillusionment with the actual record of governments and of the international community, a large number of community-based and non-governmental initiatives have tried to fill the gap. They have demonstrated that their efforts, based on participation by the poor in their own development, can make a real difference to the lives of the poor. Even though such efforts are widely dispersed and often small, collectively they have assumed the character of a civil society movement for an "alternative development".

25. Currently, civil-society organizations exist in all continents of the world: peasant associations, neighbourhood committees, people's movements, alternative trade organizations, community initiatives, age groups, cultural associations, urban action committees, trade unions, support NGOs, producer cooperatives, foundations, women's associations, consumers' organizations, trade unions, chambers of commerce, and savings and loan associations, filling the ranks of what is often referred to as the "associative" or "third" sector (as distinct from the "first" or public and the "second" or private-corporate sector). Their numbers are estimated to be in the millions, with new ones added daily. Their origins are as diverse as their types: some have come into being as the result of the activities of governments, NGOs, or foreign aid projects; others result from imitating neighbouring villagers' actions; some came about through internal learning processes, e.g., in response to hostile environments or painful shocks (such as the occurrence of famine); others are traditional organizations, which may have existed for hundreds of years, now adapting to new challenges. They are composed of farmers, women, recent emigres, people from the same ethnic group, neighbours, informal sector workers, youngsters, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, or simply any individuals who wish to pool resources to work together. These organizations of civil society are active in all sectors of life, including the fight against erosion, income- generating activities, diversification, the supply of credit and other inputs, primary health care, literacy and education, etc. Their size ranges from a handful of villagers to federative structures bringing together tens of thousands of persons. Their resources include the time and energy of their members, the labour of volunteers, the financial contributions of villagers, the small savings of women, the materials of artisans, the contributions of engaged outsiders, and foreign aid. Together, they constitute the dense fabric of civil society.

26. Civil society - defined as "those associations beyond the reach of the state and corporate economy which have the capacity for becoming autonomous centres for action" 13/ - comprises the vast and diverse range of actors discussed above. It also encompasses a wide variety of views about the role of civil society in the development process, ranging from those who would like to operate totally independent of the state, to those who see a comparative advantage in intermediating between the state agencies and the underprivileged sections of the society, to those who play mainly an advocacy role for specific causes. Civil society is partly characterized by its diversity: diversity in structures, mandates, visions, ideologies, mode of operation.

27. Usually a broad distinction is made between two types of civil-society organizations. One type is to be seen in membership groups composed of poor people who seek to advance their own interests and aspirations. These have been called "people's organizations (POs)", "self-help organizations (SHOs)", or "grassroots organizations (GROs)". This category includes the often-overlooked "traditional organizations" such as age groups, pastoralist societies, village councils, etc. The second type is composed of organizations that provide services, advice, and support to the former, with the aim of creating and strengthening them. They have been labelled "intermediary organizations", "self-help support organizations (SHPOs)", "grassroots support organizations (GRSOs)" or simply "non-governmental organizations (NGOs)".

28. Although these organizations have existed for decades, if not longer, it is only recently that they have begun moving to the centre of attention, largely because of the changes in the development models outlined above. The financial crisis that hit most Third World countries, and the retreat of the state that followed it, opened up space available to civil society. In most countries, new organizations emerged from this new-found margin for manoeuvre; existing ones (whether "traditional" or "modern") found a more positive attitude in previously uninterested governments. Structural adjustment, with its emphasis on the private sector, self-help, and the disengagement of the state strengthened the process. At the same time, the international community turned heavily in favour of civil-society organizations. Evaluation after evaluation had shown that the projects financed and managed by foreign aid agencies tended to be expensive and unsustainable, and that the prime cause for this was failure to involve local communities and to ensure their participation 14/. As a result, international funding for civil-society organizations -- in particular NGOs -- increased greatly, in turn triggering an increase in their numbers.

29. But concern about hunger is not, nor should it be, limited to the organizations of the poor and hungry themselves. Civil society at large, including public opinion, as well as thousands of organizations in the North, is also concerned with the elimination of hunger and poverty. The growth in spontaneous social movements within civil society in the North and in the South is a clear manifestation of the growing public awareness that the fate of rich and poor countries, of rich and poor people, is inextricably linked -- whether through the effects of war, instability, emigration, or the prospects for advancement of world trade. Similarly, governments, elites, and the emerging middle class in many countries of the developing world are increasingly aware of the high cost of hunger and poverty, in terms of economic and human potential lost and of threats to domestic stability and peace. There are, however, two important misconceptions that are prevalent in much of civil society. First, many people, both in the North and in the South, are unaware of the fact that concrete solutions to the scourges of hunger and poverty do exist, that progress is being made, and that governments and civil-society organizations are creating innovative solutions. Second, a large part of public opinion, particularly in the North, heavily overestimates the share of national income that is currently devoted to foreign assistance programmes to developing countries 15/. Both these misconceptions often lead to defeatism and passivity 16/.


13/ John Friedmann, Empowerment, the Politics of Alternative Development. London, Blackwell, 1994.

14/ Cernea, M. Nongovernmental Organization and Local Development. Washington D.C.: World Bank, Discussion Paper 40, 1988.

15/ A recent survey by UNICEF and the Rockefeller Foundation, for example, revealed that public opinion in the United States believes that as much as 16% of US GNP is allocated to foreign aid!

16/ Sen, A. The Political Economy of Hunger: On Reasoning and Participation. Paper presented at the World Bank Conference on Overcoming Global Hunger, Washington DC., Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 1993.

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