Strengthening Civil Society Organizations in Good Governance Processes - Brief Description


A critical focus of development projects in countries transitioning to democracy has become the strengthening of civil society.  Civil society organizations are viewed as both an important check on, and complement to, the exercise of government power.  Depending on the political and social realities of the country civil society organizations (CSOs) may play myriad roles, including watchdog, advocate, agitator, educator, and social service provider.  Given the range of CSO activities, it is not surprising that the overall civil society sector does not have a uniform relationship with state bodies.  The interests advanced by individual CSOs may correspond or clash with those of the State, depending on the individual organization’s agenda.

Just as civil society is comprised of a diverse and varied range of entities, there is also no universally accepted definition of the term “civil society.”  Conceptualization of civil society differ based on perspective.    For purposes of the capacity building exercise discussed in this Method, a Civil Society Organization is defined as a group or entity that is neither in the state nor private sector but is engaged in a public activity aimed at advancing the interest or values of its members or society at large.

Applying this definition to the reality in which development organizations operate can be difficult. In reality a variety of organizations that exist on paper are inactive and provide little benefit to their members or society at large.  The reasons for their inactivity may include the poor organizational structures, misunderstanding of the proper role of a non-governmental organization, inadequate funding and an inhospitable political climate.  In the early stages of a capacity building exercise aimed at strengthening local civil society groups, it is important to avoid value judgments about their effectiveness and activity level.  Dormant or inactive entities may, in fact, reveal a great deal about the training needs of local CSOs.  

Providing an effective capacity building training necessarily begins with a thorough and reliable identification of the potentials, weaknesses and needs of local civil society entities.  Following the initial identification of all CSOs in the project area, a comprehensive needs assessment will identify both organizations which would benefit from capacity building training and appropriate training topics.  Trained professional facilitators will then be able to provide targeted training to CSO representatives which will meet their specific needs and empower CSOs to engage civil society more fully in community affairs.

The method proposes a process that strengthens the role of civil society in good governance processes. Compared to many other civil society programs, it takes a wide view of civil society, working with more than just formally registered NGOs. It focuses on certain functions that civil society groups can perform in a good governance system rather than their legal forms.