It has become necessary to talk about the work of civil society organizations in our communities and their engagement by the government in the delivering of good governance or the so called dividends of democracy. This discussion has become vital in the face of development demands across the globe.
Government and people across the world are re-discovering, and attaching more importance to civil society. This realm includes NGOs, but extends well beyond them to encompass people’s organizations, trade unions, and human rights bodies, associations of business and professional people’s organizations and so forth. All may be found in the domain termed civil space, and thus are called Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).
Civil Society is the collective noun, while “civic group” are the individual organizations that constitute the sector. The myriad of civic organizations in civil society include, but are not limited to non-governmental organizations (NG0s),people’s and professional organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, consumer and human rights groups, women associations, youth clubs, independent radio, television, print and electronic media, neighborhood or community-based coalitions, religious groups, academic and research institutions, grassroots movements and organizations of indigenous peoples. Where there is no civil society, there can be no political society.
Civil Society is that realm between the household and the state, populated by voluntary groups and associations, sharing common interests and largely autonomous from the state. Within the core of the concept are intermediate institutions and private groups that thrive between the realm of the state and household such as voluntary associations, charities, religious associations, social clubs, professional groups and trade unions. NGOs and the media also fall within the list.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) however differ from this pack by being private, voluntary, non-profit organizations or social enterprises that operate primarily to enhance the social and economic well being of a community. In making this distinction, I make bold to emphasize that not every organization in civil society necessarily plays a positive role, or reflects genuine associational life that is relevant to sustainable development.
Some CSOs lack positive purposes or authenticity, or both. Moreover, civil society is not necessarily a place of harmony. Competition and destructive conflict can take place in this realm. But by the same token, civil society can serve as a place to vent grievances, open channels of communication and thus to build a basis for social harmony.
Poverty reduction outcomes can be broader, deeper, and more sustainable where appropriate stakeholder groups in civil society help design, steer, and otherwise participate in them. Those actors can reinforce public sector institutions, while not substituting for them. CSOs therefore have instrumental value with respect to the development targets, although they should not be viewed as mere instruments or contractors.
Organizations representing key constituencies in public life, including independent and credible organizations that monitor, analyze and report trends in public life, possess increasing capacities to stimulate open processes of public and private sector policy-making. The adoption of open and responsive, honest and competent governance by the government; such approaches can and should promote and involve active and responsible citizens, and other key civil society actors.
CSOs can (for example)contribute to good governance by focusing of their attention on issues that can inform and alert citizens, thus improving the quality of popular participation in the framing of public policies and managing of public resources, programs and institutions ; their active presence can help channel and amplify claims in defense of the rule of law and protection of human rights, thus reinforcing public support to an enabling legal framework ; their monitoring and reporting of policy issues and performance of public institutions can help improve transparency and accountability; their raising of awareness and understanding can promote checks and balances and practices of the public and private sectors, thereby building-up public confidence in intentions and competences, and curb tendencies towards corrupt, mal-administration etc; an independent media (radio, television, written and electronic press)can promote public understanding of key issues, build the stock of human capital and contribute to citizen participation in governance.
Civil Organizations can often help fight material poverty and exclusion, often in alliance with the public and private sectors. Those CSOs possessing either specific sectoral knowledge and skills, or broad public legitimacy or responsive bodies can improve outcomes for well being and equity by providing access to local information and know-how for problem solving and opinions that improve project design; empowering poorer, more remote or otherwise excluded people to claim and negotiate access to public resources; enabling people to participate in market economies with greater powers as producers and consumers; promoting private sector development at the local level (for example, through the delivery of micro-finance services and support to micro-entrepreneurs and informal sector workers);developing and domesticating innovations that can be scaled up by others; delivering appropriate services to local communities or specific social categories that regular public service bodies are unable to reach; empowering poor women and men to articulate their views, priorities and strategize to overcome their marginalization and poverty; serving to distill best practices and documenting lessons learned from local, national and regional experiences.
CSOs can help people become active agents of their own development rather than passive recipients. They can serve as interlocutors helping to build a shared sense of ownership and commitments to the development process and of responsibility for seeing them realized and sustained. They can help improve communication and collaboration across public/private boundaries, and across social, economic and political frontiers within regions and beyond.
Sadly it remains to be seen how open and generous the Nigerian government could be in engaging the civil society. It is glaring that pretences of the highest order in this regard already exist at the federal level. The situation at both the state and local levels is nothing to write home about. A reason for this is the inertia of government to be transparent because of the parochial interest of its officials. Also responsible for this is the failure of the government to admit that relevant or even superior skills exist in civil societies more than what is often found within the public or civil service. Government should also be made to admit that democracy is all about popular participation of diverse groups and should NOT be limited to only political party members. The consequence of such recalcitrance is unmitigated corruption and poor performance by the political office holders and their lackeys. It is germane to call on the national assembly as well as other legislative houses to come up with relevant laws that will broadly define the modus operandi for the engagement of other well informed well trained and highly skilled groups like the civil societies especially the NGOs. Till governance is made a multi-stakeholder process which recognizes and incorporates the inputs and roles of the civil society; the much trumpeted eldorado may remain utopian.