Civil Society and Development: The Missing Link
by Hadi Soesastro

Societies in East Asia are in a process of democratisation. They are at different stages in the process. Some have been able to establish a vibrant democratic society (Philippines and South Korea), others are at varying degrees of infancy (Thailand, Indonesia since 1998), and some others are still trying to find the best way of opening up their political systems (China, Vietnam). Some East Asian countries believe that they have established an Asian-style democratic society (Singapore, Japan). In other societies formal structures of democracy exist but the conditions for the full realisation of democracy are weak or weakening (India, Malaysia).

The process of democratic consolidation and the nature of democracy that exists in a society are perhaps reflected in the strength of its civil society. Civil society is, together with state and market, one of the three 唼pheres?that interface in the making of democratic society (UNDP 1993). In the words of Barber (1998), civil society is 偤n independent domain of free social life where neither governments nor private markets are sovereign.?Civil society has also been called the private non-profit sector or the voluntary sector. The important, perhaps critical, role of this 啍hird sector?in the democratisation process has been advanced by Walzer (1997) in unambiguous terms: 匭nly a democratic state can create a democratic civil society; only a democratic civil society can sustain a democratic state.?Wolfe (1991) believes that 偆oth democratic government and a free economy depend on virtues and values generated neither by the state nor by the market, but by civil society.?/font>

Civil society can influence resource allocation (Soesastro 1997). More importantly, civil society in East Asia today has acquired significance in the context of both democratic consolidation and improving governance. The latter results from a widespread agreement that the lack of good governance has been one of the main causes of the financial crisis in the region. The crisis has demonstrated also that good governance cannot be separated from political development, namely democratisation (Soesastro 1998). The process of democratisation in Indonesia has accelerated as a result of the crisis. This process has been sustained by the rise of civil society that has become greatly aware of the importance of good governance. Thus, civil society becomes a package deal about governance mechanisms, values and economic forms.

The crisis has helped East Asians discover the role of civil society in development. Thus far, it has been the 勖issing link?in the social, political and economic 唼pace?that has been occupied predominantly by the state and the market. The notion of civil society as the third sphere suggests its emancipatory nature. The expansion of civil society is seen as the expansion of the space for moral, power-disinterested action (Diamond 1991). It is the space of 啐ncoerced human association?(Walzer 1992). Is it, therefore, possible for civil society to help develop harmonious relations between civil society and the state, producing a more 偀ivilised society? Or are they bound to be in confrontation, or competition, with each other? Does the notion of civil society imply a relationship that works to limit the state掇 capacity to pervade and control society? Should civil society provide a check on the excesses of the state (and the market)? Should it reign in the state, or should it oppose the state? These are definitely the most salient questions for the East Asian region today.

Why civil society and how?

Andrew Norton (1997) proposes that the interest in civil society is in part a result of the convergence of two intellectual trends. The first is free market liberalism that seeks alternative ways to provide services, including by civil society through non-governmental organisations, because 啍he government is ineffective in much of what it does.?The second is a communitarianism that seeks to provide an alternative to state-based communities through civil society, by 厜roviding belonging and attachment without coercion.?The revival of civil society in America reflects a widespread sense that changes in the society have outpaced the capacity of older forms of civic and associational life to help individuals and communities cope (Dionne 1998). Here, the interest in civil society also reflects a reaction against government (on the part of libertarians) and a desire to rebuild responsive and energetic government (on the part of social democrats).

In many societies today internal and external changes have led to a revisiting of the ideas of the relationship between state and society. The North-South Institute of Canada has identified five reasons for the renewed interest in civil society. First, the dismantling鷬r the perception of it鷬f the welfare state in the industrialised countries has led to the expectation that the private non-profit sector will provide the services. Second, concerns about the decline of social capital, resulting from individualism in developed societies or caused by prolonged state domination in developing societies, have led to the desire to return to community spirit, volunteerism and association forming. Third, the triumph of capitalism and the spread of the free market system, necessitates a civil society that can assure greater equity. Fourth, the globalisation of democracy leads to the need to foster a 偑ood governance?basket of attributes: formally democratic and administratively efficient practices, in addition to the counter-balancing efforts of civil society. Fifth, the collapse of sovereignty leads to the rise in global civil society. In addition to these, perceptions of aid-donor countries or agencies that aid has failed have led to the promotion of civil society in the recipient societies by the donors. Civil society is seen as both an improved channel for aid and an important prerequisite for the termination of aid.

The above suggests that much is being expected of civil society. It serves to promote democratisation; in fact, it is seen as a prerequisite for democracy. Diamond (1991) identifies six functions of civil society in shaping democracy:
(a) to act as a reservoir of resources to check the power of the state;
(b) to ensure that the state is not held captive by a few groups;
(c) to supplement the work of political parties in stimulating political participation:
(d) to stabilise the state because citizens will have a deeper stake in social order;
(e) to act as a locus for recruiting new political leadership; and
(f) to resist authoritarianism.

In addition, it is expected to provide services to the poor and underprivileged members of the society. In fact, it is also expected to provide the social safety net in society. It should help assure sustainability by engaging in capacity building and human resources development. Furthermore, it is expected to facilitate economic liberalisation. And finally, it is to be a vehicle for participation in the polity.

It is, thus, legitimate to be concerned that civil society too will be overburdened and overloaded. Therefore, it is important to view civil society in the context of developmental challenges in the individual societies.

It is likely that the prevailing situation and environment in a society will influence the agenda and activities of organisations and movements as well as networks of organisations that constitute civil society. Both civil society organisations and agencies or foundations supporting the development of civil society have been preoccupied with two issues. First is the importance of the enabling environment for civil society to develop. This must rest on a belief in civil liberties. As Blaney and Pasha (1993) have argued, there must be 偤 system of rights, constituting human beings as individuals, both as citizens in relation to the state and as legal persons in the economy and the sphere of free association.?First and foremost, civil society must work to put and maintain such a system in place.

The second issue is on the need to strengthen the management, funding and human resources of civil society organisations so that they are able to function effectively. Much attention has been given to the strengthening of non-government organisations (NGOs), but civil society includes organisations that are not NGOs in the sense commonly used. Peasants that organise themselves to defend their land rights or to demand a fair compensation for the land used for development projects are often overlooked.

Two other issues deserve equally serious attention. The first is the need for civil society structures that can absorb and mediate conflict. Civil society is not necessarily a harmonious sphere in which there are no conflicts. Anthony Giddens (1999) proposes that 啍he state should also protect individuals from the conflicts of interest always present in civil society.?This opens up an important question about the role of government in promoting civil society. Will the hand of the government necessarily produce state-led civil society?

The second is on the importance of international cooperation among civil society organisations to pool their resources in shaping international (and regional) public policies, which in turn could influence national public policies. Networks of non-government organisations are playing an important role in the Asia Pacific region in shaping policies to promote regional cooperation and confidence building. They have been dubbed as the Second Track, because of their interaction with intergovernmental fora (First Track). Examples are Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) ISIS (Institutes of Strategic and International Studies) that interacts with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) and the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (SOM); and PECC (Pacific Economic Cooperation Council) that interacts with APEC, and CSCAP (the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific) that interacts with the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum). All these regional non-government institutions have been initiated by civil society organisations, including academic institutions.

The weakening of sovereignty has given rise to global civil society. In place of governments, civil society organisations are seen to be more representative of the populace. Civil society organisations may also assume the role of international watchdog over the actions of states on the international level. In many instances they also take up issues that are traditionally seen as a domestic issue (e.g. the policies of the military regime in Myanmar, or the problem of East Timor). In the Asia Pacific, this has given rise to a growing network of second track institutions.

However, there is a tendency on the part of governments in the region to create their own state-led civil society at the regional level. Woo (1998) suggested that the involvement of non-governmental actors in Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) fora has come about mainly as a result of collective state action. He argues that APEC collectively has not been receptive to the voices of the non-state sector except through associations or groups that it has officially sanctioned. It remains to be seen whether APEC will continue to promote a state-led civil society at the regional level when the development of civil society has gained greater momentum at the national level in many countries in the Asia Pacific.

Civil society and development in East Asia

The following is a survey of the issues of civil society and development in several East Asian countries.

According to Wang (1999), there is a lot of rethinking in China today about the relationship between state and society. This has been triggered by the collapse of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as well as by the rapid internal developments within China that take place in all fields. In addition, the attention inside China on civil society has also been influenced by the intensive discussion on the subject internationally as well as the rise of NGOs globally.

The debate on civil society in China began only in the early 1990s. It remains theoretical rather than operational, and academic rather than political. The central committee of the Communist Party has neither condemned it nor approved it, perhaps cautiously recognising the need for the country to enter into a discussion on the changing nature of the relationship between the state and society. The 啍hird way?is being examined more closely as it may have attractive features for China.

In China there are various interpretations of civil society. It sometimes is used interchangeably with civilised society, civic society, or mass society. Mass society has the connotation of grassroots (people掇) power and implies an opposition to the state by the society. Civic society is a concept that emphasises the value of political participation by the citizens. Civilised society implies greater respect for individual and human rights and the rule of law. It is the latter interpretation that has received widespread support in China. It is also understood that the middle class plays an important role in the development of civil society as the middle class function as the bridge or as 勖ediator?between the state and the public (the masses). Intellectuals are seen as being in a very important 勖ediating? position, and increasingly there is appreciation of the role of intellectuals that are 匭utside?the system.

Civil society organisations in China have their own 釢hinese characteristics? in that they are 凐alf official and half non-official? This suggests that a state-led civil society is prevalent in China. As Wang described it, the government sometimes uses these organisations as 偤 sort of channel [for] social control? and the organisations often become powerful through the support of the state. There are views that consider this situation as not necessarily negative. The argument is that an independent civil society never existed in China掇 history, and civil associations that have played an important role in society have maintained a special, intimate relationship with the government.

Wang argues that the development of civil society in China is a necessity, but that it will not emulate that in Western societies. Thus far, he argues, the impact of these developments in China is felt most in the area of foreign affairs. There is greater interest and support for China掇 regional and global role as a respected member of the international community.

According to Buchori (1999), civil society is an alien concept in Indonesia. It is not yet well understood. The Indonesian word used is masyarakat madani. It has been taken from the Arabic word al-mujtamai al-Madani, which in the Middle East has been used to convey the idea of civil society. However, this concept purports to include the civilisation of the entire society, including the government. Consequently the government has made civil society its business. Presidential Decree No. 18/1999 of 24 February 1999 established a National Reform Team towards Masyarakat Madani. There are concerns that through this decree the government is trying to co-opt the existing civil society organisations.

Civil society in Indonesia is still weak. The main constraint has been political. The fall of Soeharto opened up a greater space for civil society. Although this has unleashed a democratisation process, civil society continues to be seen by the transition government of Habibie as a serious threat to its survival as civil society is at the forefront in the opposition to the Habibie government and its continuation in power. Buchori believes that civil society will survive and gradually develop in Indonesia, but this will be critically influenced by the process of leadership transfer. Hikam (1999) is of the opinion that the role of civil society in Indonesia, as manifested mainly by NGOs, will increase because of the current global and national trends towards debureaucratisation and decent-ralisation of decision-making processes in society.

Although, as suggested by Buchori, the concept of civil society may be alien to Indonesians, Hikam proposes that NGOs are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. Many traditional institutions have functioned as 唼ocial empowerment agencies.?As described by Eldridge (1990), the main role of NGOs in Indonesia is to enhance the capacity for self-management among less advantaged groups, enabling them to deal with government agencies and other powerful forces on more equal terms. A more recent development in Indonesia is the emergence of 剫ssue-oriented NGOs.?They have arisen in response to the concentration of power and to 啍op-down?approaches in development under Soeharto掇 New Order governments.

The active involvement in civil society in the change of government and in demanding reforms in all fields, including governance, has built up a momentum towards expanding the space for civil society. Civil society has also participated actively in ensuring that the recent general elections were conducted fairly and freely. Various election monitoring groups have been set up to prevent a recurrence of the practice of vote rigging by the state apparatus and the government party.

By and large civil society organisations in Indonesia are still weak and have limited capacity. They are financially dependent, mostly on resources from external sources.

The guarantee by the state of a space for civil society in development is an important feature in the Philippines. The sphere of civil society participation in governance has widened with the process of democratisation that has been unleashed by the overthrow of the Marcos government. A study by Magno (1999) shows that in the environmental sector NGOs have become legitimate players in influencing decision-making at various levels of governance. At the national level, NGOs have various institutional openings. These include the establishment of an NGO desk that addresses NGO participation in the development programmes of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Environmental NGOs are engaged in the implementation of national policies such as the National Integrated Protected Areas System approach to biodiversity conservation.

At the local level, NGOs secured participation in local development councils under the 1991 Local Government Code. Here, NGOs can push for a sustainable development agenda in deliberative processes with the local government units. In Cagayan de Oro a tripartite arrangement called Task Force Macajalar was formed in the mid-1990s to combat illegal logging. There is widespread realisation in the Philippines that environmental management tasks previously undertaken solely by the state are more effectively undertaken through cooperative systems involving government, NGOs and peoples?organisations.

NGOs began to develop in South Korea in the early 1960s, but they were mostly service-oriented, providing welfare services or implementing development projects for the poor, and they were mostly supported by foreign aid. Advocacy groups for the promotion of social justice, democracy and human rights began to grow during the authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee, but they were severely oppressed. The abrupt end of the authoritarian regime in June 1987 opened up the political space for civil society. As pointed out by Jung and Kim (1999), this development has been characterised by the emergence of increasingly effective and sophisticated civic groups led by the younger generation. Environmental groups, powerful labor movements such as Hyundai labor unions, civil society organisations such as the Citizen掇 Coalition for Economic Justice, human rights and women掇 groups became key actors.

This development has aroused attention by scholars and the business community as well as the public at large on the role of NGOs, not only as an alternative provider of public services but also as a vehicle for the realisation of new patterns of governance. The financial crisis has reduced the sources of NGO funding while the demand for their services has increased. The government of Kim Dae-jung is believed to be supportive of civil society organisations. Korea掇 legal and fiscal environment needs further improvements to enable NGOs to grow and become stronger.

Korea is in an interesting experiment to develop a new pattern of governance. The vision for a new governance model, as espoused by Jung and Kim, must assure the full involvement of civil society and a strong and balanced partnership between the three sectors鷭tate, market, and civil society. Korea掇 civil society has become strong enough to become an equal partner in governance. The kind of 啍ripartite governance?that will evolve may become an attractive model for other East Asian societies.


East Asia has discovered the missing link in development, namely civil society, but it still has some way to go in strengthening it to become an equal partner in a kind of tripartite governance for development, as is currently being crafted in Korea.


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