Discuss the roles and functions of civil society in a democracy


“Civil society retains a distinctive character to the extent that it is made up of areas of social  life—the domestic world, the economic sphere, cultural activities and political interaction—which are organised by private or voluntary arrangements between individuals and groups outside the direct control of the state.”

Functions of Civil Society in Democracy

Throwing light about the functions of a civil society in promoting democratic polity, Larry Diamond in his article, ‘Rethinking Civil Society’(1996), says, “Civil society plays a significant role in building and consolidating democracy.” He opines: “The democratic civil society…the more likely it is that democracy will emerge and endure”. In Diamond’s view, civil society performs following important functions:

1) To limit state power—By checking its political abuses and violations of the law and subjecting them to public scrutiny. Diamond maintains, “a vibrant civil society is probably more essential for consolidating and maintaining democracy than initiating it.”

2) To empower citizens by “increasing the political efficacy and skill of the democratic citizen and promoting an appreciation of the obligations as well as rights of democratic citizenship.”

3) To inculcate and promote an arena for the development of democratic attributes amongst the citizens—Such as tolerance, moderation, a willingness to compromise and respect for opposing viewpoints.” According to Diamond, this is an important function as it allows “traditionally excluded groups—such as women and racial or ethnic minorities—access to power that has been denied them in the ‘upper echelons’ of formal politics.”

4) To provide avenues for political parties and other organisations allowing them to articulate, aggregate, and represent their interests- This enhances the quality of democracy as “it generates opportunities for participation and influence at all levels of governance, not the least the local government.”

5) To function as a recruiting, informational and leadership generating agency especially in economically developed societies—Where, Economic reform is sometimes necessary, but often difficult to bring about if it threatens vested economic interests. the massive economic collapse in Indonesia unleashed mass discontent and made President Suharto suddenly vulnerable. This transformed the environment to allow civil society groups and opposition parties to mobilize citizens in an unprecedented fashion.

6) A well founded civil society could act as a shock observing institution, where wide range of interests that may cross-cut and mitigate the principal polarities of political conflict.

7) To generate public and political support for successful economic and political reforms—which require the support of coalitions in society and the legislature.

8) A well-rooted civil society also helps in identifying and train new political leaders—As such, it can “play a crucial role in revitalising…the narrow and stagnant” party dominated leadership recruitment patterns.

9) Election monitoring— Many non-partisan organisations engage in election monitoring at home and abroad. Such efforts, says Diamond, “have been critical in detecting fraud, enhancing voter confidence, affirming the legitimacy of the result, or demonstrating an opposition victory despite

government fraud.” The Philippines in the mid 1980s and Panama in 1989 6 are cited as examples.

a) Strengthening citizen attitudes toward the state— Civil society enhances “the accountability, responsiveness, inclusiveness, effectiveness, and hence legitimacy of the political system.” In so

doing it gives citizens respect for the state and positive involvement in it. Here, civil society is crucial to the development and maintenance of stable, quality sensitive democracy.

10) In addition to this, other scholars have also come out with their view point on the subject. Borrowing from Robert Dahl’s classic work on democracy, Alfred Stepan in his work, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (1996), states that among the basic requirements for democracy “is the opportunity to formulate preferences, to signify preferences, and to have these preferences weighted adequately in the conduct of government.” According to Robert Dahl for the proper functioning of the government, it should ensure the following institutional guarantees which include:

1) freedom of association and expression;

2) the right to vote;

3) run for public office;

4) free and fair elections;

5) the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes;

6) alternative sources of information;

7) policy making institutions dependent on votes;

8) Other expressions of preference.

Role of Civil Society as a Promoter of Democracy

In an article, ‘Civil Society and Democracy in Global Governance’, Dr. Jan Aart Scholte Makes a comprehensive analysis of the concepts. She not only visualises positive aspects of the relationship between civil society and democracy, but also evaluates the unenthusiastic side of it too. Taking a positive note of the civil society as promoter of democratic form of governance, Scholte identifies six areas where civil society could advance democracy.

1) Public education—Awareness is key to any democratic system. The civil society might enhance democracy through educating the public. An informed citizenry could sustain effective democracy, civic associations can contribute a lot by raising public awareness and understanding of world wide existing laws and regulatory institutions. To accomplish this goal civil, society groups can prepare handbooks and information kits, produce audio-visual presentations, organize workshops, circulate newsletters, supply information to and attract the attention of the mass media, maintain websites on the Internet, and develop curricular materials for schools and institutions of higher education.

2) Voice to stakeholders—Civil society could promote democratic governance by giving voice to stakeholders. Civic associations can opportune the concerned parties to relay information, testimonial, and analysis to governance agencies about their needs and demands. Civil society

organisations can give voice to neglected social circles like the poor, women and persons with disability who tend to get a limited hearing through other channels including their elected representatives in executive and legislative bodies. In this way civic activism could empower stakeholders and mould politics toward greater participatory democracy.

3) Policy inputs—Government policy formulation is considerably influenced from the Inputs given by the civil society not only at home but also in the international arena. For example, civic groups have been pioneer in sparking debate about the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’. They have

also constantly raised issues pertaining to ecological imbalances, made qualitative assessments of poverty, and pressurised for the schemes of debt reduction in the South.

4) Transparency of governance—Vigilant civic mobilisation can cause public transparency in governance. Constant pressure from civil society can help in bringing regulatory frameworks and operations into the open, where they could be accessed for public scrutiny. Generally citizens do not have the awareness about what decisions are taken by the government, by whom, from what options, on what grounds, with what expected results, and with what resources to support implementation. Civic groups through their well lit networks can question the currently popular official rhetoric of ‘transparency’ by asking critical questions about what is made transparent, at what time, in what forms, through what channels, on whose decision, for what purpose, and in whose interest.

5) Public accountability—Civil society can hold various concerned agencies accountable to public. Civic groups can keep an eye on the implementation and effects of policies regarding people and press for corrective measures when the consequences are adverse. For example, independent civic agencies have impartial policy evaluation mechanisms for the World Bank and the IMF. Whereby, they have more often criticised their policies towards the Less Developed Countries. The Western countries, which claim to be democratic in the behaviour, often while as a part of global player some times become far more dictatorial than those whom they criticize and put sanctions against them. Here, the civic agencies through an accountability function can push authorities in global governance to take greater responsibility for their actions and policies.

6) Legitimacy—The sum total of the preceding actions by the civil society could lead to a legitimate democratic rule. Legitimate rule prevails when people concede that an authority has a right to govern and that they have a duty to obey its directives. As a result of such consent, legitimate governance tends to be more easily, productively and nonviolently executed than illegitimate and dictatorial authority.

Here, it is important to understand that democracy should not be understood only in terms of national governance. The civil society should have a larger agenda of democracy as a policy of global governance. The civil society not only could promote democracy at home, their impact could be clearly seen in the democratisation of global order. Civil society can offer a means for

citizens to affirm that global governance arrangements should guide and where necessary, constrain their behaviour.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top