Civil Society as an Enabler of Sustainable Development


The past thirty years of the world’s history are filled with major transformations of political and socio-economic systems. Once totalitarian regimes that controlled and governed every aspect of human life fell off. The propulsion for change largely came from the civil society clamoring for an end to authoritarian rule. The lessons learned from the past have clearly demonstrated the ability of citizens in creating peaceful and impactful change that was oftentimes overlooked.

What are the Civil Society Organizations?

Civil society comprises a multitude of groups, organizations, and associations that are operating outside of the government or businesses yet participating in public life. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) can be an immediate relief for ordinary citizens who rarely get their voices heard. Such associations become actively involved in public life where they reflect the interests of groups they represent. In the long run, CSOs lay the foundation for transformative changes.

From Authoritarianism to Substantive Democracy

A vast majority of countries that are emerging from totalitarian regimes are expected to move towards democratization, where citizens can take part in the decision-making processes that influence their interests and lives. Substantive Democracy seeks to address inequalities in political, economic, and social contexts and creates the vision for sustainability.

However, unsurprisingly, many governments struggle to meet the needs of creating such a form of democracy, largely focusing on jumpstarting the economy. Although the active involvement of civil society is much required, a wide number of transitioning countries are found to place ever-tightening restrictions on civil associations and movements. In an effort to suppress and curb the freedom of civil groups, governments limit their access to funding, erect barriers to communications, and apply onerous administration processes.

Looking at a wider scale — worldwide — the civil society is flourishing. Since 2010, there has been a renewed energy of citizen expression and participation in different forms around the globe. Many argue today is “the time of civil society”.

According to the Yearbook of International Organizations, the number of international NGOs was reported to have increased from 6,000 in 1990 to more than 50,000 in 2006, and now to over 65,000. In China alone, there are over 460 000 officially registered NGOs, while in India they are estimated to be more than 3.3 million (as of 2009).

Shifting Roles of Civil Society

With an increased pace of globalization, hyper-connected and multistakeholder world, the roles of civil society actors are changing. E.g., faith and religious cultures are expected to take a greater part in addressing the needs of society. As collaboration is being increasingly recognized as an ultimate way for achieving results, partnerships start to form the civil society front-line.

Today’s Civil Society Plays a number of roles including the below:

  • The Watchdog — ensuring the accountability and transparency of institutions
  • The Advocate — advocating for change and raising the awareness of social issues
  • The Educator — providing training and capacity building to different social groups
  • The Representative — letting the voices of the overlooked and marginalized be heard
  • The Supporter and Service Provider — delivering a number of services related to health, food, and security, emergency management, and disaster response while supporting fundamental values.

Civil Society as an Enabler of Development

The actions of civil society have a significant influence on other sectors be it through official partnerships, informal collaborations, or the “spillover” effect. Civil Actors can provide the much-needed legitimacy, assets, and intelligence that positively affect private sector needs by helping them to do more with less through innovation. Civil Society forms the social basis for democracy providing credibility, transparency, and accountability to political systems. In addition, as civil actors have accumulated specific expertise and knowledge at the grassroots level, they aid international organizations in formulating effective policies and strategies, allowing them to reach those most in need.

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Originally published at on May 2, 2021.



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