NGOs a 3rd Weak Sector


HOLIFE, WA, Ghana, North Western Region


For donors, civil society is a force for and ingredient of democratization, as well as a natural component of a market economy. In legitimizing civil-society strengthening programs, donors make frequent reference to the potential of civil society, to hold in check the state, to serve as the moral pulse of society and to further democratic value. By reducing the power of the state and increasing the role of the market, it is assumed that civil society too will flourish and will in turn encourage further economic liberalization. Moreover, civil society, state, and market are assumed to constitute an organic, symbiotic whole, characterized by unity rather than disjuncture and by cooperation rather than conflict. There is thus an expectation that civil society will function to mediate and balance the power of the state and market, to provide a moral check on the market, and likewise to maintain the democratic integrity of the state. Finally, there is an implicit assumption that external donor agencies can create, nurture and strengthen civil society in aid-recipient countries.

…The triadic unity of state, market, and civil society also assumes neat boundaries between the three elements, discrete functions and actors, and an organic harmony and balance. Yet, many organizations within civil society receive funding to varying degrees from both state and private sponsorship. In some countries, government officials have set up their own NGOs as a way to work more creatively, access different resources, and gain new opportunities. Similarly, some development NGOs amount to no more than “briefcase companies” founded for the purpose of tax evasion and private gain. Furthermore, the triadic representation implicitly assumes an equal — or at least unproblematic — division of power between the three elements, indeed three separate domains of power. Yet organizations within civil society do not enjoy the same degree of power. Business associations, for example, are more likely to be better resources and wield greater political leverage than trade unions or community groups. The power of the market thus permeates and shapes the composition of civil society. As Wood (1990) so cogently argues, the juxtaposition of an array of fragmented and diverse institutions within the conceptual space of civil society masks the totalizing logic of capitalism that fundamentally binds these diverse institutions together and gives them meaning.

… Although the state may welcome charities and welfare bodies providing for the homeless, elderly and sick, not least because this reduces state expenditure, it may take less kindly to advocacy groups that promote causes contrary to government policy or organizations that challenge the legitimacy of the state…. Similarly, businesses may sponsor community development, but they may be less receptive to challenges from labor organizations or environmental groups for minimum labor and environmental standards. Thus the interactions of state, market, and civil society are overlaid by contradictory purposes and value, the resolution of which may not necessarily favor the sustenance of civil society nor guarantee stability. The alliances and coalitions are not always self-evident nor conducive to redistribution of power and wealth.

— Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce (David Lewis and Tina Wallace, Editors), New Roles and Relevance; Development NGOs and the Challenge of Change, (Kumarian Press, 2000), pp. 76, 77-78 (Emphasis added)







About fraufiber

Itinerant textile worker and activist.

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