Transformative global development: what role for civil society?

By James Copestake

A seminar at the University of Bath’s Centre for Development Studies on 28th January, brought together a group of post-doctoral researchers to consider the role of civil society in transforming global development.

We started with country case studies from the Middle East. Tara Povey drew on field work in Egypt and Iran to explore how transnational social movements have contended with shifts towards more authoritarian and security-oriented states. In doing so she challenged the hope that neo-liberal reforms necessarily open up new spaces for democratic and plural non-state public action. She also warned against framing analysis of civil society in the region exclusively in terms of religious ideology. Zahra Ali reflected on the discourse and practices of women activists in Iraq after the fall of the Ba’th regime. These converged both through engagement with international NGOs and donors, and through the search for responses to common problems – ranging from dealing with excessive heat to responding to Islamic State – transcending sectarian divisions reinforced by the Colonial Provisional Authority.

Two presentations then pointed towards cross-national theorisation. Sam Halvorsen highlighted the importance of the spatial or territorial dimension of recent counter-hegemonic grassroots political activism, including the role occupation of symbolic spaces has played in mobilising and galvanizing support for Occupy and various movements in Argentina. Spencer Paul Thompson drew on the writing of Thorstein Veblen and Karl Marx to explore how workers’ cooperatives in Spain and elsewhere address the tension between egalitarian ideology and the ‘need’ for specialization and hierarchy to enable them to compete within wider capitalist systems. He proposed elaborating on a theory linking fluctuations in cooperative activity to cycles and disruptions in the operation of dominant business corporations and state enterprises.

Two further presentations focused primarily on Bangladesh. Mathilde Maitrot criticised over-emphasis on the role of NGOs in upholding citizens’ rights and filling gaps in state welfare provision, arguing for more emphasis instead on the influence of transnational actors and networks. Palash Kamruzzaman focused on the role of national development experts, hinting at their potential for autonomous action as professional agenda-setters, interpreters, facilitators and negotiators in the interstices between state institutions, donors, business and other civil society actors. Finally, Roger Merino tabled thoughts on the social processes by which indigenous peoples in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are challenging conventional development theories and formulating alternative views, particularly with respect to governance of natural resources.

The meeting then moved on to discuss scope for generalisation from these presentations. First, we noted a range of definitions of civil society were latent in them. These included (a) the institutions through which the state and society interact, (b) a third sector in tension with state and market, (c) counter-hegemonic grass-roots activism, and (d) the arena for a wide array of actors, including professional groups, cooperatives, religious organisations, development NGOs, media, mafia, social movements and militias. While a potential source of confusion, this definitional ambiguity also leaves scope for diverse and multiple framings, discourses and ‘imaginings’ of social relations. For example, while mostly viewed as a force for good we also discussed the need for deeper analysis of ‘the dark side’ of civil society.

A second general issue illustrated by the talks was the tension between in-depth analysis of specific elements of civil society and a broader analysis of civil societies that incorporates their relationship with the wider welfare (and ill-fare) regimes to which they belong. An intermediate approach seeks to identify and then generalise about common factors in the emergence and mainstreaming of influential ideas and movements from within civil society. These include (a) distinctive language and discourse (theological, ideological, artistic etc); (b) physical spaces and places within which group identities are forged; (c) system faults, tensions and pressures that build slowly (such as rising inequality and demographic shifts); (d) shocks and events that catalyse cumulative processes of collective action, ranging from exceptional weather events to specific acts of violence.

Third, we agreed that it is one thing to identify regional and global drivers of change in specific countries, but more challenging to ‘talk up’ national case studies into empirically informed analysis of genuinely global civil society dynamics. For example, the global resonance of conflicts in the Middle East cannot be captured within a narrative that focuses only on religion or the political economy of oil and gas. We began, but did not progress very far in linking empirical studies of civil society at the national level with global systems analysis: e.g. of the long waves of capitalist development inspired by Marx, Kondratieff, Polanyi, Piketty and many others.

Where next? In thinking about the future it is unwise both to underestimate path dependence and the likelihood of surprises. When confronting global social complexity, simultaneously fragmented yet interconnected civil societies can be a source of inertia and of the unexpected: harbouring forgotten ideas as well as spawning novel ones and enabling them to go viral, take hold and reframe our imagination of what is possible. It is often the doings of state and market that seem to drive global news reports: the Cold War ends, financial bubbles burst, China booms, oil prices bounce. But arguably it is within the vast depths of our still dizzyingly plural global society that many of the biggest surprises emanate, reframing as well as reacting to the polarising effects of neo-liberal economic growth and the improvisations of those struggling to establish power over public policy levers. If psychologists remind us that human consciousness is tiny and puny relative to the elephantine unconscious psyche it purports to ride and to control, then how much more so the so-called leaders astride a global system that relies more than ever on self-organisation, and yet so often fails for lack of it? Understanding what can and cannot realistically be expected from civil society is at the heart of the matter, but about this – as one participant commented – we most likely still know a lot less than we don’t know.


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