Written by Haidy Ear-Dupuy
About twenty years ago I was working for a well-known nongovernment organization (NGO), campaigning on many issues from access to affordable drugs for HIV/AIDS patients, to advocating for fair trade for small farmers. When asked what I did I explained about my advocacy for social justice. “Oh so, you’re promoting communism?” was the response.
It was a sobering message realizing that few people really understand the nature and role of civil society organizations (CSOs). Civil society is a broad term covering a wide range of organizations from associations, clubs, religious groups, special interest groups, educational institutions and many others. NGOs are a subset of CSOs and sometimes the two acronyms are used interchangeably. The organizations the public most often see in the media are those who are often portrayed as vociferous demonstrators.
While governments and some people may disapprove of these ‘noisy’ groups, I take the view that all organizations which advance the interests of civil society are advocates. We just choose to advance our objectives in different ways. We all want to make positive changes to our communities and countries, but we take different approaches in how we choose to bring about that change. In the end zealous activists campaigning for change are no different from desk bound government workers tasked to bring about societal reforms.
At the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Nongovernment and Civil Society Center, we seek to help our developing member countries harness their human and capital resources to make positive changes. One vehicle which helps to bring both government reformers and nongovernment groups together is the Open Government Partnership (OGP). OGP is an international platform for government and civil society to work together to create more open, accountable, and responsive governance. Starting with eight founding members in 2011, the initiative now has 64 participating countries, with ADB joining in July 2014.
In a recent presentation to mark the 10th anniversary of ADB’s Independent Evaluation Department, Partnership for Transparency Fund’s Technical Advisor and Founder, Dr. Vinay Bhargava shared ideas on how government and civil society can work effectively together to deliver better services. Modern technology and other innovations are bringing governments and people closer, and civil society groups can help strengthen that process. At the same time it needs to be acknowledged that building connections takes time.
If we were to dig deeper and examine ourselves in the mirror, we would quickly find that many of us have something in common with many CSOs. We all want to help someone or champion some cause and contribute to a better world.
Many of these dedicated CSO people can be found in both the government and nongovernment sectors, and they have a common goal of improving lives in their own countries. Yet they often don’t see eye to eye. In some countries those working to advance social justice, for instance, run the risk of being labelled as subversives.
However disagreements are also important for a healthy society as they reflect a willingness to accept a broad range of views from all quarters. Ultimately, multiple opinions are important for development debate and free thinking.
Is the concept of CSOs foreign to Asian cultures? Does having an active CSO sector make a government look weak? No, on the contrary, it means people are not afraid to speak up and share their thoughts, pointing out gaps in policies and programs. Strong CSOs also help strengthen governments by providing more ideas and alternative models.
By working together, we ultimately have much stronger impacts on development and on eradicating poverty.