Civil Society: Myth or Toothless Tiger?

By Anjum Altaf

I had proposed a civil society initiative to constitute a People’s Planning Commission as a possible check on wasteful expenditures of public money by the state (Taj Mahal and the Planning Commission, The News, March 25, 2016). The responses received suggest that readers are in agreement with my critique of the existing Planning Commission but skeptical of the recommendation for civil society activism.

The reservations extend from questioning the very existence of civil society, to pointing out its fragmentation, to asking whether it has any way of choosing qualified individuals. These are legitimate questions, and given that I believe civil society activism to be virtually the only mechanism for moving forward in Pakistan, the onus of arguing the case is on me.

The concept of civil society is simple. Subtract from our universe the spheres of the state and the market along with their associated organizations and what we are left with is the sphere of civil society. The rationale for this division is that the state and the market have the power to take actions that impact the lives of members of civil society but the latter, as individuals, do not have the power to resist these actions if they are unjust, unfair, or in any way detrimental to their welfare. Civil society activism is the attempt to make possible collective actions to protect or advance the interest of citizens. The vehicle for such actions are voluntary organizations that are non-state and not-for profit.

As a citizen without power I consider myself a member of civil society and the opinion I wrote was a manifestation of civil society activism in that it proposed an action that would protect or advance the interests of citizens in a situation where I felt those interests were being jeopardized. In that sense, all citizens without state or market power who advocate change are activists belonging to civil society.

As mentioned above, civil society activism at the level of the individual can suggest ideas for action but cannot substitute for the action itself which requires collective effort. This brings us face to face with the reality that civil society is not a monolith with all members in agreement over what is to be done or how. On the contrary, civil society is fragmented with many interest groups often acting at cross purposes. To add to the complication, civil society actions can also be malevolent, dishonest, and welfare-reducing.

It is not this complexity that is surprising; rather it is the expectation that civil society can be anything but otherwise and the conclusion that this complexity renders civil society completely ineffective. The real world incorporates a political process in which many competitive interests are at play. In such a process the choice is not between doing nothing and conjuring up some mythical super-united countervailing power. The choice is between passive acceptance and engagement, between remaining silent spectators and articulating a voice and then strengthening the effectiveness of that voice. This is hardly a choice even when the odds appear insurmountable at the outset – the battle is surely lost without an engaged citizenry.

The argument that civil society has no way of nominating or selecting individuals to represent its interests is also based on a misleading conception. Civil society is not a political party that has to hold nation-wide elections or choose out of a list of all eligible candidates; rather, civil society activism involves the coming together of a sufficient number of concerned individuals to contribute a countervailing voice in the political process and in the realm of ideas.

Some examples should both clarify and put to rest these concerns. The number of effective citizen watchdog groups in the USA is an obvious starting point. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, Judicial Watch, US Public Interest Research Group among many others. A number of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been formed through civil society activism and the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal initiated by Bertrand Russell was a powerful intervention challenging the narrative of the state.

In India, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties has for long been a credible voice. Within Pakistan, one can credit the slow and continuous pressure exerted by a coalition of women’s groups to reverse the negative legacies of the Zia era and to push through new legislation.

For those who continue to doubt, the most stunning recent example has been the success of civil groups lobbying for same-sex marriage across the world. The opposition to such a change was immense within the state, the religious establishment, and within civil society itself. The objective seemed unattainable, yet the relative speed with which the tide turned is testimony to the power of civil society irrespective of how one might view the action itself.

With this background, the way forward for those wanting to establish a public watchdog in Pakistan should be quite clear. All it requires is for five individuals with professional competence and recognition to announce their availability. From there on, it would be a patient struggle using right-to-information provisions, public interest litigation, establishing people’s tribunals for specific issues, and a broad educational and support mobilization campaign. All this may appear daunting but nothing ever comes easily and all journeys begin with a small and seemingly inconsequential step.

This opinion appeared in The News on April 2, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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  • skynut
    Posted at 06:20h, 03 April Reply

    The idea is simple and the intention noble, however ideas are dime a dozen, and the way to hell is paved with good intentions.

    The question is how to realize the idea into a concrete actions? let us not talk falsely now as the hour is getting late….Bob Dylan.

    Identify a set of people …from which the 5 ‘might’ take up the task, and engage with them!

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:37h, 03 April

      Skynut: Sound advice. It is action, built on sound ideas, that matters.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 06:12h, 16 May Reply

    An example that shows that activism matters and also that it requires persistence.

    “Though it remains open, Guantánamo is, thankfully, a shadow of its former self. The real credit lies with no president, but with the hundreds of lawyers and thousands of activists who have stepped forward to advocate for Guantánamo inmates. And many of these lawyers and activists in turn owe much of their inspiration to one man: the human rights attorney Michael Ratner, who died on May 11.”

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