You have probably heard the term civil society more times than you can remember. Politicians and the media love throwing the word around, especially when talking about disasters, places in need, and matters affecting minorities in society.

Despite the popularity of the term, however, a lot of people do not know who or what is civil society, or why having a civil society is important in the first place.


For a country to run and operate smoothly and successfully, there are various structures that need to be in place.

The first one is the government, which maintains law and order within society and ensures that the basic needs of the people, such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and defense are taken care of.

The second one is the business community (also referred to as the private sector), which helps keep society moving by providing necessary goods and services in exchange for money.

Finally, there are other groups that are neither part of the government or the business sector, but which work in the interest of citizens and play a huge role in influencing how the country is run and operated.

This third group is what is referred to as the civil society, and is comprised of groups and organizations such as churches, non-profit organizations, labor unions, and so on.

There is no generally accepted definition for civil society. The World Bank defines civil society as:

According to the African Development Bank, civil society is any collective action, outside the influence of the market and the state, which allows citizens who are united and organized by common goals, interests, traditions, or values to mobilize and voluntarily express their interests and aspirations.

Some of the actors and players within the civil society space include:

  • Non-governmental organizations, non-profit organizations, and civil society organizations that are officially registered entities and groups and have an organized structure, organized activities.
  • Online groups and communities that do not have any formal physical, financial or legal structures but can still be organized to champion for common interests or goals.
  • Social movements based on collective identity or collective action. These can either be physical or online.
  • Labor organizations and labor unions championing for the rights of workers, as well as other professional associations.
  • Religious organizations, faith communities, religious leaders, and other faith-based organizations.
  • Social entrepreneurs using market-oriented approaches and other innovative methods to drive positive social and environmental impact.
  • Youth clubs
  • Women’s groups and organizations
  • Grassroots associations and other local level activities.
  • Independent media groups, including television, radio, print, and electronic media.
  • Cooperatives
  • Community based organizations and neighborhood associations and coalitions.
  • Social movements and other advocacy groups championing for the rights of minorities within the society.
  • Organizations of indigenous people.
  • Academic and research institutions.


Considering the many players in the civil society space, and the fact that some of the players are not even formally organized, it is difficult to quantify the size of civil society with absolute certainty. However, a 2010 report by Lester M. Salamon provides some insights on the size of civil society.

According to the report, in 40 countries for which financial data was available, institutions and organizations in the non-profit sector had operating expenses to the tune of $2.2 trillion. Only six countries in the world have a GDP that is higher than this, a fact that has led to civil society being referred to by academics as “Volunteerland.”

According to the same report, in 42 countries for which employment data was available, institutions and organizations in the non-profit sector employed close to 56 million full-time equivalent workers, which represents about 5.5% of the total workforce in these countries, and is greater than the percentage of the workforce employed in some industries such as construction, utilities, and transport and communication.


The same report notes that the global volunteer workforce within the non-profit sector is in excess of 350 million.


Civil society plays a very important role in the development dialogue since it makes it possible to mobilize society to express its demands and voice concerns at various levels, and bring these communities together to enable collective action.

The power of a well mobilized civil sector is strong enough to influence the actions of business and democratically elected policy makers.

Civil society is a key player in the world of commerce, industry, and politics, influencing not only the formation of policy, but also its implementation, as well as formation and implementation of development agenda.

Civil society also plays a key role in championing for the public rights and wishes of citizens in areas such as education, environment, health, and economic rights.

It provides the checks and balances that are necessary to hold the government accountable for its responsibilities. Because of this, the presence of free and active civil society – or the lack thereof – can be used to gauge the health of a democracy.

Civil society has also been pivotal in creating positive change in various places across the planet.

For instance, in 2017 and 2018, WaterAid UK helped provide safe drinking water for over 1.3 million people across the world. Similarly, action by civil society in El Salvador since 2004 resulted in the passing of laws prohibiting socially and environmentally harmful mining practices in the country.

Below is a breakdown of some of the roles of civil society:

  • Civil society acts as a watchdog, helping to keep governments and other institutions accountable and promoting transparency. For instance, many civil society organizations monitor and provide information about cases of human rights abuse by governments or the private sector. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in civil society being slapped with restrictions by rogue governments.
  • Civil society acts as a public advocate, giving a voice to marginal groups, raising awareness about issues affecting the public, and pushing for social change. For instance, in Honduras, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras creates awareness about issues that affect the lives of indigenous peoples, such as construction of dams or logging.
  • Civil society acts as a service provider, giving the public access to services that the government is unable, or has refused to provide. For instance, Village Water Zambia gives people in rural areas in Zambia access to clean water and provides sanitation services. Many civil society organizations help people meet societal needs such as food, health, education, security, and so on.
  • Civil society provides disaster preparedness and emergency response, as well as the implementation of disaster management. For instance, The Red Cross Society is well known for providing emergency response in areas experiencing various disasters or emergencies.
  • Civil society provides expertise, bringing unique knowledge, skills and experience to help identify local problems and come up with local solutions. Civil society also uses its expertise to shape public policy and strategy.
  • Civil society acts as a capacity builder through providing personnel that have the skills and expertise to identify and solve societal problems, training and equipping people with the skills to solve their societal problems, and other forms of capacity building.
  • Civil society acts as an incubator, providing support for solutions that have long gestation or payback periods.
  • Civil society acts as a champion for citizens, encouraging them to get involved in civil processes and supporting their rights.
  • Civil society supports state sponsored poverty eradication programs by working directly with communities and providing tailored, innovative, sustainable, and evidence-based solutions.
  • Civil society helps with community empowerment by giving a voice to voiceless, disorganized segments of society. By raising awareness of issues affecting these communities, shaping policy formulation and providing funding, they empower these communities to develop local solutions to their problems.


Despite having played a major role in driving positive social and environmental change in many parts of the world, civil society has been in the recent past under increasing pressure to demonstrate how valuable it is to society and how connected it is to local communities.

This pressure is as a result of increasing public distrust in civil society organizations, coupled with increasing uncertainty about the legitimacy and relevance of various civil society organizations.

People feel that civil society is becoming less effective in bringing real change to communities. Matters have been made worse by the implication of civil societies in various scandals, such as the Oxfam Scandal in Haiti, raising questions about whether we really need civil society in the modern world.

The questions about the accountability, legitimacy and relevance of civil society organizations by governments and beneficiaries of these organizations can also be attributed to the fact that there is an ever-widening gap between these organizations, their beneficiaries, and the government.

Since most traditional civil society organizations rely on short term funding, this encourages them to focus on projects that will help them secure future funding, rather than on projects that are more sustainable in nature and those that are more likely to gain community buy-in.

As a result of this, some civil society organizations have been accused of being in it for the money and being out of touch with the needs of the communities they are trying to help.

For instance, the Indian Prime Minister at one point accused some community based organizations and environmental organizations for working against India’s national interest and being puppets of foreign masters.

The fact that donors are only interested in quantifiable results has not helped matters, and has instead created a bias towards projects that can provide these tangible, quantifiable results, rather than those that would actually bring true transformation to people’s lives.

Since most civil society organizations are upwardly accountable to their donors, rather than being downwardly accountable to their beneficiaries, they end up putting donor satisfaction before the needs of communities or their own goals and objectives.

As a result of these problems, and due to emergent technologies like the internet and social media, new forms of civic activism are emerging to replace traditional civil society organizations.

These new and emerging forms could be in a better position to meet the needs of their communities sustainably and more efficiently.

For instance, social media based social movements are capable of bringing more people together around a common cause today compared to traditional civil society organizations, which are more reliant on known supporters.

The emergence of these new and more efficient forms of civic activism has also led to questions about the relevance of traditional civil society organizations.

It is unlikely that the debates about the value and relevance of civil society will end any time soon.

Despite the debates, however, it is important to keep in mind that so far, civil society has made a huge contribution in championing for positive change all over the world and improving the lives of people living in some of the world’s poorest places.


In addition to questions about its value, relevance and legitimacy, civil society is facing a number of challenges today which make it harder for it to perform its activities or achieve its various goals and objectives. These include:

Restrictions by Governments

Several governments in the world are creating more restrictions for civil society, and especially civil society organizations that champion for the advancement of democratic principles and human rights.

This is not only happening in ravaged and war torn countries run by dictators, but also in countries like Israel, Russia, and Hungary.

According to Annika Elena Poppe and Jonas Wolff, these restrictions are part of a wider backlash against the promotion of democracy and a way of fighting back against contemporary world order.

There restrictions are a highlight of the conflict between the advocacy for democracy and human rights, and various nation’s claims to non-interference, self-determination, and sovereignty.

For instance, in 2018, President Museveni of Uganda blamed the wave of political protests that hit the country on the media, civil society, and foreign interference.

According to the 2018 State of Civil Society report by Civicus, 109 out of 195 countries have passed laws meant to impose restrictions on civil society and civic space in the recent past. Open civic space needs to have three key things: the freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful assembly.

According to the 2018 State of Civil Society report, in 2017, countries like Germany, Russia, Norway, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Iraq, and Tanzania passed or proposed laws restricting the right to protest.

In the same year, countries like Venezuela, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Fiji, and Cote D’Ivoire passed or proposed laws limiting the freedom of speech. All these are pointers to the restrictions being enforced on civil society by governments.

According to the report, the increasing restriction on civil society by governments can be attributed to the rising popularity of populism, the rise of socially conservative forces, and repressive regimes increasingly asserting their national sovereignty.

Things like the increasing ‘war on terror’ have also contributed to the shrinking civic space.

Aside from creating laws to regulate the three freedoms which are integral to open civic space, there are several other strategies that states and governments use to place restrictions on civil society. These include:

  • Coming up with laws surrounding foreign donor funding for civil society organizations, including laws requiring these organizations to report all foreign funding.
  • De-legitimization campaigns aimed at ruining and discrediting the reputations of civil society organizations.
  • Addition of administrative and bureaucratic hurdles that make it harder for civil society organizations to carry out their activities.
  • Creation of GONGOS (government-organized non-governmental organizations), which are meant to establish voices that are loyal to the government. Good examples of GONGOs include Sudan’s Human Rights Organization, Russian youth group Nashi, the International Islamic Relief Organization of Saudi Arabia, and the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation.

Increased Surveillance

Concerns have been made both by academics and the media about the increasing surveillance of civil society by governments and state authorities. Human rights campaigners and journalists have particularly been unwilling subjects of this surveillance.

A good example of this kind of surveillance is the use of spyware to surveil the activities of players in the civil society space.

According to the University of Toronto’s the Citizen Lab, several countries, including Mexico, have used the Pegasus spyware to spy on human rights activists and journalists through their smartphones. Mexico has actually been termed as one of the most hostile places for journalists.

Over the last decade, more than three Mexican federal agencies have acquired the Pegasus spyware, which makes it possible to penetrate smartphones and snoop on calls, emails and text messages, view calendars and contacts, and even activate the camera and microphone to spy on the owner’s surroundings.

While it has not been proven, there are allegations that the spyware has been used to spy on journalists, human rights lawyers, and corruption activists.

While the Mexican government has vehemently denied claims that it was behind these hackings, experts from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto claim that the spyware can only be used by the agencies that acquired it, thereby pointing accusing fingers at the Mexican government.

Increased Violence

Violence has also been used as a way of discouraging involvement in civil society.

According to a 2017 report by Julia Kreienkamp, over 1000 human rights activists were detained, harassed, subjected to smear campaigns, or killed in 2016 alone.

Among those killed, more than three quarters of them were in Latin America.

For instance, in 2016, Berta Caceres, a Honduran indigenous rights and environmental rights campaigner was murdered – shot by gunmen in who broke into her home – while campaigning against the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would have a negative impact on the lives of the Lenca people.

The increase in the murders of environmental activists in Latin America has been attributed to the increase of extractive industries in this region, the increasing arrival of multinational industries and criminal enterprises interested in these industries, as well as a prevailing culture of impunity that is sanctioned by the state.

In the two years following the murder of Caceres, people campaigning for justice for her have also had their lives threatened.

People with links to the company in charge of constructing the dam, as well as the military, were suspected of being behind her murder.

Media Restrictions

Governments are also restricting and silencing the civil society by controlling the free flow of information. This is done by restricting media outlets and journalists and forcing them into self-censorship, as well as gaining control of and putting restrictions on the use of digital media technologies.

In extreme cases, governments have even shut down the internet to avoid information from spreading out.

For instance, in 2017, Cameroon blocked the internet in its Anglophone regions for three months, while both Togo and Iran shut down the internet when citizens were protesting against the government.

According to Reporters without Borders, the threat to media freedom around the world is at an all-time high.

Restrictions on Funding

Placing restrictions on the ability of civil society organizations to access foreign funding is perhaps the most commonly used and most effective ways of limiting the activities of civil society.

In most cases, these restrictions on funding are hidden and justified by being termed as a way of improving ‘transparency.’

For instance, in India, over 30 civil society organizations were denied a license to receive foreign donor funding in 2016 because the government felt that they were working against national interests.

Similarly, in Ethiopia, funding restrictions were introduced in the country in 2009, leading to closure of about 25% of local civil society groups in the country before 2012.

Aside from being disguised as a way of improving ‘transparency,’ funding restrictions on civil society organizations are sometimes hidden behind the need to ‘protect sovereignty and national security.’

For instance, in 2004, former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe introduced a bill to ban foreign funding, claiming that foreign funding was creating a way for foreign players to interfere with the national affairs of Zimbabwe.


Civil society refers to formal and informal organizations outside the state and the private sector, which bring citizens together and allow them to express their interests and aspirations, and mobilize collective action to demand for these rights.

Civil society plays an important role in advocating for the rights of the public in various areas, and acts as an informal auditor, providing the checks and balances that are necessary to hold the government and the private sector accountable.

Despite having made huge contributions towards improving people’s lives and bringing about social change, there are increasing concerns today about the relevance, value, and legitimacy of civil society. Civil society is also currently facing several threats by governments and other rogue actors.

So, are we going to see an end to civil society as we know it? At this point in time, we can only wait and see.

Who and what is ‘civil society’

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