Academic journal article CEU Political Science Journal

Civil Society, Democracy and Good Governance in Africa

Academic journal article CEU Political Science Journal

Civil Society, Democracy and Good Governance in Africa

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In the past two decades, the idea of civil society has attracted tremendous attention in political and developmental discourse. This is because political theory presents civil society as a crucial agent for promoting democracy and development. This article examines the role of civil society in promoting democracy and good governance in Africa. In order to lay a strong theoretical background for the analysis, the article begins by exploring the debate about what constitutes the civil society in Africa. Although the term civil society is widely used in academic and policy circles, it has yet to acquire a commonly accepted meaning. Definitions of civil society are bewilderingly diverse and the differences between them are often rooted in alternative social and political philosophies (1). Political theorists of Greek, Roman, Liberal, and Marxist backgrounds have attempted to conceptualize civil society. These scholars explore the complexity of the concept, showing different dimensions of civil society such as the material (Hegel, Marx and Engels), organizational (de Tocqueville and Ferguson), and ideological (Gramsci and Havel). Debates about the historical and theoretical foundations of the concept of civil society reverberate in contemporary analyses (2).

The views emerging from these discussions focus on the preconditions for the composition of the civil society. Here, one notion of civil society seems dominant. This notion is rooted in the Western tradition of liberal-democratic theory, which identifies civic organizations such as advocacy groups in Europe and the United States of America as the main elements of the civil society (3). A number of Western intellectuals and donor agencies that tend to use the terms "NGO" and "civil society" interchangeably have popularized this notion of civil society. These individuals and institutions see civil society as an important component of the political project of building and consolidating democracy around the world. They believe that efforts to globalize democracy must be accompanied by the creation and strengthening of civil society in places like Africa where it is either non-existent or at a nascent stage. The global civil society network CIVICUS, for instance, aims to "help advance regional, national and international initiatives to strengthen the capacity of civil society" (4). Scholars refer to this Western perception of civil society as the conventional notion of civil society (5).

2. The Conventional Notion of Civil Society

The individuals and institutions that propagate the conventional notion of civil society restrict its constitutive elements to formal civic organizations and highlight the organizational aspects of civil society (6). They argue that civil organizations must meet specific criteria, including (7):

1. Autonomy from both social interests and the state.

2. Capacity for collective action that promotes interests or passions.

3. Absence of an intention to govern the polity.

4. Agreement to act within civil rules 'conveying mutual respect'.

The criteria also include the idea that "pronouncedly hierarchical associations do not qualify as civil associations because they are not internally democratic" (8).

The conventional notion of civil society views civic associations as organizations with formal structure that would permit the pursuit of specific civic interests. In other words, civic organizations include only those organizations that "agree to act within pre-established rules of a 'civil' nature; that is, conveying mutual respect" (9). The organizations must eschew violence, respect pluralism, the law and other actors. Lawrence Whitehead extends this moral dimension arguing that "civil" should be construed as "civility" (10). In other words, civic organizations should act not only within constraints of legal or pre-established rules, but also with a sense of respect for the opinion and feelings of others. …

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