20 December 2012

Uganda: Civil Society - Where Did They Come From?


YOU will find them almost everywhere and they are involved in nearly everything. Humanitarian Disaster relief, Protection of endangered species, Human Rights, Constitutional reform, Anti-corruption, Health and Education you name it, you will find Civil Society involved in it even in the most remote part of the world.

The question is; where did Civil Society come from?

Civil Society is actually an ancient concept. The Romans were already arguing about it long before Jesus Christ was born. One of the first Roman philosophers to talk about Civil Society that is similar to the Civil Society we know today was a man called Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-46 BC).

He argued that human beings have the capacity to come together voluntarily to work towards a good society (Societas Civilis).

When the Roman Empire collapsed and chaos engulfed Europe, nobody seemed to have had the time to talk about Civil Society for a very long time. It was until the Renaissance (1400-1700 AD) when absolute monarchs had restored some "relative peace and stability" in Europe that some thinkers began talking about Civil Society again.

It looks like the thinkers were responding to the shortcomings and excesses of the Kings that ruled Europe at that time. Unlike the Roman philosophers who never drew a line between Civil Society and the state, the intellectuals of the Renaissance thought that Civil Society should be distinct and separate from the state.

After the Renaissance, Europe transitioned to the Industrial Revolution; a period characterised by very bad working conditions, squalid living environment and rampant land grab.

The state had allied with the Industrial capitalist who were consolidating their grip on the economies of Europe and; nobody seemed to be protecting the rights of citizens from the industrial capitalist. Some theorist began arguing that Civil Society should become the protector of the rights and property of citizens.

However, the Socialist and Marxist did not agree with that argument. They thought Civil Society represented the interests of the bourgeoisie and contributed to the cultural and ideological capital required for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism.

For all these years, Civil Society was a concept used by just a few intellectuals; however, about twenty-five years ago, this situation began to change. Activists (Dissidents) emerged in Eastern Europe to challenge the Soviet backed regimes in Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany.

The activists who were mainly shipyard workers, teachers, writers, pastors and journalists skilfully distinguished themselves from political organisations by insisting that they were "Civil Society".

The new style of distinguishing Civil Society from Political organisations spread to the Developing Countries where governments had failed to deliver "good society". Activists and Voluntary Organisations around the world began to refer to themselves as Civil Society and; a concept that only a few intellectuals debated about for centuries, was now in the day-to-day vocabulary of activists, politicians and the ordinary citizens. People realised that all the things they have been doing together voluntarily for the 'common good' was actually Civil Society activity and their associations were Civil Society Organisations.

Although Civil Society is everywhere and is involved in nearly everything, it is very difficult to define. There are as many definitions and perceptions as there are Political Scientist, Lawyers, Activists, Donors, Law enforcement agencies, Foreign policy strategist, Security operatives and Politicians.

For me, I think Civil Society is all the individuals and organizations that are not part of government, not motivated by profit or political power, but working to make the world a better place.

The writer has worked with civil society organisations.

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