Accepted paper:

Exploring the concept of 'Civil Society' through the eyes of its activists: contested, consensual or clichéd?


Sarah Thomas (University of Woverhampton)

Paper short abstract:

This paper will explore whether the prevalence of normative, donor-driven discourse on the role of civil society in development has resulted in 'jaded' and unproblematized understandings of civil society on the part of CSO staff and volunteers, depriving the sector of political potency.

Paper long abstract:

Although historically a much-contested concept, it has been argued that civil society has become a victim of its own ubiquity in development discourse; its potential for radicalism and innovation blunted by normative, donor-driven narratives as to its value and function, and the unquestioning acceptance of those narratives on the part of donor-dependent NGOs. Donor influence, both financial and ideational, is increasingly charged with sapping the vitality of civil society as an arena for political debate and citizen-driven change. This paper presents preliminary findings from qualitative research undertaken with Central African CSOs working in the forest sector who, although members of the same network, are in receipt of different levels of donor funding (and the inevitable 'influence' that accompanies it). Based on the perspectives of a range of different organisations, from 'professionalised' national NGOs to grassroots, community-facing organisations, the research unearths and examines perceptions and understandings of the role and value of civil society among activists themselves: the personal motivation underlying their work, their guiding vision and their perceived contribution to achieving it. Drawing on the distinct intellectual tributaries of neo-institutionalist theory (rational choice, sociological and discursive institutionalism) it will explore the underlying drivers of consensual or contested understandings and the possible future implications for collective action and civil society activism.

panel C3
Unravelling, unfolding and unsettling NGOs' work, role and methodologies