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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 2, February 2005

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Latin America

The Promise and Peril of Democracy (Full Text of Speech)
Jimmy Carter

The Promise and Peril of Democracy (Summary)
Joseph Proietti

Threat Resurges for Venezuelan NGOs [Spanish Translation]
Antonio L. Itriago and Miguel Ángel Itriago

Transparency Versus Government Supervision in Peru [Spanish Translation]
Beatriz Parodi Luna

Federal Law for the Promotion of Civil Society Organizations in Mexico
Consuelo Castro

Active Without Recognition: Obstacles to Development of the Colombian Third Sector
Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo

The Role of the Media in the Consolidation of Democracy in Latin America
The Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars

Articles

Philanthropy and Law in South Asia: Key Themes and Key Choices
Mark Sidel and Iftekhar Zaman

The Role of a National Donor Association: A U.S. Perspective
Robert Buchanan

California’s Nonprofit Integrity Act of 2004
Thomas Silk and Rosemary Fei

Progress on Civil Society Legislation in Turkey
Filiz Bikmen

Taxation of Grants in Russia
Yulia Checkmaryova

Reviews

Civil Society
By Michael Edwards
Reviewed by Stephan Klingelhofer

The Law of Charities
By Peter Luxton
Reviewed by Richard Fries

Does Civil Society Matter?: Governance in Contemporary India
Edited by Rajesh Tandon & Ranjita Mohanty
Reviewed by Bindu Sharma

Governing Nonprofit Organizations: Federal and State Law and Regulation
By Marion R. Fremont-Smith
Reviewed by Michael Bisesi

Balkan Identities: Nation and Memory
Edited by Maria Todorova
Reviewed by Gerald M. Easter

Something to Believe In: Politics, Professionalism and Cause Lawyering
By Stuart A. Scheingold and Austin Sarat
Reviewed by Patricia Lyons

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Download this issue (PDF) | Editorial Board

Civil Society

By Michael Edwards
Reviewed by Stephan Klingelhofer*

Sometimes big things do come in small packages. Michael Edwards’s Civil Society fits that description precisely. Only 112 pages, plus notes, bibliography, and index, this compact volume helps the reader understand what “civil society” is, where the concept came from, and why it is significant in today’s globalized socioeconomic-political environment. Most important, Edwards raises questions about popular assumptions, even those long held and often articulated by experts on and advocates for civil society. These questions are really the heart of the book. 

A renowned scholar and a well-known administrator, formerly with the World Bank and now at the Ford Foundation, Edwards is well suited to describe the civil society world and to raise questions about it. He has been a doer as well as a thinker, and this dual role qualifies him as an author whom both theoreticians and practitioners should read. 

Simply put, Edwards’s thesis is that no single theory can adequately explain how civil society operates and how it affects the world. He also decries the sloppy and uncritical analysis that in the end renders the phrase “civil society” as meaning everything, and therefore nothing. In fact, he suggests (“demands” would not be too strong a word) that the reader accompany him on an analytically rigorous voyage down the main tributaries that feed the dynamic social river we know as civil society.  

Edwards identifies the three most significant of these tributaries in Western culture: civil society as a part of society, a “neo-Tocquevillian” focus on associational life; civil society as a kind of society, one that expresses certain values and norms and meets certain social goals; and civil society in the public sphere, a place of discourse that affects policy and social direction. The analysis of each of these perspectives constitutes the first part of the book.  

As each theme is explicated, one can easily be drawn into that camp. But in the end, Edwards makes the compelling case that each falls short. None of the theories adequately describes what civil society is, how it operates, or – most important of all – how it should be understood in order that civil society might have the greatest impact. 

With civil society viewed essentially as associational life, it embraces many groups and gatherings of folk in countries all over. These groups meet certain needs for community, for working, playing, and living together with some sense of mutual identity. Some are registered and have legal form; others just exist, from the family level to larger amalgams. But it is often difficult to identify the line between such associational groupings and other entities – government, market-based organizations, political organizations, religious movements, and so forth. For example, village structures in the South Pacific perform some of the functions of government but have no formal political standing. Recently, certain charities affiliated with religious bodies have entered into relationships with organizations whose agendas are clearly political, which has become troubling in the context of global terror. In addition, associational life can create homogeneity and fail to promote the kinds of diversified thinking and acting that produce a living and breathing body politic. Thus, associational life alone is insufficient as a defining quality of civil society. 

The next possibility, defining civil society as the good society, can beg more questions than it answers. As Edwards notes, the idea of polis, the commonwealth, can spur people to action, as it seems to have done in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Seeking the collective good for the people as a whole is certainly a positive goal. But, as Edwards writes, achieving a “good society requires both norms of behavior that infuse institutions with value-based energy and direction, and political settlements that legitimize and sustain those values and directions in the polity.”  

At least in many of its constructs, civil society can represent consensus on values and norms, and even work to achieve such a consensus. But civil society may live most powerfully in the particular, not in the general--addressing the issues that concern particular people, groups, and regions. Norms and even values differ, not to mention economic and religious goals. In any given instance, moreover, businesses, families, and the government itself can affect such norms and values as much as or more than any “civil society organization” can do.  

So Edwards turns to the public sphere itself as a way to define civil society. He looks to Jurgen Habermas, who characterized the public sphere as that place where discursive interaction can occur. Edwards suggests that it is not unreasonable to see civil society as an almost geographic space, a space in which people talk through their differences and resolve their problems. But, as Edwards notes, people often use that space for something other than reasonable, “civil” debate. Indeed, when leaders demand civility in discourse, they are not seeking debate but demanding agreement, a kind of false consensus. The recent American role in the Middle East provides a powerful example of non-debate in the public sphere on matters of intense importance to every sector of the nation--economic, political, moral, and social.  

When people and groups have wildly divergent interests, as Edwards observes, it takes a great deal of a kind of “moral maturity” to respect diversity and to seek the common good. Moreover, organizations established for “good” purposes often morph into “special interests,” either by devoting themselves to their own institutional perpetuation or by being perceived as untrustworthy by the political, media, and social actors that help form and reflect public opinion. At least to some degree, after all, the public sphere is a place of inequality: some voices are louder than others.  

None of these worthy definitions, thus, can alone suffice to describe what civil society is and does. But together, they can enable us to understand better why civil society has drawn the devotion of so many people, so many resources, and so much toil, particularly during the past quarter century or so. Without a strong “associational ecosystem” (a particularly apt and interesting term, itself worth reading the book to understand), value-laden discourse cannot be undertaken. But that ecosystem cannot be strong without a level playing field, which in turn requires a public sphere that permits open discourse and adjusts the debate to assure that most voices can be heard. And that very process of “political” debate, goal-setting, and policy-making and -implementing requires the kind of participatory process that only a “civil society” can promote. Edwards depicts the three categories of definitions as standing beside one another; as suggested above, I believe they are more like tributaries merging into a river, the distinct components working together. 

Civil Society is a book that should be distributed to students, practitioners, funding agencies, politicians, and everyone engaged in the promotion of “democratization.” It is a primer that we all need, one that enables us to reengage the deepest questions: how people can have a meaningful stake in the direction of their lives, why the health of society demands that they do have a stake, and who speaks for you, me, and the woman in the marketplace in Lagos.

Notes

* Stephan E. Klingelhofer is Senior Vice President of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

 

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