Religion and NGOs

Civil Society: The American Model and Third World Development

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 1, September 2003

By Howard J. Wiarda.
Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2003.
170 pp. $70 hardcover, $24 paper.

A professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Howard J. Wiarda concentrates on civil society’s role in dismantling state-directed political systems and otherwise in promoting development. After surveying the history and definitions of civil society, he turns to case studies of sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

In a concluding chapter, Wiarda cautions that the popularity of the civil society concept may hold perils, or at least augur a new phase. “‘Civil society’ has become a growth industry,” he writes. “And when that happens, the concept itself and its purposes run the risk of being hopelessly distorted. It also runs the risk of falling victim to the same policy cycle that so many other well-meaning programs in the past–agrarian reform, community development, family planning, basic human needs, sustainable development–have gone through: initial excitement and enthusiasm, followed by politicization and distortion, resulting in disillusionment, disappointment, and eventual petering out…. My reading is that civil society, parallel to these other panaceas, has now about exhausted its romantic and enthusiastic phase and is presently on the cusp of either decline or a more realistic assessment.” For his part, Wiarda urges realism: “[L]et us support and aid civil society–it is still a good idea–but do so with our eyes wide open, realistically, and recognizing both the opportunities and the limits that championing civil society in other people’s countries offers.”