There is a lot of confusion about the term civil society. Language like ‘participation of civil society’ suggests that civil society is just a bunch of actors. The conceptualization of civil society as a space in between public, private and non-formal spheres provides a useful tool for analysis (Defourney and Pestoff, 2008)[2]. See also my contribution to the Dutch debate about the N of NGO at the oneworld and vice versa websites (in Dutch) and what various authors share about the future of International NGOs at the broker.

Space for people, profit and power

From a space perspective civil society is filled with institutions, but individuals may reside in different domains simultaneously. The governor (public sector) may also participate in the local footbal competition as a referee or player (civil society). Local entrepreneurs (private sector) are also citizens and voters and may attend a church (informal sphere) and may even be a chairmen of a trade union. However, in many cases, the number of people traveling all domains may be limited. This will also limits understanding of the value of civil society space for each of the domains. However, in any situation a strong civil society requires a large diversity of actors each occupying legitimate positions in the space between the other spheres. By their very presence civil society actors keep the space open. In absence of them there won’t be any civil society space (though still associational life may exist in each of the domains).

Changing variables and dimensions of civil society

The legitimacy of state parties as legislator for society is under pressure.  Norm setting is increasingly derived from the informal sector with activists & traditional and religious leadership gaining influence and reclaiming civil rights through peaceful protest. This will result in a re-shaping of civil society space, possibly with more dimensions. To understand these dynamics in a volatile world helps developing strategies to reach an optimal equilibrium where civil rights are best served and where conservation of natural resources and natural beauty shows dignity and respect towards future generations.

U® Label performance

U® seeks to qualify the above understanding of the dimensions of civil society in each context and helps translating them into considerations for policy or advocacy purpose. The further development of the label will be taken up by ¥OURWORLD. It’s success will largely depend on the willingness to join hands in this effort and on the longer term it will depend on the willingness to comply.