There has been a dramatic expansion in the size, scope, and capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) around the globe over the past decade. This unprecedented growth has been spurred by the process of globalization and the expansion of democratic governance, telecommunications, and economic integration. CSOs have also become important actors for delivery of social services and implementation of other development programmes, as a complement to government action, especially in regions where government presence is weak such as in post-conflict situations.
Important changes appear to be underway in civil society across the world. Civil society organizations (CSOs) have been subject to considerable criticism and doubt over the past decade, after enjoying an enormous expansion and heightened attention throughout the developing and post-Communist worlds in the 1990s. Influential observers and analysts in many quarters decry a predominant focus on Western-style nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They argue that these groups are looking increasingly ineffective, tired, and out of touch. Some of these critics, however, argue that more broad-based citizen movements are starting to reinvigorate the civic sphere, with dynamic and fluid forms of civic organization emerging and gaining a significant presence in political and social debates. The rise of such groups appears to reflect a determination to hold governments to account. Citizens appear less tolerant of nepotism and corruption, and they are mobilizing through many kinds of campaigns to bear down on self-serving elites. People have also begun to organize themselves within local communities and neighbourhoods in search of more equitable decisions about practical, everyday issues. Moreover, information communications technology is generating fundamental changes in the structures of social organization.
What some analysts refer to as a new contentious politics has taken root. This is not limited to particular regions and regime types, but is increasingly global. Large-scale protests have flared up in scores of states across every region. Many of these appear to have emerged with a degree of spontaneity, involving tens of thousands of citizens who previously were not politically active. Such is their ubiquity that these protests have become a defining feature of modern politics.
The revolts embrace a range of causes. Some are about democratic revolution, some about neoliberalism and globalization, some about specific cases of corruption, and others about very local issues. If their driving motivations are different, so are their outcomes. Some of the new civic mobilizations have ousted regimes; some have won major concessions from incumbent governments; others have failed in their declared aims.
Given this diversity, it is necessary to understand civic activism in a broad sense that includes the activities of formal organizations such as professional NGOs, long-established civil society bodies, looser and newer social movements, individual activists, and local community bodies. Emerging forms of civic activism include protests and less contentious forms of self-organization, embracing both online and offline tactics.
While many allude to growing empowerment, at the same time, there is a more negative side to civil society trends. Many governments are more assertively seeking to deploy a range of mechanisms designed to neuter civic activism’s reach and impact. Regimes are imprisoning and even killing greater numbers of civic activists. Close to 100 governments have introduced laws that restrict freedoms of association and assembly since 2012. In addition, these regimes are finding more subtle tactics to make life difficult for civil society organizations. In many parts of the world, the very principle of autonomous and free civil society is under assault, and activists are on the defensive.
Great and varied change is afoot within global civil society. For civic activism, it appears to be both the best and worst of times. The positive dynamics of empowerment and the negative trend of constraints on civil society are interconnected. Regimes are reacting nervously to potent new forms of civic activism; in turn, as government restrictions bite, activists look for new types of civic organization to stay ahead of regimes’ repressive intent.
While there is widespread agreement that global civil society is evolving, there are many uncertainties about how best to conceptualize this change and its significance, impacts, and long-term ramifications. Some observers celebrate the new activism; others decry the unfocused looseness of its structures and the disruptive imprecision of its aims. Some paint a picture of ever-stronger civic empowerment; others argue that governments increasingly have the upper hand over global civil society. Some believe a fundamentally different type of civil society is taking shape; others believe today’s ascendant civic movements in fact exhibit few truly new features.
CSOs in Pakistan
Civil society in Pakistan is extremely weak, disjointed, largely catering to its own interests and political and ethnic views. It has little capacity to come together for collective action, and its different groups have been publicising different ideologies such that the gaps among them have become too wide. There is no single issue or set of issues which can act as a binding force, and motivate them to demonstrate “national behaviour”. Most importantly, their will and capacity to reduce violence and seek dialogue and compromise is limited.
Historically, Pakistan has had a few movements, most of which were led by politicians who were able to mobilise civil society. During various martial law regimes, small movements were started, led mainly by leftist elements, progressive writers and intellectuals. These were curbed, through imprisonments, exiles, torture and even killings by state forces.
The language movement in East Pakistan and its curbing by force by the state was instrumental in increasing the general dissent among the population of East Pakistan. This culminated in civil war and the 1971 War with India followed by dismemberment of the country.
In the late 1980s, a women’s movement did take root, and several organisations and female activists led strikes and rallies against what they perceived as discrimination but this did not catch popular attention. Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, who had just returned to her homeland, did start the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) but the unnatural political alliances and subsequent civilian governments were short-lived. The ethnic divide along with violence, intimidation of civilians and use of state machinery for civilian torture continued unabated and was fostered and funded by powerful groups of politicians, feudal lords, military and the so-called religious elements.
Following the successful lawyer’s movement, and the surge of a free media, there was much hope for civil society to reform itself and begin to play a more significant role in stimulating dialogue, communicating issues and curbing violence and extremist ideologies. Civil society activism in our country has favoured military rulers. The Westernised, liberal and foreign-educated civil society lot of Pakistan is far removed from the political imagination of the common citizens of this country. And that is exactly why we are left with conservative, fundamentalist and backward elements providing an alternative politics by resisting state and market forces.
The so-called ‘uncivil society’ shows civility while the proponents of civil society have become isolated as allies of Western imperialism –as conservatives put it.