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How important is an active civil society for a well-functioning democracy?


civil society

The purpose of this paper is to show the main features, forms, and achievements of civil society and how it is important for building and well functioning of democracy. Different definitions that are mentioned in this paper explain how different scholars define civil society in diverse ways and yet all of them show its main purposes as the presence of civic, active and voluntary participation and deliberation of citizens in decision making process, their influence on public opinion and policy making, answering to the requirement of democratic values by knowing and standing for their rights. Also, the roles of civil society associations, voting, and the role of new media are mentioned to be important for participatory democracy.

Literature Review

Civil society is a kind of society that people want to live because of its norms, values, achievements that are considered to be positive and important. There are diverse definitions of civil society. In “Oxford Handbook Civil Society”, Michael Edwards depicted chapters about the civil society by pointing out its main forms, norms, achievements and spaces that serve for a good and a better democratic society. He states that people are keen to be part of it, especially after the fall of Berlin Wall, and when new democratic societies emerged. Michael Walzer’s definition (1998, 123-24) of civil society is quoted: “civil society is an uncoerced human association between the individual and the state”. He explains civil society as a sphere where people take collective actions for their normative purposes, being independently from the government and the market. Another definition is that civil society is a space of voluntary association and activity that exists in relative separation from the state and the market (Cohen and Arato 1992; Barber 1998; Salamon, Sokolowski, and List 2004).

Civil Society has been defined in at least three ways: as the forms of associational life, such as NGOs, labor unions, social movements and churches (Edward 2009); (Salamon 2004); as the norms of the good society defined by values, like cooperation, nonviolence, and tolerance (Keane 2003); and as an arena for public deliberation consisting of spaces that are autonomous from states and markets (Scholte 2000). These three definitions are also useful when considering the global arena, which includes multiple forms of associations such as international networks, social movements, campaigns, international federations and confederations of churches, non-governmental organizations, etc. The importance of civil society associations is explained further in this paper.

On chapter 3, Steven Rathgeb Smith sees the non-profit organizations and NGOs as main bodies of civil society that promote democracy and democratic values, citizens’ participation in the realization of democracy. In the same chapter, Putnam’s views are also put forward that a vibrant civil society is a mixture of voluntary groups providing opportunities for civic engagement and participation in associational affairs and public policy process. In the 4th chapter of that book, Alan Fowler’s views about NGOs are described. Formation of UN after WWII gave a starting point for what today are known as NGOs that are main means for active civil society, promotion of democracy. Types of NGOs like BRINGO (Brief Case NGO), MONGO (my own NGO), GONGO (government NGO), PONGO (Political NGO), and many more, CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) are nowadays serving as if they are schools teaching democracy, for their purpose of educating people about their rights, understanding their citizenship.

On chapter 30 of Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, Mark E. Warren talks about the necessity of elections. Robust civil societies provide the contexts within which elections function democratically (Dahl 2000). Correlation between robust civil societies and functioning democracies has been so striking that one tries to understand them as reinforcing one another (Cohen and Arato 1992; Putnam 1993; Edwards 2009). The authors have stressed the importance of civil society, the roles of its members in taking part in fair elections and monitoring them. Civil society is a core feature of democracy when it comes to competitive elections. It is accepted as a core, because people organize their interest, values, opinions and act upon them as representations that organize public opinion, and to express them in voting process.

In Mark Jensen’s book “Civil Society in ”, he writes about the correlation between civil society and liberal democracy. He says these two notions actually come hand in hand, reinforcing one another. Thus, civil society associations, active citizenship give a way for the development of democracy. Democratic institutions in their return provide a platform for citizens to participate and work for good society, and stability of liberal democracy. It is again especially supplied by civil society. Their relation is ongoing.

In Carolyn M. Elliott’s book “Civil Society and Democracy”, concept of civil society and its foundations are explained; its potential to give a start for the democratization of societies is examined. This book takes the topic of civil society in cross cultural setting, learning its influence on democracy in Latin America, Africa, West –Asia, South East Asia and India. Case studies are about Chine, South East Asia, West Asia, Latin America, and India.


From the times of ancient Greece, scholars have appealed to civil society as a way of generating new ideas and energy around the old and familiar questions as the world changed around them. After the fall of Berlin wall in 1989 and when democratic values started to spread in the world, the idea of civil society became the center of intellectual change, political participations. It gained its high prominence throughout the 1990s. Core values of civil society are civility, diversity, equality, voluntary participation in decision making process and joining in associations, religious unions, organizations etc.

The vision of democracy comes hand in hand with the vision of civil society. In complex societies, democracy provides different means that individuals can use to affect collective decisions- not only voting, but also organization, advocacy, networking and deliberation, participation in decision making process, influences on public opinion. Democracy has become more reliant on civil society for its realization. It needs individuals with capacities for democratic citizenship. In a democracy, individuals should be able to understand and protect their interests and values, have potential capacities to participate in collective decision and policy making and voting. Tocqueville (1969, vol.2, 517) stated that associations should act as “schools of democracy” (quoted) that educate people about their rights, develop their sense of participation, deliberation, trust, tolerance and respect for others.

Moreover, democracy itself is inherently public. According to the quoted definition by Lincoln, “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people for the people. So, civil society is a factor that directly influences the building and well- functioning of democracy.

Also, civil society associations serve institutional functions that are necessary for the realization of democracy.

As it is mentioned above, voluntarily activeness is one the core values of civil society. Both joining civil society associations and exiting from them should be free. Participation is an essential element, but if it should be not voluntary, not forced.

A strong civil society is now one of the cornerstones of democracy, “good governance”, pluralism, achievement of important social and economic goals. It has become a prominent tool that can correct state and market failures. In a democratic society, citizens should follow some conditions such as, respect the law, rights of other people, their cultural views, morals and opinions, in order to be part of a civil society. As for the definitions of Cohen and Arato, Barber,  Salamon, Sokolowski, M. Walzer, civil society is independent from the government; however, they can operate together for a better society. This can be realized by legal and financial support of government, its investments on civil society organizations, giving a free space for them to function.

The question arises: How and in what ways can active civil society build, maintain democracy and work for its well functioning?

First of all, most basic role of civil society is achieved when it can limit the power of the state and monitor it. States should have strength and autrority, but if this authoritarism has the potential for leading the government to dictatorship, it needs to be checked and monitored in order to find ways out and restrain the powers of the dictatorship. Civil society actors are supposed to enshoulder this role for their own good. They should raise public concerns about any abuse of their rights and collect together for the sake of their freedoms. Civil society institutions can do a lot regarding this concern, by promoting political participation, motivating citizens for being active and supportive for their rights. Only in that case, democracy can function well. NGOs, for example, have the potential to educate people, especially young generation about their rights as democratic citizens, and encourage them to listen to election campaigns, investigate and vote for the best repsesentative of their interests. They can also educate citizens about team/collective work, in order to cooperate for the solution of common problems, be able to express their concerns, give opinions on a problem and know how to approach problems in profound ways.

Civil society and active citizenship is core of modern demicracies, especially deliberative democracies where citizens participate on public debate for common good. All citizens nowadays, can take part in implementation of the law and policies, if they are well aware of their rights, of course. Canada is the best example for that. Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau included all sorts of people from different spheres in his government to form an inclusive government. Many of them are from civil society, since civil society has a loud voice in Canada. According to Canadian experts and organizations, Trudeau should consult with public before launching his C-51 reform package, especially after the tragic terror act in Paris, recently. Different levels of civil society groups and experts sent a collective letter to PM, which asks Canadians should be fully consulted if C-51 is to be effectively addressed. The letter also shows that people asked Trudeau if there are parts of C-51 that he wants to keep, he should  make it clear how this will impact the rights and freedoms of Canadians. They require Tradeua to consult them on any consequences of the new reform policy. Thus, the direct participation of civil society, the citizens’ inteferance to state decisions, participatory democry is provided in Canada.

Another example can be Brazil, which has been a pioneer in Latin America for the institutionalizing of active civil society within the framework of the 1988 Constitution, which approves the direct participation of civil society. Other countries in Latin America also tried to replicate the Brazilian model. The incorporation and participation of civil society is accepted in the constitutions of most Latin American countries for the development of democracy, so this policy is accepted at least in theory. The “Big Society” slogan that spread in UK, in 2010 had the same purpose. Also, EU began to encourage more participation and involvement of citizens in 2010 in legislation.

The administration of Barack Obama has established a federal Office Office of Social Innovations to support non profit organizations. In some countries such as UK and Australia, the relationship between government and non-profit sector to adapt the formal “compats” for the resolution of mutual concern areas.

There are also cases that governments of democratic countries help for the development of civil society not only in their territory, but also abroad, where the level of citizen’s participation in political process is almost close to zero. On March 2004, the Bush White House presented a press release about Iraqi Boys Scout and Girls Scout program that was saying that Iraqi boys and girls from different ethnic and cultural background will be allowed to come together, join in the activities that promote good citizenship, community service, honor and self-cofidence. (Mark Jensen, Civil Society in Liberal Democracy). It would be a good step for Iraqi people to join in the world community and serve for changing it into a better place.

When talking about civil society’s interefence to state, it should be mentioned that works against corruption in state level by authoritatives are also important funtion of civil society. Active citizens should lobby for the sake of good governance and motivate people for the building of untocurropt state.

Furthermore, civil society organizations can help to develop the other values of democracy such as, tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view.  Without such mutual recpect and understanding, democracy cannot be stable. These values should not only be taught but also be applied in practice. A strong civil society is measured by positive democratic social norms such as trust, tolerance, and cooperation. Civil society is a perfect arena for the expression of diverse interests, and its one of the main roles is providing organiation for the people to lobby for the needs and concerns. For example, women organizations working for gender equality, student unions, farmers, green lovers- environmentalists, trade unions, lawyers, doctors, etc. They can also get involved in a dialogue with state officials and establish a cooperaton for the sake of their common concerns.

Civil society serve for the strengthening of democracy also by providing platforms for citizens to express their solidarity around the same elements that determine their identity, such as religion, language, ethnicity or race, etc. Democracy cannot be stable if people associate only with others of the same religion or identity. They need to gather around a same and one idea that define their identity, as well as with gathering the different interest groups. Then civic life becomes richer, more complex, and more tolerant. Looking at history, civil society in the west was not merely the product of cultural precedents but also the power of the church and its separation from the state, the rise of independent bourgeoisie and civic associations.

A vibrant civil society consisting on diverse and intermediate pluralistic associations helps citizens to socialise with democratic values via different activities or practices that promote civic engagement and pubic deliberation. Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan state-civil society relation is associated with traditional Confucian values, such as pragmatism, family tights and collectivism.

Civil society is known by its broad ground and opportunities for the trainig of future leaders. Some NGOs launch projects training young generation leadership skills, etablish politial debates, workshops and simulations. Future Leaders Program, the women’s leadership projects can be examples. Also, the popular Model UN conferences around the world, which is an unformal, simulative education process in which IR students, future diplomats and politicans get in the shoes of real diplomats, hold debates and accept resolutions, like a real UN conference. These confrences organized by different universities or organizations, help the active participation of young people in political issues and raise their awareness of world problems, whick give them the responsibility of being an active citizen working for the development of democracy.

Moreover, civil society organizations play an important role in conlifct resolution, mediation and peace building. Peace is not achieved only by armed parties at war, but also by active civil citizens and members of the community. Youth organizations, civil society organiations are also involved in peace building nowadays. They are encouraged by international donor institutions and educate people about democracy, human rights, how to break stereotypes and listen to the stories of the other sides, understand them, respect other people’s values, cultural norms, and trying to see common factors among them in order to cooperate for peace. This role of civil society is especially essential in the post war countries in the recovering period, such as Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Armenia, or the countries with ongoing conflicts like Palestine. There are institutions in the world that collect the youth from conflict zones and promote peace. For example, the Youth Peace Camp Program by the Council of Europe, which I was also a participant in 2012, or the Youth Peace Ambassadors Program by Council of Europe Directorate of Youth and Sports . Also, the annual Summe University at the American University in Kosovo in Pristina, which I got a rich experience and skills about post conflict mediation and peace building process. These projects and initiatives are worth to note for their aim of promoting active participation of citizens in decision making and deliberation, their chance of education about democratic values, human rights, equality, use of media etc.

Another important role of civil society for the stable and developing democracy is the rights of citizens to take part in voting and monitoring the elections. Elections are seen as nothing less than democracy in practice. For Schumpeter, competitive elections are the heart of democracy. Citizens follow the election campaigns, support their favorite political party or best representatives on the basis of their interests. The important factor here is the broadness of authoity and freedom that are given to active civil society organizations to monitor how fair and democratic the elections are done.

Civil Society shaped its new form in Information Technologies Age which also has a positive impact on democracy. As a result of new information technologies, social media, newly emerged “public journalism” are new forms of civil society and active ways of engaging in public issues, decision making and change. By mean of social media, blogging and citizen journalism, people take part, express their thoughts, and take their positions about a social problem. This tendency is growing nowadays especially in the US and even in Azerbaijan. I want to give my own blogging activity here as an example. I post my opinions on my personal blog (timestepsandmoments.wordpress.com) about social problems of the country, movies, books, etc. Also I wrote about the importance of the education of women was published on Caucasuswoman.com, which was a project on gender issues on Caucasus. By means of my blogging activity, I already have been able to influence the youth’s thinking way and attitude towards women’s role in society; this is why, I won the 6th place among 500 bloggers in the Social Blog posts Contest on website sosium.com in 2011. This is the power of civil society organizations that can provide the youth with platforms to actively engage in influencing the public opinion, take active participation and have a leat contribution for a democratic society.


By: Turkan Devrijova



Finally, I want to stress that civil society has different functions that prove itself as a main feature for well functioning democracy, such as its right to interfere to state and monitor political process; its work for the anticorruption in state level; its interdependency and yet cooperation with government to solve common issues for building a better society; being a chance for citizens for active and voluntary participation in decision making process; its educative character and being a ground for the training of young leaders; a solidarity means for the people of the same religious, linguistic, cultural, ethnic identity; its vital role in the realization of voting process in elections and active ciziten journalism by means of new media give deep roots and ground for a better democratic society.

A democratic state cannot be stable without the respect and support of its citizens. Civil society is a bridge for a positive relationship between the democratic state and its citizens.


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  2. Andrew Heywood. Representation, Elections and Voting. Chapter 9. 2013, New York, NY, Palgrave Macmillan.
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About Turkan Devrijova