27 May, 2022


Role Of Civil Society To Defend, Strengthen & Develop Democracy

By Anura K. T. De Silva –

Anura K. T. De Silva

73 years of independence has proven that we cannot rely on our democratic process to defend, strengthen or exercise even the basic democratic values or principles to govern our small island nation. Therefore, there is ample evidence that it should be everyone’s responsibility(including those who question if Democracy could feed the people) as civil society members to engage in our own preferred scope of advocacy than blindly outsource to elected representatives. Civil society means the entire range of organized groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This of course includes non-governmental organizations, independent mass media, independent think tanks, universities, and independent social and religious groups not aligned to any power that has continued to weaken democracy. The watchword in the above description is the word ‘Independent’.

Looking at part of what the word “Civil” implies, it is tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity. Therefore, to be part of civil society, groups must conform to the following conditions:

* Respect for the law (even if the law is undemocratic)

* Respect for the rights of ALL individuals

* Respect for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions 

Civil society groups may establish ties to political parties and the state, but they must retain their independence to become interdependent with other Civil society groups, and should not be seeking political power from the prevailing undemocratic system that needs to be Democratised.

Often in transitions, some groups may try to exploit or take the shortcut to monopolize the lives and thinking of other members or groups.  Such groups often do not tolerate the right of their members to dissent, or they do not respect other groups that disagree with them. Some of these groups may even be fronts of the undemocratic political parties or movements that seek to grab power of the state to exercise their private agendas. Such groups should be identified and isolated as being not part of the civil society seeking to defend, strengthen or develop democracy if we are serious about reinvigorating a new nation we all deserve.

What, then, can the independent, voluntary, law-abiding, tolerant and pluralistic organizations of civil society do to defend, strengthen and develop democracy?

The first and most basic role of civil society is to limit and control the power of the state. Of course, any democracy needs a well-functioning and legitimate state apparatus. But when a country is emerging from decades of pseudo democracy and pseudo autocracy, it needs to find ways to check, monitor, and restrain the excessive powers of political leaders and state officials at least until true independent branches and true checks and balances in the state can be established. This vigilance can mostly be a means to distract the interest of con artists entering politics and even if they do enter, they will soon find that the vigilance of the informed civil society to be a great threat to rob the nation.

Hence, civil society actors should watch how state officials use and leverage their powers to directly and indirectly benefit them. They should raise public concern about any abuse of power.  They should lobby for access to information, including freedom of information, laws, and rules and institutions to prevent corruption, imbalance equality or limiting freedom of any individuals sometimes even sentencing them for speaking. We should by now be well aware how power not only easily corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely to the core. Therefore, we should stop the insanity of electing new faces(often siblings) into the same corrupt system with excessive powers and unaccountability and expect anything different without first cleaning up the cesspit in our systems of governance.

This constitutes a second important function of civil society: to expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobby for good governance reforms. Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society watch dogs. Furthermore, as corruption occurs so frequently and repetitively in various forms(money laundering, floating armoury and a weapons haul, bond scam, unaccountable deaths and abductions, private memorials with public funds, unaccountable easter sunday attacks, environmental destruction, selling of public property and making of sugar daddies for quick returns) with cover exercised by the loyal legislators for their survival, a public access spreadsheet maybe needed just to keep track of the cronisms. 

A third function of civil society is to promote political participation with a sole purpose to defend, strengthen and develop Democracy. Civil society groups can do this by educating younger generations, grass roots and working people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens, and encouraging them to vote to defend and strengthen democratic policies rather than on blind loyalty, empty promises or for temporary handouts. Civil society groups can also help develop citizens’ skills to work with one another to solve common problems, to debate public issues, and express their views for the 21st century. Shouldn’t the younger civil society wonder why minority groups continue to advocate ethnic based politics since the Donoughmore and Soulbury constitutions even in the 21st century while the people in the north are neglected?   

Fourth, civil society organizations can help to develop the other values of democratic life: tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable. These values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice. We have outstanding examples from stronger democratic countries —especially women’s groups—that can cultivate these values in young people and young adults through various programs that practice participation and debate.

Fifth, civil society also can help to develop programs for democratic civic education in the schools as well. After practicing pseudo democracy and pseudo autocracy for 73 years, comprehensive reforms are needed to revise the curricula, rewrite the textbooks, and retrain teachers in order to educate young people to seek the truth, not be misguided to false propaganda, to think rationally, learn about our true history, root causes for past violence, crime and wars that occured due to non democratic governance and to hold on to the core principles and values of democracy. We may speak different languages, worship differently or live in different homes, but we are ALL brothers and sisters seeking the same democratic values of Freedom, Justice and Equality. This is too important a task to leave only to officials in the education ministry. Civil society must be involved as a constructive partner and advocate for democracy and human rights to train especially the new generations. We can no longer teach our children to be deaf, dumb and blind to sister languages without at least learning a link language but ideally becoming fluent trilinguals.

Sixth, civil society is an arena for the expression of diverse interests, and one role for civil society organizations is to lobby for the needs and concerns of their members, as women, children, disabled, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, and other marginalized groups. Civil society groups and interest groups can present their views to parliament and provincial councils, by contacting individual members and demanding to testify before parliamentary committees. They can also establish a dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for their interests and concerns.

And it is not only the resourceful and well organized who can have their voices heard. Over time, groups that have historically been oppressed and confined to the margins of society can organize to assert their rights and defend their interests as well.

A seventh way civil society can strengthen democracy is to provide new forms of interest and solidarity that cut across old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious, and other identities. Democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity. When people of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, human rights activists, environmentalists, and so on, civic life becomes richer, more complex, and more tolerant.

Eighth, civil society can provide a training ground for future political leaders who would have a new vision for our nation and a passion to strengthen its democratic values. Civil society groups and other groups can help to identify and train new breed of leaders who have dealt with important public or corporate challenges and can be recruited to run for political office or public service to Execute policies or Legislate new policies. Experience from stronger demoratic countries shows that civil society is a particularly important arena from which to recruit and train young men and women and most importantly future women leaders than reserve those seats for the senile cronies to obstruct progress.

Ninth, civil society can help to inform the public about important public issues. This is not only the role of the mass media, but of Civil society groups which can provide forums for debating public policies and disseminating information about issues before parliament that affect the interests of different groups, or of society at large.

Tenth, civil society organizations can play an important role in mediating and helping to resolve conflict.  In stronger demoratic countries, Civil society groups have developed formal programs and training of trainers to relieve political and ethnic conflict and teach groups to solve their disputes through bargaining and accommodation rather than through violence often fanned by those holding power. When data, knowledge, wisdom or experiences are limited, they need to seek professional think tanks, policy institutes and Universities to research on particular matters of policy applicable to society.

Eleventh, civil society organizations have a vital role to play in monitoring the conduct of elections. This requires a broad coalition of organizations, unconnected to political parties or candidates, that deploys neutral monitors at all the different polling stations to ensure that the voting and vote counting is entirely free, fair, peaceful, and transparent. It is very hard to have credible and fair elections in a new democracy unless civil society groups play this role.

Finally, I want to stress that civil society is not simply in tension with the state. Because civil society is independent of the state doesn’t mean that it must always criticize and oppose the state.  In fact, by making the state at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, effective—and hence more legitimate—a vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the state and promotes their positive engagement with it and will not be easily misguided even by crony public media organizations.

A democratic state cannot be stable unless it is effective and legitimate, with the respect and support of its citizens. Civil society is a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between the democratic state and its citizens.

*Adopted with the consent of Larry Diamond Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution (https://diamond-democracy.stanford.edu/) for our political, social & cultural realities

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Mr. Anura K. T. De Silva,
    I hope to god that you are not referring to the “Civil Society” that brought us “Yahapalana” government.

    • 0

      SCP, you are right. All of the NGOs, so called Civil Society Activists are leopards in sheep garb. They are an own class of ingenious souls who have mastered the art of fooling the gullible masses like the female pickpockets.

  • 5

    Timely reminder and encouragement for civil society to overcome the intimidation, up the ante, grow, and nurture at large the civil responsibilities of keeping our governments in check To Defend, Strengthen & Develop Democracy.

  • 4

    Oh no SCP he is referring to the civil society which brought Rajapsksas, MS, RW / JR, Bandas and Senanayakas. He also seems to be anticipating the coming ones BR , NR and so on.

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