The role, influence and impact of civil society organisations (CSOs) is frequently discussed and debated in the international development discourse.
CSOs typically employ numerous channels to influence social and political accountability: training and information activities for engagement; representing marginalised people in formal areas of policymaking; facilitating citizen participation in decentralised government spaces; undertaking transparency initiatives (e.g. budget and expenditure monitoring); fostering contentious action (e.g. protests and advocacy campaigns).
The many justifications provided for strengthening CSO activity include the need to give voice to the voiceless and promote social inclusion in various national and local contexts where vulnerable groups are excluded or marginalised. CSOs may also participate in formal government spaces while convening new spaces for critical discussions and strengthening rights and claims.
But there are also growing concerns that with the increase of CSO activities in the development sphere, national governments have been relieved of their own duties and responsibilities. And while bureaucrats have frequently complained of higher salaries and the lack of “proper” accountability of CSO representatives, local politicians have highlighted a blurring of boundaries between social activism and political activity.
Still others claim that it is not always clear whether local CSOs and the State are playing separate roles. In some national contexts, CSOs may be embedded in State structures, often working with the State, or working in a limited role by only demanding some State services.
In other situations, CSOs may actively work in opposition to the State (but openly) or conduct their activities underground (hidden from view).
A crucial distinction is CSO activities aimed at changing behaviour and those that make citizens more demanding vis-à-vis governments. There is considerable evidence of CSOs making a major contribution to changing individual and group behaviour, especially in the arenas of health, education and basic services.
Similarly, there is also evidence that the political activism of CSOs has strengthened democratic freedoms in some countries. However, in societies with pervasive patronage networks, CSO activity may not necessarily generate or strengthen democracy; running an NGO can be an alternative process of power accumulation.
Some critics also question whether professionalised CSOs, run by elites, are best positioned to understand and channel the interests of the most vulnerable groups in society. There may be a preference, on occasion, to adopt technical fixes (e.g. scorecards) rather than holding the authorities to account for policy failures. Some CSOs choose to prioritise minimalist demands rather than working to promote major social change.