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Unit 3

3.1 Civil Society

7 min readโ€ขnovember 15, 2020

@kelly-cotton


3.1: Civil Society

We start with the knowledge you need to demonstrate at the end of this topic:
  1. Define the term civil society.
  2. Describe civil society.
  3. Explain the role of civil society in each of the course countries.

Key Terms

Civil Society can be defined as the collective action of a stateโ€™s citizens based upon shared interests, purposes, and values. Generally, civil society is separate from government and commercial for-profit organizations. If simplified, civil society is voluntary organizations not associated with the state that helps individuals define and advance their own interests. Where do you think civil societies are strongest? That's right, liberal, or established democracies because there is a value placed on individual freedoms.
Why are political scientists interested in civil society if it is separate from government? When exploring civil society, it helps to define the peopleโ€™s relationship to and role in politics and the larger community. More importantly, civil society can act as a check on the stateโ€™s power!
An example from the United States will make this more clear. In the U.S., we have interest groups. For example, the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) is a powerful group of elderly people in the United States, with 38 million members that forward common interests, like protecting social security. This group checks the governmentโ€™s power in the United States because 38 million voters could easily sway national elections if, letโ€™s say, the government eliminated social security!
Now that civil society has been defined, it is time to describe what it is. Civil society is made up of a number of different organizations. The types of organizations included in civil society include:
  1. Religious organizationsโ€”local churches or national/international religious organizations such as the Catholic Church or Churches Network for Non-Violence.
  2. Neighborhood organizationsโ€”different types of organizations formed based on clusters of "where people live". Ex. neighborhood watches focused on safety, community charities or outreaches, etc.
  3. News mediaโ€”a civil society organization that many are familiar with. Media can take the form of newspapers, TV news, internet or cable news, radio news.
  4. Business and Professional Associationsโ€”organizations that professionals join to forward interests. Examples include the American Botanical Council, which is an international organization that promotes the responsible use of herbal medicine, or the American Institute of Floral Designers, a non-profit that supports excellence in the floral industry.
  5. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)โ€”organizations, both national and international, that pursue policy objectives and foster public participation. Examples include the Red Cross, Oxfam, or Wikimedia Foundation.
To describe civil society and the various forms it takes, there is one more thing you must do: be able to identify how regime type impacts the variety and strength of civil society. In general, democratic regimes tend to allow a far more robust civil society than authoritarian regimes that often attempt to prevent challenges to authority and power. The course asks that you are able to do more than generalize about civil society in democratic and authoritarian regimes. It asks you to specifically discuss the role of civil society in each of the course countries (UK, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, China, and Iran). The chart below easily captures this information:
CountryExamples of Civil SocietyDevelopmentSupports/Limitations
UK (Fullย or Advanced Democracy)Church of England (Religious Organization) National Union of Teachers (Professional Association/Union) Bullying UK (NGO)BBC (Media)Well Established: Interest groups, religious organizations, NGOs, professional associations. Very active in UK society and influential on policy makingGovernment supports civil society and protects civil society in the UK. Civil Society is an ingrained part of the culture in the UK as well as most advanced democracies like the US)
Mexico (Flawed Democracy/Transitioning from Authoritarian Regime)NGOs are numerous in Mexico and continue to grow and expand since 2000.ย Examples of NGOs Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Centre for Human Rightsย Human Rights Centre "Fray Bartolomรฉ de las Casas"Developed: Despite one party domination for almost 70 years of Mexicoโ€™s history, Mexico has always had a lively and engaged Civil Society.Prior to 2000 PRI divided interest groups into 3 groups: labor, peasants, and middle class and each were dominated by PRI-controlled groups so in other words there were government limitations. However, after 2000 when PAN won the Presidential election and ended PRIs domination, interest groups and NGOs began to expand their power. Most of the NGOs in Mexico are focused on human rights as violence, drug cartels, and failure on the part of the government to protect rights and liberties.
Nigeria (Flawed Democracy/Transitioning from Authoritarian Regime)MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) this interest group has worked to apply national laws to secure financial benefits for the Ogoni in the Niger Delta, as well as to hold foreign-operated oil companies to environmental standards Action Aid (NGO) focused on helping the unemployedUnderdeveloped: Little development in colonial history. Emerging: Postcolonial history, many formal interest groups and informal voluntary associations actively seeking to influence politics.Has at times been limited by the authoritarian nature of Nigeriaโ€™s history as a colonial holding and its history under military rule. Since 1999s Constitution there has been a more robust civil society emerging. However, since 2017 the Nigerian government has been working on an NGO bill that would regulate NGOs and limit civil society. Civil Society also faces limitations that are non-government accusations of mistrust of the public because of belief that many NGOs are corrupt
Russia (Authoritarian Regime)Russian Orthodox Church (Religious Organization) Nashi- Youth Organization labeled as a government organized, (NGO)Underdeveloped: Most Russians donโ€™t belong to sports clubs, literary or cultural groups, charitable organizations, or attend church.EmergingSince the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 more civil society organizations have developedHighly limited by the government, especially under Putin. The government does not often directly attack, however the government does investigate sources of income, civil society groups must register with the government and this process is made extremely difficult, police harassment, laws that restrict foreign investments, and an expansion of treason laws to include assisting foreign organizations (remember civil society can include international organizations)
China (Authoritarian Regime)Red Cross of China (NGO) focused on disaster relief Jane Goodall Charities China (NGO) focus on helping gorillasHabitat for Humanity China (NGO) focus on housing for the poorUnderdeveloped: Prior to economic opening of the country in the 1970s and 1980s and the Constitution of 1982 little evidence of civil society.EmergingSince the opening of the economy to foreign investors and loosening of control by the party there has been a development of private organizations focused on charity initiatives like AIDS, the environment, and legal reform. NGOs have also developed since the 1990s.The government controls media, internet, etc. which is one limitation on NGOs. The government keeps close control of the groups. However, religious groups in particular are closely controled, an example would be the 1999-2001 crackdown on the religious movement Falon Gong, a religious group.
Iran (Authoritarian Regime)Charity Foundation for Special Diseases (NGO) Iranian Society of Environmentalists (NGO) focused on environmental issuesInstitute for Interreligious Dialogue (Religious Organization)Extremely Limited: Under the rule of the Shahs there was little to no civil society. Under President Khataml there was what was known as the Tehran spring or a period of increased political liberalization. Under President Ahmadinejad this policy was reversed as newspapers were closed, banned, and censored and less toleration of protests, etc.Although in the early 2000s there were 1000s of NGOs listed in Iranian records the government has limited public gatherings, free speech, free media, arrests of those who speak out against the government. However, young people are keeping civil society alive. Iran has a very large youth population and this group is very attracted to Western popular culture-music, dress, cars, etc. although the current regime is less tolerant of this attraction to Western popular culture it keeps the idea of civil society alive.
Even though civil society organizations are often not related to politics, they lead towards democratization in their countries. Mexico and Nigeria are excellent examples of this. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, both of these nations have moved from authoritarian regimes to democratic regimes, and the role of civil society is a big part of this development. For instance, in Mexico in 2014, drug cartels murdered 43 students. NGOs banded together and pressured the President into constitutional reform to tackle corruption.
The limitations placed on civil society by governments tend to highlight violations of civil liberties protected under foundational documents. Iran highlights this tendency. In the Iranian Constitution, individuals are guaranteed the following provisions:
Article 23: Investigation into oneโ€™s ideas is forbidden. No one can be subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.
Article 24: Publications and the press are free to discuss issues unless such is deemed harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public. The law shall determine the details of this exception.
Article 26: The political parties, associations and trade unions, Islamic associations, or associations of the recognized religious minorities are free to exist on the condition that they do not negate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, Islamic criterion, and the foundation of the Islamic Republic. No one can be prevented from participation in these gatherings or forced to participate in one of them.
However, the Iranian government has dismantled the media at times (especially newspapers), and media that is allowed is owned and controlled by the government (radio and tv). Activists upset by the loss of liberal candidates in the 2009 elections were targeted by the government after many protested the election results. In 2011, a human-rights lawyer name Nasrin Sutoodeh, was jailed for 11 years for criticizing President Ahmadinejadโ€™s policies. This is in stark contrast to Mexico, as discussed previously.

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