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Defining Civil Society

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There has been a dramatic expansion in the size, scope, and capacity of civil society around the globe over the past decade, aided by the process of globalization and the expansion of democratic governance, telecommunications, and economic integration.  According to the Yearbook of International Organizations, the number of international NGOs was reported to have increased from 6,000 in 1990 to more than 50,000 in 2006. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have also become significant players in global development assistance, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimating that, as of 2006, CSOs provided approximately US$15 billion in international assistance.
CSOs have also become important actors for delivery of social services and implementation of other development programs, as a complement to government action, especially in regions where government presence is weak such as in post-conflict situations. Perhaps the most recent and visible case of CSO involvement in post-disaster relief occurred in Asia during the post-Tsunami reconstruction after 2006.
CSOs’ influence on shaping global public policy has also emerged over the past two decades. This dynamism is exemplified by successful advocacy campaigns around such issues as banning of land mines, debt cancellation, and environmental protection which have mobilized thousands of supporters around the globe.  A recent manifestation of the vibrancy of global civil society has been the World Social Forum (WSF) which has been held annually since 2001 on different continents, and which has brought together tens of thousands CSO activists to discuss global development issues.  Another example of the vibrancy and importance of civil society is the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), an international civil society campaign advocating for debt relief and greater aid to poor countries. In 2008, GCAP is estimated to have mobilized more than 116 million citizens to participate in the Stand up against poverty events held in cities throughout the world.
The civil society sector is not only emerging as a clear societal actor in many parts of the world, it is also quite varied in its nature and composition.  For this reason definitions of civil society vary considerably based on differing conceptual paradigms, historic origins, and country context.

The World Bank has adopted a definition of civil society developed by a number of leading research centers: “the term civil society to refer to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations”.

For more information on civil society visit the following websites:

Center for Civil Society / University of California, Los Angeles
Institute for Development Studies / University of Sussex
Institute for Policy Studies /John’s Hopkins University
Centre for Civil Society / London School of Economics
Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen’s Participation
One World Network
Development Gateway - Civil Society Page 

Last updated: 2013-07-22

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