Political and Civil Society


Sometime during the early 90’s, people who devise development discourse came to an important conclusion: No matter how much money they threw in a country, no matter how many ‘fixes’ they came up with, no matter how noble their intentions were, their experiments never turned out the way they wanted them to.
Deliberation led them to believe that the difference between the success and failure of their best laid plans was something called ‘governance’. Good governance would lead to the implementation of policies. Bad governance would just lead to black holes.
The mantra of governance i.e. the ability of a state to implement agendas and institute transparency in institutional practice, has over time evolved towards determining what kind of governance would be best suited for the developing world. For example, governance improvement programs in Pakistan believe in creating responsive state structures, improved state capacity at local level and political party reform. All of these practices, in turn, form part of a larger agenda: social change.
For anyone engaged in formal political activity, a break-down of a phenomenon as complex as social change into neatly defined aspects is amusing to say the least. But beyond this ‘rational’ approach towards transforming society, there is a process of co-option taking place that is responsible for perpetuating sterilisation of political space. Where previously the concept of social change meant group/class collectivisation and active political engagement, the present day concept is built around strategic interventions by donors and aid agencies.
Interestingly though, certain academics see the roots of an NGO-based civil society in the nature of colonisation as opposed to in modern-day development discourse. Writing in 2004, Partha Chatterjee observed that the single largest problem faced by post-colonial states was in decolonising both institutions and practice. Chatterjee’s perspective was that under the British colonial state, civil society space was hand-crafted by the administrators and shaped by the constraints such as limited electoral participation.
Other facets of civil society under colonialism, such as the media, were also closely aligned with the instructions of the state administration – a characteristic that has shown remarkable consistency. In the backdrop of circumscribed space for political engagement, it is of little surprise that in a country where politics is checked at every level, civil society, and in subsequence, the narrative and ‘practice’ of social change has been left in the hands of aid-agendas.
Is this necessarily a bad thing?
Well, for starters, the efficacy of aid in sector-based interventions is patchy. One of the biggest examples is the $350 million Asian Development Bank ‘Access to Justice’ program, which has so far yielded nothing but richer consultants, and as Akber Zaidi remarked, ‘exotic’ reports. Governance improvement programs, especially those that have targeted political party strengthening and civic education, have also resulted in nothing substantial.
Secondly, the definition of social change is linked to discourse found in mainstream development. In consequence, the principal divide is between the poor and everybody else. The poor are then further divided into most vulnerable, and less vulnerable. Serving neatly categorised, and easily identifiable ‘beneficiaries’ becomes the end goal of social change.
Such a conception, while satisfying the planner’s need for quantifiable solutions, ignores social reality to an unforgivable extent. And it is this conception that highlights the biggest problem of civil society in post-colonial states.
Chatterjee’s formulation of the civil society problem ultimately demarcates two different vehicles of societal transformation in the 21st century. One of them is what I’ve mentioned above; the other is a resuscitated ‘political’ society. Political society is composed of unions, student groups, public notables and associations, formed specifically for the purpose of political engagement. One obvious manifestation is political parties, but others include unions and voluntary associations.
For Pakistan, where fissures run at every level, social change cannot be led by a civil society that aims to serve a homogenising category known as ‘the poor’. In the same vein, social change cannot be brought about under the guise of governance, especially when this category is used to tame political activity. Social change, in the past and even now, is a function of political society exercising its potential of engaging with the state.
NGOs and our present day civil society have plenty of contributions in ameliorating living conditions for many people in the country. This critique does not wish to take away anything from that. However, solving long-standing structural issues is not something that our present day civil society is equipped for. Their task, as the case should be in maturing societies, is to hold the constituent parts of political society accountable and support them in their struggles.

*The writer wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Afiya Sherbano Zia and Mushtaq Gaadi in articulating this particular argument.
The writer works in the social sector and blogs at http://recycled-thought.blogspot.com. Write to him at [email protected]