'Civil society' and 'NGOs' can't eclipse government; The concept, older than de Tocqueville, is freshly nourished and deeply important -- but sharply limited.


When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America from France in the 1830s -- see his "Democracy in America" (HarperCollins, 792 pages, $20) -- he identified voluntary associations as the particular genius of this country. They seemed everywhere, in social life, the arts and in political life, focusing public opinion, providing services and moderating the often harsh conclusions of the political and economic systems.

In this century, as wars and the economy have become global, a phenomenon has arisen called "civil society," which projects de Tocqueville's voluntary associations onto a planetary screen. Today, the role of such organizations in national and international life has become the focus of an intense debate that is reflected in a raft of books and is argued in key national journals. Do these nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have a major role in affairs previously thought the exclusive role of governments? Are these organizations a legitimate replacement for governments?

Last May 11, 8,000 men and women from around the world met at the traditional capital of internationalism, The Hague, to define the role of NGOs in fostering world peace. The corridors swarmed with people, many in their national dress, discussing in a hundred languages how their organizations could network, sway public opinion and influence governments.

The consensus at The Hague was that governments are not enough to deal with the world's problems, whether those be ethnic conflicts, gross violations of human rights, traffic in nuclear and conventional arms, land mines, or economic inequality. Civil society, that is, groups of citizens placed between governments and the economy, were needed to work out conflicts below the governmental level, provide services and come up with ideas. Where such groups a hundred years ago, when the first Hague peace conference had been held, were separated by national frontiers, now they were united by e-mail and the Internet.

As detailed in "State of the World, 1999" (W.W. Norton & Company, 259 pages, $13.95), civil society has been highly influential in achieving international conventions on the environment, on land mines, on international criminal jurisdiction, on the arms trade and on the settlement of ethnic disputes. It has insisted, with partial success, that women's voices be heard in local, national and international decision-making. It has delivered food and medicine to victimized groups, provided information through the Internet to citizens of countries stifled by politically controlled presses and fostered the creation of small businesses and marketing groups threatened by international conglomerates. NGOs have also had an important role as think tanks and test sites for social reform, providing solutions to governments hampered by unimaginative, bureaucratic thought.

Basking in these legitimate successes, some advocates of civil society see it not as a supplement to governments but as their replacement -- not only at the international level but at the national level as well. They argue that, with the globalization of the economy, governments will soon be passe, and that civil society alone can make up its anticipated shortcomings.

In his "Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea" (New York University Press, 285 pages, $18.50), John Ehrenberg, a philosopher of civil society, skillfully traces its long history, starting with the Greeks. When he comes to the present, the prospect in this country is indeed challenging.

He writes, "Three decades of deindustrialization and political reaction have come together in relentless attacks on the welfare state, static or declining standards of living for tens of millions of families, heightened levels of stress at work and home, unprecedented levels of cynicism about political institutions, and widespread contempt for public figures."

Is civil society adequate to handle this challenge?

First of all, Ehrenberg and others argue cogently that NGOs or voluntary associations are not necessarily benign. At The Hague or at the United Nations, a system of self-selection and cooperation makes them generally a potent and benevolent force, but other nongovernmental organizations have been highly destructive, oppressing ethnic groups from the Balkans to Chiapas, fostering the international arms trade or serving as mercenary groups on behalf of disreputable governments or dictators.

In the United States, "civil society" includes not only the Red Cross and Amnesty International, but also the Klu Klux Klan and the NRA. It is important, then, to decide if we are using "civil society" as a descriptive term referring to nongovernmental organizations of any type, or as a normative one, for organizations we may approve.

Then, Ehrenberg points out that voluntary associations do not have the built-in checks responsible societies require of elected governments. Voluntary associations may, indeed, be highly selective, excluding people for any reason -- economics, ethnicity, race or gender. The long battle to make governments representative means that, if properly constituted, they are democratic in ways that voluntary associations need not be.

Finally, as Ehrenberg suggests, any present combination of voluntary associations is simply inadequate to deal with the problems before us. In the United States, for example, in the absence of adequate government legislation to deal with crime, drugs, care for the elderly, or the deepening poverty of the nation's poor, both Presidents Bush and Clinton have talked up the role of civil society as a compensatory force to take up the slack. But it simply can't.

To believe that it can, and that government is no longer responsible, is to acquiesce in a society that does not fit democratic norms. Clearly, many corporate executives are hostile to government regulation and social programs. and believe that with the "many points of light" of voluntarism and lower taxes, America's problems can be solved.

While the philosopher Richard Rorty in his "Achieving Our Country" (Harvard University Press, 159 pages, $18.95) is right in attributing considerable social reform in the first half of this century to a coalition of socially minded groups, from labor unions and academic groups to the Communist Party, the most basic reforms came through these groups working for legislation and government programs.

The National Labor Relations Act, which fostered union organizing; the Rural Electrification Act, which brought power to the countryside; the Social Security Act, which provided security for the elderly; and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which brought rights particularly to African- Americans, for example, were not acts of civil society, but of government, spurred to action by civil society.

As Ehrenberg points out, civil society can suggest reforms, and it can hold governments accountable, but, for the most part, civil society cannot solve the problems. Civil society has neither the tax base nor the democratic mandate, either at the national or international level.

To make governments work must, then, be a primary task of civil society today. Here in the United States, basic reforms in the system, such as campaign reform, is rightly a priority. At the international level, civil society needs to work hard for an international system that protects the environment, mediates the harshness of the global economy and promotes human rights and peace. While we can look for a growing role for civil society in national and international affairs, and some direct benefits from its work, an alliance between NGOs and governments is our best hope for the future.

Craig Eisendrath, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., and served for seven years as a U.S. foreign service officer. His book, "National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War," will be published by Temple University Press this December.

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