Civil society, as a key concept of social theory, has remained a Western construct for the most part of our contemporary history of politics and development. My previous article was a summary of Western perspectives on the civil society that were introduced to the non-Western world during the colonial period.
In another article, titled ‘The paradox of civil society’ published in these pages on April 2, 2017, I discussed the historical, political and legal factors of a weak and submissive non-Western and indigenous civil society in the post-colonial developing world. In this article, I will try to examine the problem of trivialising the transformative potential of the civil society through research and knowledge production, and the necessity of counter-narratives to reconstruct the indigenous variants of the civil society.
The ultimate objective of the civil society is to protect the rights of citizens and inculcate our consciousness to raise collective voices against political marginalisation and economic exploitation. This transformative potential of the civil society makes it a political and ideological space for competing interests and the most important domain in the battle of ideas.
That’s why corporate giants and the political elite invest huge amounts of money to shape the ideological and political discourse of the civil society to diffuse its transformative spirit. Investment is directed to formalise the civil society as a docile institutional network in the form of NGOs so that dissenting voices are managed and co-opted to avert their political manifestation into a social movement.
In the developing world, the civil society has literally been reduced to NGOs that are governed, controlled and run by expatriate staff from the developed world through development aid from host countries in most cases. Local experts who dominate discussion on the civil society in our mainstream media and political arena are also Western-educated academics and career-oriented development practitioners and professionals of NGOs and INGOs. This professional class of academics and practitioners is trained in the borrowed wisdom of the commonsense issues of social transformation, which are consolidated through research funded by corporate giants and international donor agencies.
Research and knowledge production in the development sector is highly skewed towards the long-term interests and political priorities of international funding agencies and their financers.
Just sift through research articles on varying dimensions of social development in leading international journals and you will be lost in a cliched labyrinth of over-referenced material that is best at disintegrating worldviews. You will be tagged as an old-fashioned demagogue of the political economy if you dare to challenge this politically divisive and fragmented development discourse.
Sectoral research on education, health, nutrition, poverty, the civil society, gender equity, the environment, entrepreneurship, and livelihood are then categorised into many sub-sectors for further research. Layer upon layer of assumptions and questions and the fragmentation of narratives kill the human appetite of assertion and the ability of the human agency to challenge the conditions of subjugation and submissiveness. These seemingly factual, objective and neutral research practices are highly political and partisan in their nature because they are funded by those who have an ax to grind in the politics and economy of our corporatised world.
Whenever we retrieve particular data and facts and treat them as research inputs from the universe of information available for similar research subjects, we tend to subscribe to a particular worldview. This, in turn, puts forth a particular narrative and validity claims about the world around us. No researcher works in isolation from the institutional and political structures of society or without resources provided for a particular type of research. The outcomes and conclusions of such selective research ventures are bound to be biased, partial, partisan and political as they provide intellectual legitimacy to a given political and economic order and its social, moral and cultural superstructure.
Such research stops short of offering any analysis of structural and institutional barriers to the socioeconomic transformation of human societies and instead discredit the possibilities of human freedom. Therefore, transformational development practitioners must give importance to such research as political treatises of the status quo and must strive to provide counter-narratives rather than ignoring them as erroneous.
Viewing such research as a simplification of broader issues poses a great risk because these studies are conducted to mould public opinion. Any simplification of the deep-rooted structural and institutional issues of social transformation is a process of reducing them to mundane matters. Such research promotes public debate on gender, unemployment, water crisis, suicides, illiteracy, food insecurity, and the environment as separate issues by disconnecting them from their root causes.
The intended political objective of the disintegration of worldviews through the fragmentation of interconnected issues is the most vital tool of establishing the ideological hegemony to dilute the human spirit of social transformation.
The questions and hypotheses posed in such studies are boringly simple and tend to trivialise the political positions of social change as sub-sectoral research questions. Every year, well-reputed research organisations churn out reports on the social performance of development programmes wherein some ludicrously simple research questions are posed for inquiry.
These research questions take a cue from similar research projects from the past and then simply refer to various extraneous reports of similar studies to reach a conclusion. The questions go like this: Does a lack of motivation lead to high drop-outs in the schools? Does a lack of awareness lead to health problems? Does poverty exist due to our lack of ability to make informed choices? Can the civil society help people become effective citizens?
Such research questions are not only vague but are also misleading as they presumably reduce contested political concepts to simplistic research hypotheses. When politically contested subjects like poverty, education, health, and the civil society are reduced to development research constants, they tend to lose their meaning and relevance to the theory and practice of integrated human development.
The theory of change invariably adopted by development organisations today looks like an incongruous whole of disconnected parts and leads to the compartmentalisation of knowledge and fragmentation of the worldviews of social reality.
Postmodern researchers would term this specialisation of knowledge and multiplicity of perspectives with ease. But the reality is that the social and political impact of ideological fragmentation is immense. The social development programmes of NGOs and INGOs are becoming least effective in creating a critical mass of informed citizens as a political voice against oppressive political regimes across the world.
On the contrary, the social spaces of expressions are shrinking, with the civil society becoming formalised into development organisations. Civic forums, including the local cultural and political movements, which function outside the operational remit of development organisations are discredited as anti-development.
The term ‘uncivil society’ is another misleading concept that is increasingly being used nowadays to discredit local variants of civil society as anti-development. In the developing world, there are a number of locally-inspired social and cultural movements, which are better grounded than the exotic civil society in terms of broadening the spaces of expression.
In Pakistan, there are a number of literary forums, folk groups, art and culture forums, and progressive political movements that offer a much better chance of social transformation than the money-wielding world of NGOs. It is time for the development agencies to rethink their role as the agents of social transformation. In order to do this, they need to work closely with the local civil society rather than dismissing it as anti-development.
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The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.