|Thursday 05 July, 2001
What Is Civil Society?
Civil society is a term that's increasingly popular with government ministers, academics, diplomats, aid-workers, international agencies, teachers and a host of other professions. It's an idea that affects everyone in every nation.
What Is Civil Society? aims to discover what the term actually means. In a 12-part series, Rahul Sarnaik sets out to explore the many different aspects of the concept and investigates how it has been put into practice in both the developed and the developing worlds.
Talk Of A Civil Society
Civil society is a term that's cropping up more and more amongst those concerned with the changing shape of modern society.
Politicians talk about the needs of a civil society; in fact next to the state and the market, advisors to the US Government have suggested that it is 'the ultimate third way' of governing a society.
In his inauguration speech US President George W Bush stated that:
'A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.'
Diplomats also talk of the value of a civil society. Addressing a conference recently UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan said:
'The United Nations once dealt only with Governments. By now we know that peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without partnerships involving Governments, international organisations, the business community and civil society. In today's world, we depend on each other.'
Even journalists reflect on the likelihood of a civil society; the British journal The Economist recently commented:
'After decades of totalitarianism and centuries of autocracy, it would be silly to expect Russia to sprout a strong civil society.'
There may be a lot of talk about a civil society – but what does it actually mean?
Consider a selection of images - anti-World Trade Organisation demonstrators clashing with the police in capital cities across the world; volunteer rescue-workers from the developed nations helping to save victims of the Gujarat earthquake.
Eco-warriors fighting to protect whales and dolphins; children being saved from a life of bonded labour in the carpet-factories of South and South-east Asia; millions of TV viewers across the world watching rock stars perform in Live Aid in 1985 to raise funds for famine-relief.
What they have in common is that they're all aspects of civil society.
The paradox about civil society is that it covers a vast range of activities - yet it's very hard to define.
One description puts it quite succinctly:
|'A civil society is a public space between the state, the market and the ordinary household, in which people can debate and tackle action'. |
So that could include any voluntary collective activity in which people combine to achieve change on a particular issue - but not political parties, even though civil society has a political dimension.
By this definition, civil society includes charities; neighbourhood self-help schemes; international bodies like the UN or the Red Cross; religious-based pressure-groups; human rights campaigns in repressive societies; and non-governmental organisations improving health, education and living-standards in both the developed and developing nations.
Civil Society For All
A key feature of civil society is its universality - it affects everybody, in every nation on earth.
What Is Civil Society? looks back at how the concept originated around 2500 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome, how it developed in Europe during the Enlightenment, and how it's applied today across the globe.
The series also examines examples of civil society in action worldwide - at the street, community, national and international level, and on a host of different issues. And asks whether civil society is - as its supporters claim - an essential feature of a free society?
Does it provide a social structure in nations where government is non-existent or rudimentary? And if so, should criminal networks like the Mafia's of Colombia and Russia be considered as part of civil society?
It's also a term that we're all going to hear much more often in future.
But what role will civil society play in a world where globalisation and marketisation are driving social, economic and political change?
What impact will the rapidly changing field of information technology have on civil society? And how will phenomena such as the greenhouse effect, international migration, population growth, and the fight against HIV and Aids all shape our ideas of civil society in the future?
These are diverse issues, but they affect everyone and they will continue to define the way that we all live.
| What Is BBC World Learning?
|What Is Civil Society? is broadcast every Thursday throughout July, August and September as part of BBC World Learning.
Here Andrew Thompson, Commissioning Editor Science and Education BBC World Service, explains the aims of World Learning:
'Imagine a friendly college in your neighbourhood, offering a wide range of short courses on subjects as varied as the English language, literature, teacher training, advice on career management, science, economic development, health, history, and social issues.’
‘Imagine also that it is very easy to get to, and absolutely free. That is what BBC World Service's World Learning – the daily half hour of programming heard in most regions of the world, aims to do - to be an 'open college of the air'.
'With four, 12 week terms every year, listeners can pick the courses they are interested in. To make things easier to follow, each day of the week is dedicated to a broad theme.’
‘On Mondays we have programming about work and career development; on Tuesdays arts and culture, on Wednesdays health and environment, on Thursdays society and the humanities and on Fridays science and development. There are holidays too - one week 'seasonal breaks' dividing up the terms which will celebrate subjects as varied as poetry, music and sport.'
To find out when you can here What Is Civil Society? in your region, please refer to our schedule pages.