Democratisation, development, civil society


Democratisation, development, civil society
Zsolt Boda

We are going to examine the connections between the three concepts. First we make an attempt at interpreting the relationship between democracy and development, and quickly look at the arguments which are based on the assumption that there is some cause and effect relationship between the two. The basic question is, of course, which definition of democracy or development we take as a starting point. For a start, we accept that development is one with economic growth, but the next step is to discuss development as a more complex social phenomenon – this, of course, will have consequences on the question of its relationship with democracy. In a normative approach we can safely argue that democracy itself is part of the concept of social development and in this case it does not make sense to look for cause and effect relationships between the two phenomena.

In the next step we shortly deal with the conditions of democratisation and within that the role of civil society, which is a question more and more present in social research and political discussions (although not necessarily in Hungary). And lastly, we make some thesis - or rather hypothesis - statements related to Hungarian democracy.

Democracy and development

Maybe it is not a simplification to say that people expected two things from the Eastern European system changes: democracy and development – the latter primarily meaning the growth of material welfare. Reaching democracy seemed the easier task out of the two, the frequently quoted lines by German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf refer to this too, saying that a political change of system is feasible in six months but an economic change of system (that is, building a market economy that makes the increase of welfare possible) requires six years. But let us not forget the end of the quote which is especially important, if we consider development not only as rising incomes but a kind of 'well set up' society: a society transferring appropriate ethical norms and patterns needs at least six decades to develop (Dahrendorf, 1990).
The building up of the institutions of constitutional democracy really seems an easier task than launching economic development. This may explain why the idea has prevailed in social sciences and political thinking that democracy is the 'dependent variable'. As the classic of political science, Seymour Lipset put it, economic welfare creates the conditions and chance for democracy (Lipset, 1995), or in a negative light, as Claus Offe predicted the failure of the Central-Eastern European change of system, saying that the difficulties of decreasing welfare will turn back democratisation too (Offe, 1991). If we are looking for examples from politics it is worth remembering that the most notable cases of ’promotion of democracy’ like the democratisation of Germany after World War II or the support of the changes in Southern Europe in the seventies (Greece, Spain, Portugal), were coupled with massive economic assistance. But we can refer to the World Bank as well, whose mission is the promotion of development, but they tried to achieve this solely by the change of the economy and economic policies until the 90s; governance and the quality of democracy were not to be examined or changed.
A more radical approach of creating the conditions for economic growth (as development) even says that democracy is an obstacle, a barrier to necessary market reforms, so development is better served by autocratic regimes, ’development dictatorships’ (Haggard – Kaufman, 1995).
According to Gedeon (2009), six different kinds of relationship can be assumed between development and democracy, and the situation is that we can find theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for all of them. Development can both help and prevent the birth or existence of democracy. This can also be assumed the other way: democracy can both help and prevent economic growth. And lastly, we can argue that there can be no positive or negative effects observed either way: neither does development have an obvious effect on democracy, nor vice versa or to be precise, these effects can vary in different social, economic and cultural circumstances. Péter Gedeon considers this last approach the most convincing. This seems to be supported by Robert Barro’s grand empirical study: the web of relationships between democracy and economic growth is highly complex. Although it seems statistically provable that in low income countries democracy has a more positive effect, while in medium income countries it rather has a negative effect on economic growth, in many other cases these simple models are hard to apply. (Barro, 1996, quoted by Fukuyama, 2005: 46).
So, empirical examinations do not provide us with a clear orientation as to how to imagine the relationship between democracy and development in the sense of economic growth. How is it still possible then, that during the nineties there was a clear shift of emphasis in the thinking about the relationship of economic growth and democracy and even in the rhetoric of the World Bank approaches that see democracy and ’good governance’ a precursor to or part of development became more prevailing?
The contradiction is only illusory. In these latter approaches it is not just democracy but properly working democracy that is present. The story of the system changes and democratisation in Central Eastern European countries taught a lot of lessons to political science and policy-making. It became clear that the different social and cultural heritages of each country created different contexts, opportunities or barriers to the strengthening of democracy. It also transpired that there are significant differences between democracy and democracy, not ’only’ in a normative democracy theory sense (i.e. when can we say that a democracy is a ’real’ democracy, not only a formális politikai váltógazdaság holding elections regularly, without real political alternatives, governed by oligarchic groups) but with respect to economic and social performance too. The question of ’good governance’ starts with the assumption that real democracy and a constitutional state is not only preferable in a normative approach, but they have an undoubtedly positive effect on economic growth as well. This line of thought was influenced, if not solely but largely, by Central Eastern European experiences.
I would like to highlight a few instances from the results and recommendations of empirical research based on an overview study by Kaufmann (2003).
Undoubtedly, ’good governance’ is a liberal concept, since most studies render the following elements under it:
- rule of law,
- voice and accountability, that is the accountability of decision makers and the institutional possibilities of voicing criticism an dissent,
- the level of corruption, and the measures taken to roll it back.
As we can see, the quality of public services, for example, is not present (although broader taxonomies serving empirical research do list it sometimes).
Now, different studies state that:
- good governance advances economic growth and social development measured in other dimensions (e.g. life expectancy), although we have to state that the relationship is quite weak in a statistical sense. This is a very important statement that links development to (well-working) democracy in a cause and effect relationship.
- the statement is not true the other way round, however: economic growth, the increase of incomes does not result automatically in the improvement of the quality of governance. Some developing countries have or had this illusion, but research refutes it. The quality of political institutions and the keeping to norms does not follow from the growth of welfare, these are independent dimensions of social life – which is little surprising. What is more surprising is how often we are suggested the opposite.
- a fact related to the former is that the quality of governance has improved little in the world in the past decade, in spite of the fact that the World Bank has registered the improvement of economic and social indicators globally.
- transparency and accountability are key, if we are to improve the quality of governance. Studies make it clear: wherever the government can falsify macroeconomic data or keep them secret, where the press is not independent and critical enough, where the parliament cannot properly monitor the government etc. the quality if governance will deteriorate. To put it the other way round: advancing transparency is the most important step towards improving the quality of governance. One of the studies states that although transparency (meaning the most important characteristics of the effective information flow towards stakeholders, like access, timeliness, relevance, the quality of economic, social and political data) is not the same as governance, it is one of its most important momentums. And it is transparency where the quality of state functions shows a close correlation with similar functions of the private sphere. In countries where accountability of the government is incomplete, we can often encounter the phenomenon of „state capture”, which means that the state is being influenced by economic interest groups or single corporations. Political and economic processes become entangled, illegitimate lobbying becomes the norm. Although it is somewhat obvious, it is important to note that what follows logically from the above is that the transparency of economic actors also deteriorates. A study found a link between the transparency of government politics and the quality of the banking sector.

It is with respect to transparency and accountability that – the World Bank’s - talking about governance instead of just the reform of public administration and government makes sense. Although some criticise it, saying that the World Bank, following its neoliberal ideology, is not working on the reform and the strengthening of the state but bringing private actors on board, the above little explanation may make it clear that it is doing so with a reason. Transparency and accountability can be brought about not simply through the reform of the state: civil and corporate partners and actors are also needed. The improvement of the transparency of the private sector and the rolling back of illegitimate lobbying and corruption is possible with law making and responsible state institutions in theory, but it is all just theory – ’state capture’ is exactly about the situation of many countries, where the political autonomy of the state is decreasing and economic interests have the dominant influence – and even the World Bank admits that these are often represented by foreign multinational corporations. It was also a kind of breakthrough in the debate about corruption when a few years ago the World Bank and other development institutions admitted at last that it is not only down to the nepotistic governments and the cultures of developing countries, but it is a complex, multi-player phenomenon in which multinationals are also deeply involved. (Especially in ’grand corruption’ which causes a lot more damage than the daily reality of ’petty corruption’.)
It is not sufficient – says the World Bank now – to focus on government institutions, laws and regulations, formal authorities, in other words the ’hardware’, if we want to improve the quality of governance. We also have to focus on the key variables concerning governance: transparency, accountability, involving stakeholders in decision making, creating new communication and monitoring forums, creating the self-regulatory institutions of the private sphere, facilitating fair competition, strengthening civil activism and the press. This thought is very important with relevance to the next chapter of this study too.
There are two things to highlight from the above with respect to our chain of thought:
- in the ’good governance’ approach the quality of democratic government (and not only political but economic as well) enjoys priority on basis of logic and principle as well, contrary to economic growth;
- at the same time, good governance itself (and economic growth too) becomes part of a multi-dimensional development where different social, institutional, economic variables are linked together in a complex way – since good governance is not possible without appropriate political, legal, social, etc. conditions.

All this is not far from the approaches that argue for the multi-dimensional conditions of development (as ’good society’) on normative, ethical grounds, with special respect to the role of democracy. Amongst normative approaches the work of Amartya Sen is outstanding because he uses both normative and empirical arguments (compare with Sen, 2004). He reckons that democracy is one dimension of a broadly defined social development, which is valuable in itself but is also a precondition and a catalyst of other momentums of development. Democracy is primarily a tool for guaranteeing ’negative freedom’, but also contributes to advancing positive freedom. (On the normative approach of development and on Sen see the study by Zsolt Boda in our volume.)
In the following we are going to apply this approach too. We consider the improvement of the quality of democracy and governance an inseparable part of a multi-dimensional social development. However, we do not consider economic growth, or a certain level of that, equal to development or even a necessary momentum of development. Following up on Amartya Sen’s work, we assume that the fair distribution of goods, the necessary level of well-being and the quality of life to guarantee human dignity does not depend on the level of economic growth. Ecological concerns, however, go exactly head on against economic growth.
In the next section we concentrate on a condition of democratisation (as part of development) which was highlighted above as well: the role of civil society which is independent from politics, but politically active.

The concept and social significance of civil society

Although the concept of civil society has been around for quite a long time, it only became popular in the fields of sociology and political science in the eighties and nineties. As Gellner (1994: 1) puts it, those who are concerned with civil society would have been looked upon as historians of theory being concerned with Locke or maybe Hegel a few decades ago; the concept did not have a meaning that would have made it interesting or relevant to the present. In recent times this situation has changed radically, however. Civil society has not only become important for social scientists, but it is also carrying a definitely normative message: Robert Bellah (1996), Putnam (1993), Gellner (i.m.) or Hauser (2000) all agree that civil society is an important condition or framework of the proper working of democracy.
In the following we are going to look at the most important functions attributed to civil society. But first we have to make it clear what we consider civil society. How can we interpret this concept, how can we examine it as a social phenomenon and how can it be improved (if that is the aim)?
In a definition ’civil society is the network of relationships evolving through social interactions independent of the state’ (Hauser, 2000: 486). Traditionally, this involves the market economy and its actors, but newer approaches follow a narrower definition. ’The term ’civil society’ has a totally different meaning from the concept of ’polgári társadalom’ from the liberal tradition, which Hegel calls ’the system of needs’, or the market economy system of társadalmi munka. What is meant by civil society today does not involve the economy constituted by magánjog, regulated by munka, a tőke és a javak piaca – contrary to Hegel, Marx and Marxism. The institutional core of civil society is made up by those bases of non-governmental and non-economic associations, which anchor the communicational structures of the public sphere in the social components of életvilág. Civil society is made up from the associations, organisations and movements evolving more or less spontaneously, which resonate to the social problems of private life, and lead them onto the political public sphere with extra strength.’ (Habermas, 1992: 443, quoted by Balogh – Karácsony, 2000: 171).
The definition by Habermas also refers to organisations as the ’institutional core’ of civil society. Well, civil society is usually studied through its organisations (NGOs – non-governmental organizations). According to popular approach, their number, the number of their members, the amount of their resources, the complexity of their activities characterizes civil society best. The policies aimed at developing civil society are also usually aimed at supporting NGOs. Whether this is right – and concerning the whole idealised approach to civil society – is a question. But first let us see the positive social roles attributed to civil society. We are going to examine the following one by one:
- The setter of the trust level of society and so influences the integratedness of society; the main trustee of ’social capital’.
- Strengthening the culture of political participation, helping political mobilisation.
- Representation, articulating interests.
- Monitoring power, watchdog function.
- Public policy making, improving governance.
- Providing welfare functions, services.
- Creating new economic forms.

The setter of the trust level of society and so influences the integratedness of society; the main trustee of ’social capital’. An approach linked to Putnam (Putnam, 1993), for example, among other contemporary sociologists, following on Alexis de Tocqueville writing on civil society in the 19th century. According to this, NGOs embody and uphold such civil virtues as tolerance, mutual acceptance, honesty, trustworthiness, trust and civil courage. They accumulate social capital in their networks, which are essential for both the evolution and the survival of democracies.
The book by Francis Fukuyama also raised attention to the political and economic role of people’s trust towards each other (Fukuyama, 1995). According to him, societies with a higher level of trust work better: they are more characterised by the culture of political participation, and they are more likely to create NGOs to solve social problems, and larger, competitive organisations are also more likely to evolve in their economy (as opposed to the family enterprises characteristic of societies with a lower level of trust), and companies have also got a more cooperative relationship, and the working of the economy has lower so called transaction costs (they have to spend less on lawyers, monitoring, guarantees etc.). The connection between the level of trust and the activity of civil society organisations (NGOs? CSOs?) is present not only in an international comparison but on a personal level as well: the more organisations and movements one takes part in, the more they trust other people (Anheier, 2009). According to Hungarian surveys, there is a negative relationship between the level of trust and the density of social connections on one hand, and depression on the other (Kopp, 2009).
So trust and social capital seem to be related to the activity of CSOs. This relationship is obviously not one-way, but that does not matter. And trust, as we have pointed out, has an important role in the proper working of society, and has a close relationship with many functions to be discussed below - the next one for example.

Strengthening the culture of politcal participation and helping political mobilisation. Ever since the classic work of Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba on citizen culture in 1963, it has been a commonplace that in developed democracies so–called participative culture is characteristic. Citizens in this culture have relatively good knowledge of the political system and are motivated to participate or take roles in politics (regardless of whether they have a good or bad opinion of the political system). Almond and Verba thought it was proven that local political activity was related to that in the whole country: those who are locally active are more likely to be interested in broader political issues as well (Kurtán, 2005). Although researchers dealing with political culture have become critical of excessively normative approaches recently – saying that it is unscientific to use the political culture of western democracies as a basis of reference to judge other democracies –, it is not usually questioned that some level of participation is necessary for democracy and usually the more participation, the better.
CSOs strengthen the culture of participation in many ways. Firstly, they provide an opportunity to practise citizen culture on a local level: based on the hypothesis of Almond and Verba, we can say that active participation in a village decoration association may pave the way for becoming involved in other forms of politics too. CSOs function as the terrain of political socialization: they teach their members to deal with public issues and to cooperate with others. (Political socialisation is where the trust building and social capital producing functions described in the previous section is connected to the strengthening of participation.) On the other hand, through so-called non-conventional forms of political participation, they can involve people in political activities who are otherwise not interested in public issues or have become disillusioned with party politics. The conventional forms of political participation are the supporting of parties, taking part in elections and other polls, being party members, reading newspapers and taking part in political debates. Non-conventional forms are taking part in boycotts, squatting, illegal demonstrations, different forms of civil disobedience or taking part in politics on the Internet. In the past decades it has mainly been green and pacifist movements, globalisation-critical or corporate-critical movements who have practised these.
According to Dryzek (2000) there was a ’revolution of participation’ in the nineties in developed western democracies: people expressed their wish to directly take part in political and economic decisions that affect their lives and the quality of their lives. The phenomenon is underlied by disillusionment with ’big politics’ and the openness to new forms of political participation. Lawmakers seem to acknowledge the increased demand for participation: the Aarhus Agreement, passed in 1998, ensures the right to express one’s opinion in cases of development decisions, giant investments. Even France, which is not famous for participative traditions, has modified its national regulation in favour of ensuring direct participation.
CSOs have played a great role in demanding participation and institutionalising it. This was made possible by the political climate, which showed a decreasing trust towards the institutions of ’big politics’. ’When the trust in political institutions is decreasing, the green movement bursts out of nowhere and boasts a surprisingly high social trust: according to the 1991 World Values survey, 93% of people agreed with the aims of the green movement, and 59% said that they ’strongly agree’’ (Inglehart, 1997: 296). Data also shows that although participation in polls has stagnated or decreased in the past 20 years in developed countries, participation in social movements has increased. It is a fact that big Western-European and American environmental organisations (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF, Conservation International, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, etc.) produced great growth at the beginning of the nineties in both supporters and resources. A number of organisations broadened their activities to an international level or strengthened their international programs based on this growth (Princen – Finger, 1994: 3).
Thus, CSOs are able to mobilise citizens for or against certain issues. The political force of civil society is not in need of proof in developed democracies either – it is enough to think about the effects of the green movement or the anti-nuclear movement. The EU recently has been trying to reach and mobilise its citizens through CSOs (see the White book on European governance). But political mobilisation is especially important in situations where there is a lack of democracy, when those democratic institutions that primarily function as political mobilisers (parties) are missing.
The importance of civil society in democratisation is well-known: we can cite not only the opposition movements of Eastern-European countries, but South African, Philippine or Brazilian examples as well (Mercer, 2002). Citizen based, grass-root movements had formed politics and had become catalysts of democracy in these cases.

Representation, articulating interests. In a classical model of liberal democracy the representation of interests is primarily a task of the parties. However, even in Montesquieu’s complex model, where branches of power are separated and mutually regulate each other, he talks about a balance which is present between the central political authority and the social network of ’közvetítő társulások’. The constitutional state and the checking powers have a limiting power over the strong (monarchic) central government. These ’közvetítő társulások’ have a dual nature, they exist within and outside the political structure too, and so they connect the social and state spheres (Merkel, 2004: 46). Montesquieu does not use the concept of civil society, but his description of ’közvetítő társulások’ is very close to how we describe the different non-party-like CSOs and interest groups that aim at influencing politics.
The number and importance of different interest groups has grown in today’s societies for many reasons, like policy problems becoming more complex (see the effect of economic globalisation on different policies, or the challenge of environmental sustainability), the emergence of more value-plural societies and the more and more complex regulatory and welfare functions of the state (Kurtán – Gallai, 2005). What is more, apart from the conventional interest groups (munkaadói képviseletek, trade unions, gazdasági érdekvédelmi szervezetek, szakmai szervezetek, chambers) the role of non-economic social organisations has also grown. Humanitarian organisations (e.g. Red Cross), ideological-political organisations (e.g. Amnesty International), peace movements, globalisation-critical movements or the green movement demand a say in politics on a local, national and international level with ever increasing weight.
Some of the CSOs are similar to conventional interest groups in that – among other activities – they try to represent the interest of their membership in political debates (think about the operation of National Association of Big Families, or the organisations representing local environmental interests). Another part of CSOs do not represent direct interests – although we could argue that green organisations represent future generations – but are organised along value choices and identities. Following Inglehart (1997) we could say that CSOs, especially the so-called new social movements (greens, globalisation-critical and human rights movements etc.) represent post-material values. Inglehart has spent decades on research developing and checking his thesis which states that social values have undoubtedly changed, primarily in developed countries. Change is underway from material values (which involve the dimensions of economic welfare and physical security) towards so-called post-material ones which include elements of a broadly defined quality of life (free time, valuable human relationships, activity in favour of society etc.), the opportunity of expressing one’s self and the need for recognition of the individual. In another dimension this change can be interpreted as a move from modern society towards post-modern, according to Inglehart. It is not only values that change, but the ways the society operates and institutions as well. So the bureaucratised, hierarchic institutional operations based on instrumental rationality are shadowed by a more network-like operation of plural logic, allowing more space for individual action (at least it seems so) – which are paradigmatically embodied by civil movements.
It is not so easy to differentiate between interest and value choices: a party, for example, is organised along values and identities at least as much as interests. It is the same for CSOs, and we could even argue that the logic and ethos of the more value-based ’post-modern’ civil organisations is changing conventional interest groups as well. The meeting of environmentalists and trade unionists in the globalisation-critical movement is well-known, but we could cite the consumer protection movement as well: big, conventional consumer protection organisations, like Consumers International have also moved towards the discussion of ethical and sustainable consumption (vö. Boda – Gulyás, 2006).

Monitoring power, watchdog-function. Contrary to our more detailed list, Anheier (2009) renders only three basic social functions to new civil movements: taking care of social capital, providing welfare services and monitoring power, primarily through advancing transparency. CSOs and an independent press can play a great role controlling power, especially in case of imperfect democratic functioning, when an oligarchic practice of power evolves and the political opposition cannot play the controlling function either. We have also mentioned above, when talking about good governance, that CSOs can do a lot against corruption, nepotism or ’state capture’ (when the state is trapped by economic interest groups). How important this function is and what consequences it may hold has been demonstrated by the assassinations of journalists in Russia: those in power are clearly bothered by critical disquisition.
Our national context also provides examples (if not too many) of monitoring power and the advancing of transparency. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has filed and won a number of cases against ministries and authorities for the publication of data of public interest. Following a statement by Transparency International, an international organisation against corruption, a candidate for Minister of Economy stepped back in spring 2009. CSOs (Óvás!, Védegylet, Levegő Munkacsoport etc.) and committed journalists have been struggling to save historical quarters of Pest, have been working against illegal property deals and cases suspicious of corruption – and not unrelated to these the mayor of the 7th district was put in custody in spring 2009.

Public policy making, improving governance. It is worth noting that from time to time CSOs take part in (public) policy making: mainly in planning, but sometimes in the actual process of carrying it out as well. This – the participation of different social and economic actors in (public) policy making is called governance. Governance, and especially its local form (local governance) is a concept that spread in the eighties in Britain, and is not at all independent from the financial restrictions affecting local municipalities connected to Margaret Thatcher’s politics (Hermet et al., 2005). The question was how local governments can work with smaller budgets, how they can still carry out their tasks. The solution seemed to be the mobilisation of citizen activity and the cooperation with CSOs and companies. This meant or could mean the strengthening of the forums of participation (which later, at the beginning of the 2000s got a new impetus, exactly in Britain and France, through the spreading social forum / forum social movement), the relying on CSOs in providing welfare services (vö. social entrepreneurs) and the creation of different public-private partnerships, which resulted in including the resources of the private sphere and the partial privatisation of public services. It is worth noting the duality which characterises government in the sense of governance: it implies more social participation at the same time as drawing the public sphere into the market, the spread of (market) coordination mechanisms based on private interest.
We will come back to the ethical and political counter-arguments to governance later. For the time being, we just state that according to those in favour of the concept, the involvement of social actors into the process of policy making increases 1) legitimity, recognition; 2) the efficiency of policies (a legitimate measure is easier to put in effect); 3) innovation (new ideas make their way into decision making); 4) the available resources or the efficiency of their use. The positive effects can be even more so in poorer countries, where institutional capabilities of the state are more restricted (vö. Brinkerhof, 1999).
There is a field where the regulatory, norm-forming activity of CSOs is really significant: global governance. Although there are formal structures on the international stage, (international agreements, international law, international institutions) – they are not able to meet the challenges of complex regulation and coordination posed by globalisation. The institutions of global governance aim at substituting for this weakness. The Commission on Global Governance led by Willy Brandt defined governance in 1992 as ’the sum of those ways in which individuals, private and public institutions deal with their common issues. Governance is the process of cooperation and the reconciliation of different, contradictory interests. State institutions and organs of the executive power can take part in it, but apart from formal processes, it can also include informal agreements as well in which people and institutions make an agreement, and through which they see the prevailing of their interests’ (Commission on Global Governance, 1995).
Let us see an example of this from the field of regulating multinational corporations. The first international code that was created without state enforcement, solely by the voluntary agreement of social actors (in this case corporations, CSOs, experts and the WHO) appeared at the beginning of the eighties. This is the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and it came to existence after the scandal that broke out in Western Europe and the USA because of the aggressive breast-milk substitute campaign of Nestlé and other corporations and its dramatic consequences in developing countries. About 150 similar codes have been created in the past twenty years. There are comprehensive codes, covering several fields and specific ones like the above one. There are ones that were issued by a sole organisation (but with great membership, like for example the International Chamber of Commerce), and ’multi-stakeholder’ ones which were created involving the stakeholders from different sectors. CSOs, the media and publicity have a key role in overseeing that the norms and standards in those codes are observed.

Providing welfare functions and services. Providing welfare functions is not a new phenomenon in itself: charities, communities, church-run orphanages etc. have long been existing. However, CSOs have recently been increasing their share dynamically in providing welfare services. This is especially true in case of poor, developing countries, where the state often does not have the appropriate tools and institutional capacities to deal with social problems. CSOs also play an important role in aiding, they distribute more aid than the World Bank, for example (Bendell, 2000: 16). Charities collect considerable sums from private donors and organise volunteers, helpers to the countries in need (see for example the international NGO Médecins Sans Frontiéres).
CSOs take more and more part in putting policies in effect in the framework of the governance phenomenon described above: providing services, public services, primarily in the social, health care or the education sectors. Health care organisations and other public institutions in the UK have created 5000 systems of cooperation since 1997 in which the public sphere aims at reaching policy aims by cooperating with CSOs and companies (Smith – Mathur – Skelcher, 2006: 149).

New economic forms. CSOs are also able to mobilise serious resources in favour of management for the public good and they create economic models that are based on observing normative, ethical-ecological criteria. An example is debt-for-nature exchange, which means that in return for debt relief they expect developing countries to pursue environmental policies. Even more significant is Fair Trade, which performed around 50% of growth in the past decade.
It is beyond debate that most of the trade goods from developing countries are produced in inhumane and environmentally disastrous conditions. The trade of products made by child labour, of those gravely damaging local people’s health or those made of rainforest timber (having a huge global ecological impact as well) can hardly be considered ’fair’. So-called alternative trade or fair trade is trying to find an answer to these problems. ’Alternative trade is driven by values and goals other than those in conventional trade: it puts people, their well-being and the natural environment in first place, before profit.’ (
The basic ideas of alternative trade appeared as early as the end of the 19th century, in the English and Italian cooperatives movement: these movements set out to create an integrated cooperative economy from the producer to the retailer. But what is called alternative trade today was started after the Second World War by organisations such as Oxfam, Hivos or Caritas, aiming at helping and developing the most disadvantaged communities of the developing world by taking their products to the market and increasing their incomes. Environmental concerns have also been added to these basically development goals recently and most of the fairly traded agricultural goods and foods are produced organically or at least in a more ’environmentally friendly’ way than the produce of agribusiness, built on intensive farming, industrial conditions and in some cases GMOs. The working of the fair trade movement is built on creating a direct connection with small producers, family farms, who have to guarantee certain social and ecological conditions during their operations (these are usually certified by labels), and in turn their produce is bought at a guaranteed price, higher than that on the conventional market. Moreover, they are often offered advantageous payment conditions and an advance.
While the Fair Trade movement is working on pursuing fair trade with poor countries and focuses on international development, other CSOs are trying to create alternative models of economy locally in developed countries even. They are creating models that are good for the environment (e.g. organic farming) or ones that aim at social issues: helping leszakadó társadalmi csoportok catch up (e.g. micro credit programmes), social reintegration of disadvantaged (e.g. disabled) employees and finding them employment (social entrepeneurs). These efforts can be termed alternative forms of economy because their primary goal is not making profit but the achievment of certain social, environmental aims. The business model applied is usually different from the conventional one: social entrepeneurs often operate in non-profit forms (association, foundation) and they rely on non-market sources as well (volunteer work, donation).

What is wrong with civil society organisations?

The literature on civil society is mostly about the positive economic, political and social role of civil society and its organisations, and it fears for civil self-organisation (which is little surprising as it embodies positive values). Imaginary or real threats are of two kinds. One is mainly characteristic of developed western nations and is to do with the basic contradiction of modern polgári society. Social interactions are regulated by formal rights and institutions working according to principles based on the criterium of universalisation, but this means that ’the relationships that serve as the basis for polgári lét and civil society, mutuality and communality are disintegrating more and more’ (Seligman, 1997: 27). The abstraction of the meaning of society necessarily strengthens individualisation, which leads to the change of values, the declline of community activities, and the kiüresedés of ’common good’ (vö. Bellah et al., 1996).
The other set of threats or deficiencies is characteristic mainly of the Central and Eastern European countries and other, half-democratised ones, although some worry that there are signs of its presence in Western Europe and America as well, through ethinicity based identity politics. Instead of the (exaggerated) apotheosis of the individual, which rids civil society of the civil and communal element, in this case ’ethnic and community solidarity prevents the evolution of exactly those legal, economic and moral individual identity forms on which the idea of polgári society is based’ (Seligman: 170). Civil society is not identical simply with non-state organisations but refers to a quality as well: the polgári set of values which rests on the respect for the individual, acceptance of others’ opinions and tolerance.
Seligman (i.m.) also thinks that the two approaches dealing with the decline or deficiencies of civil society, and the popularity of the question of civil society are more or less the same thing, although starting from different viewpoints: the relationship between the individual and community, the meaning of common good and more broadly the basic lines of the working of society. The discussion about civil society or the ’idea of civil society’ is at the same time a sign of a crisis and an articulation of the attempts at the solution, since it voices a strong critique of the reigning institutional setup.
Not everybody shares this ’idealised’ perception of civil society and especially the social role of CSOs. It is only fair to shortly look at these arguments as well, emphasising that even these do not attempt to devalue civil society as such, but they contextualise the debate about civil society and prevent us from exaggerated optimism.

Bad civil society. While Robert Putnam and other authors are inclined to see every kind of social self-organisation positively (Putnam, 1993) and see the decline in the number of American bowling clubs as a harmful tendency, others point out that not all grass-root organisations can be judged by the same standards (Chambers – Kopstein, 2001). It is not the bowling clubs that are the problem (although they probably have less social benefit, than a village decorating association) but the organisations having obviously exclusive, racist, antidemocratic etc. aims. Can we say, for example, that the Hungarian Guard shares the same civil ethos as the Hungarian Ornithological Society? Obviously not, while the Hungarian Guard organises from the grassroots and it is beyond doubt that it creates a social capital for its members, embodied in close connections. But in the meantime it creates a ’common bad’ and does not strengthen but weaken the general social integration with its actions terrorising others and abusing the norms of civilised coexistence.

The ’NGO Industry’. Claire Mercer (Mercer, 2002) writes about the civil organisations of developing countries that these do not necessarily play the positive social role that donors and supporters imagine. In these countries, where the functioning of the state is often weak and burdened by nepotism and corruption, democracy is at best only formal, social embeddedness of democratic norms is tiny, western donors attribute a democratising role to social organisations assuming that they are closer to people, less corrupt and respect liberal, human rights norms better than the government itself. But Mercer thinks that this is not all necessarily so: an ’NGO industry’ evolved in developing countries (too), which often lives off generous support, aid and donations. These organisations are not necessarily embedded in society, they organise in an elitist way and spend most of their resources on their own (often generous) financing instead of the declared social/humanitarian/environmental goals. Mercer does not argue against the support of NGOs but raises awareness to the importance of a critical approach, transparency and accountability.

Democratic problems. According to many, CSOs are the embodiment of grassroots or, if you like, radical democratic logic, and their increased participation in decision making may cure the deficiencies of representative democracy. Others point out that this is not necessarily true. The operation of civil organisations is not always democratic either and their participation in the governance structure, that is their cooperation with the public sphere, raises further democratic challenges.
Critics argue that governance does not provide us with a real solution to problems of legitimacy, moreover, it can contribute to the de-legitimising of representative democracy and formal institutions and law (Hermet et al., 2005). Formal rules can always be questioned on the basis of the necessity of negotiation, dialogue and the involvement of stakeholders. However, stakeholders and their interests are not set but can be multiplied infinitely. The governance model gets rid of the final decision maker; decision making as a discrete momentum in time and space ceases to exist and is replaced by the geometry of negotiation and the process of consensus-seeking. However, this process is slow and because of the need for consensus it is possible that the decision will be a ’soft’ solution that everybody likes, and this strongly decreases efficiency. (This is proven by a number of international codes of conduct.) Moreover, the process of decision making can potentially be dragged out infinitely and decisions once made can always be reviewed and re-negotiated. Execution of the decision and its monitoring can also be problematic.
Furthermore, the legitimacy of the whole model is questionable (although it may have started out to solve the problem of legitimacy in the first place). Those taking part in the process are self-appointed stakeholders whose democratic legitimacy may be missing. Who do they represent exactly? How were they chosen or elected? Does participation not mean that of the best organised? In other cases the set of participants is created by cooptation, which embodies a kind of neo-corporatist logic. The process of the aggregation of wants and interests is accidental and there is the danger that particular interests will dominate or will at least be over-represented in the process of negotiation. Governance leads to the privatisation of public issues in another sense too: the concept of public interest is watered down to particular interests in the very practical sense that private actors, companies take part not only in setting the public agenda but in handling public issues too. In practice, it may mean the advancement of market coordination, the marketisation of public services. Moreover, the presence of power cannot be excluded from the negotiation but its operation will be less controllable. This is also proven by an empirical survey (Smith et al., 2006), which examined the operation of British governance solutions in such basic democratic respects as the transparency of decision making. It came to the conclusion that a sizeable share of public-private-civil cooperation cases have a democratic deficit. This is of course not the primary sin of civil organisations (since other, probably stronger actors may have been present in these systems of cooperation), but the phenomenon is still worth noticing.
Suspicious critics (e.g. Mercer, 2002) think that the World Bank, the EU and other donors support CSOs, because they use them as an instrument of depoliticising social problems and even of weakening states. Relying on CSOs makes it possible to avoid strong interest groups, parties or the government. The fragmented operation of NGOs, their dependence on donations means that often they are less critical of existing power structures. This, in turn, may be advantageous for strong interest groups, players of globalisation, the World Bank and multinational corporations.
According to counter-arguments, governance has a say and has to have a say when other models fail or do not work well enough, where there is an efficiency or legitimacy crisis (Calame, 2003). According to the followers of the governance concept, this is of course true about more and more areas. The use of the concept is not ungrounded even by this criterion in case of the local governing of resource-poor municipalities, of poor countries burdened by corruption and bad quality administration, of the global system lacking a global government or the EU, which has a complex institutional architecture and a serious political crisis. However, there are some who think that – and the white book of the EU refers to this too –, some of the dysfunctions of the representative democracies of developed countries should be dealt with according to the principles of governance. The state has become only one of the actors in the turbulent global system of globalisation; there is no guarantee that the state, closed within territorial boundaries and constantly losing its instruments of efficient action, will be able to answer the challenges of our times.
Governance may also provide some kind of solution to the challenges of risk society, as it can be interpreted as a way of ’dealing with complexity’. If it slows down the decision making process, well, so be it: CSOs argue that the aim is exactly to cool down the technocratic zeal a little bit. The recruiting of stakeholders may be viewed arbitrary but the distribution of risks is not less arbitrary either: the effects of the operations of the gen-tech company Monsanto in the USA are felt in Hungary too, through the soy additives to foodstuffs. Why should a Hungarian consumer organisation not want to have a say in the American regulation of the gen-tech industry?
It is obvious that the working of CSOs and especially their cooperation with the public sphere - governance – raises complex issues. Strong arguments can be cited in favour of the democratising, participation enhancing, risk managing, legitimacy building functions of CSOs and against them as well. We can obviously find examples for both in practice: it is up to the particular institutional setup and the behaviour of the actors which one will be stronger.

Democracy, development and civil society in Hungary

The German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf said at the time of the change of system that constitutional reform needs only six months, economic reforms can fruit in six years but we need sixty years for the social bases of polgári társadalom to evolve which we need to protect us from internal and external threats to democracy and the market economy (Dahrendorf, 1990). Dahrendorf discusses citizens’ virtues and civil society as well, which in his interpretation, are very important parts of social development understood as democratisation. We do not have space to go into details below, so we will only make a few comments concerning Hungarian civil society.
The decade before the change of the system brought a revival of civil society and in social sciences it brought the rediscovery of civil society in the whole Central Eastern European region. This is when the interpretation of civil society evolved which returned to the idea of civility based on ’civilised society’, conscience and real democracy but did it against the state, especially against the totalitarian state. The civil sphere was a scene of trust and freedom again. The setting up, the theoretical preparation and the carrying out of the changes of system were largely done by the new social movements. The ’ideal’ of the times, Konrád’s, Michnik’s, Havel’s notion was that of a civil society independent from politics, self-organising, a community based on individual responsibility and conscience, a ’parallel polis’, a kind of anti-political political space, an independent and autonomous civil society confronting the state and politics. ’Living in truth’, ’the power of the powerless’ (quoted by: Kaldor, 2004: 33), these were the synonyms of civil society against totalitarianism. This ideal demonstrates very well that a properly working civil society necessarily exists and functions separated from the sphere of the state, in dichotomy with that. This is the classical condition for the civil society to take part in running a democracy.
But the dynamics of the civil societies of the region changed abruptly or in a sense broke with the change of system. This has many reasons obviously. Firstly, the new political elites absorbed most of the intellectuals taking part in the opposition to the old system. They swapped the civil sphere for politics. ’The party forming absorbed the leaders of the blossoming civil society, its intellectual, expert elite, practically beheading it.’ (Stumpf, 2006: 74.) Secondly, the economic hardships brought about by the change of system did not favour community activities: after the euphoric moments of the change of system the excessive individualisation of Hungarian society started to dominate again (vö. Örkény, 1997). Thirdly, the organisations that often worked in illegality, driven by the enthusiasm of its members, were replaced by formal civil organisations. Although these provide a simpler and more institutionalised form of social participation, the need to apply for funds, the lack of resources and other attributes of being an NGO may disillusion even the most enthusiastic members.
There are two cross-sections of civil society that are worth mentioning. First, the kind of political culture, secondly the sector of civil organisations.
When describing Hungarian political culture, we usually say that Hungarian society is strongly individualistic, atomised, has a low level of trust and is characterised by low political participation. On the other hand, there is a strong demand for a paternalistic welfare state and the significance of material well-being is high among values. The changes in the view on democracy and the level of trust in political institutions are strongly related to the economic situation (Kurtán, 2005). So, our political culture is less participative in comparison with western societies.
This is reflected in the working of civil organisations too. Hungary has fewer civil organisation in comparison to not only Western Europe but some Latin-American countries as well. While 10% of employees work in the non-profit sector in Belgium, 5% in France, 3,7% in Argentina, we only have 1,7% (Sebestyén, 2001).
Equally important concerning our topic is that the relative majority (39%) of non-profit organisations in our country (just like in other countries of the region) do cultural and sport activities. Although we could say that these organisations create social capital as well, following Robert Putnam and his reference to bowling clubs, it is obvious that this is only one of the roles of civil organisations described above. To fulfil the functions more closely related to development and democracy, we need other kinds of civil organisations too.
The force of the green movement, which played a big role in the change of system, was transferred and is still part of the more political civil organisations, but the impetus of the environmental movement did not affect other segments of civil society. The number of politically active, globalisation critical, human rights organisations or those concentrating on certain policy issues (e.g. energy, transport, education etc.) is really small.
According to an international study, civil society in Hungary today can be described like this: ’the balance between the performance of public input and the administration is imperfect, and is tilted towards official expertise and organised interest groups with an economic agenda.” (Rose-Ackerman, 2007: 35). This statement is probably generally true for the civil societies of the region; Civil organisations have a weak ability of influencing decisions and pursuing their interests. According to this study even the most active groups rely on a small number of enthusiastic members in Hungary, with a low budget, living off short term support. ’Non-profit organisations all have the same problems: (1) lack of material and human resource, (2) authenticity and (3) the lack of effective access to the political process.’ (uo.: 38.) And this is a serious problem, knowing that the state is inclined to perform poorer where citizens are less likely to unite in organisations, while government is more effective where there are strong, independent groups (Tusalem, 2007: 365). Examining the civil societies of transitional democracies, Tusalem comes to the conclusion that although the strength of civil society does matter both before and after the transition concerning the quality of democracy, its strength after the transition period (the organisational and membership density of NGOs) has a greater effect on the introduction of just, transparent, efficient and accountable state institutions (uo.: 378). This strength of civil society is quite low in Hungary (which is usually emphasized by the democracy reports of Freedom House too); which may explain why there is a problem with the quality of democracy, not only in our country but in the whole region.
Let us quickly add that there are two sides to the story. Obviously, the number and strength of civil organisations able and willing to affect politics and government is low. But the participative element in Hungarian political culture is very weak. Politics does not even use the existing forums of érdekegyeztetés, and the possibilities of civil participation are really restricted. Even the participative processes prescribed by law are not going smoothly. In 2008 they passed the low on advantaged state investments, which considerably restricts civil participation in the decision making process of certain projects.
Weak participative citizen culture, a small and depoliticised civil society – apart from these we usually mention the problems of financing. It is commonly thought that the civil sphere is too dependent on the state in Hungary, and the reasons for that are to be found in the lack of culture of donation.
This latter is undoubtedly true and can fairly be seen as a problem: participation in civil society may not only mean personal participation; the payment of membership fees and donation are also part of it. The importance of individual donations is huge for civil organisations, especially for those critical of the reigning political-economic institutions (to bring an international example: the radical environmental NGO, Greenpeace lives off individual donations exclusively – it does not accept money either from states or companies.)
At the same time, we should not forget that the situation in Europe is very different from that of the very developed American donation culture. Although Western European willingness to donate is obviously much bigger than that in Hungary, it is a lot lower than in America. This is also the reason why states in Europe play a serious role in financing the civil sphere. In an international comparison we can actually see that the 30-40% state share in financing the non-profit sector is far behind the European average of 50-60% (Sebestyén, 2001).
Let us repeat that the dependence on state sources can be a serious problem for organisations involved in development, democracy and good governance, wanting to monitor and criticise the government. And the growth of the readiness to donate, as an element of participative culture, is by all means desirable. But we cannot generally state that the proportion of state financing in the incomes of the civil sector is too high. On the contrary, the development of the civil sphere obviously demands the expansion of sources. Of course, it would be ideal if that was done along well defined institutional logics and minimising the discretional jogkör of the government, the possibility of direct political intervention. The National Civil Fund (NCA), the resources of which are distributed by civil delegates and which uses the 1% donations that are part of the income tax, is doing well in this respect, but like every system, this one has its faults and limits too. The NCA represents a kind of corporative logic, where the suspicion of abuse comes up again and again, and the 1% is also problematic, because taxpayers are not donating their own money but that of the state. The question therefore is if this system is capable of strengthening donation culture. It might be worth considering the system working in many countries in Europe, where every penny of individual donation is coupled by the same amount from the state.

To sum it all up: the weakness of participation culture, the lack of the tradition of political civil movements, the closed nature of government towards civil society and the financial difficulties of the non-profit sphere are the main reasons that civil society here is less active in advancing ’good governance’ and in fulfilling those social functions that are usually attributed to it. We have not set out to give detailed proposals of a solution to these problems, but in a few words we can state that the introduction of civic education, a public policy reform and the increasing of the (appropriately understood) state support of CSOs may be among the right steps. By civic education we do not mean theoretic constitutional studies but that of citizen participation, voluntary activities and active involvement in those – similar to the great traditions it has in the USA. By public policy reform we mean the increasing transparency of decision making and the executive, the application of participative decision making techniques (e.g. Citizens Juries), the training of governmental and municipal administration, the spreading of participative political culture. But, referring back to Dahrendorf, we cannot expect even coordinated measures to take us to the level of political culture of Scandinavian countries in a few years. It is important however, that at least we are aware of the right direction.

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