Stop Talking About Civil Society

Using terms like "civil society" is a distraction from the real problems in authoritarian countries. 


On November 29, 2012, European Union representative Catherine Ashton discussed her recent trip to Uzbekistan, one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. "I raised the issue of judicial reform, and the increasingly important role that civil society needs to play," she said in a prepared statement. "I had a really good meeting with representatives of Uzbek civil society. Civil society — including human rights defenders — forms an important aspect in every reform process and they should be promoted."

When Ashton invokes Uzbekistan’s "civil society," one cannot help but wonder to whom she refers. Uzbekistan’s government bans any civic organization not under its official sanction, including religious groups, human rights associations, political parties, and independent activists and journalists. After 2005, when the government shot to death hundreds of people attending a protest over the imprisonment of local businessmen, the government expelled nearly all foreign organizations that fund community initiatives. The civil society section of Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report on Uzbekistan is a round-up of all the people arrested for attempting to create civil society. Each year, more and more of them flee the country.

In Uzbekistan, "civil society" is a secret society, working underground and dodging state persecution, unable to achieve almost any of its aims. They are not a bridge between government and the people, as the definition of "civil society" traditionally implies, but a symbol of the implausibility of such a category in an authoritarian state.

So why would Ashton use such a term? "Civil society" is a buzzword long favored by international organizations, who tend to define the term so broadly that it is nearly meaningless. The World Bank, for example, defines civil society as "the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations." The term "civil society" tends to appeal to Westerners because it is both libertarian, emphasizing a lack of government involvement, and communal, promoting civic duty and concern for one’s fellow man. For democratic states, it is an ideal; for authoritarian states, an illusion.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a proliferation of groups seeking to "promote" or "strengthen" civil society in Central Asia. Twenty years later, nearly all these initiatives have failed. Central Asian governments view civil society programs as a threat to their autonomy, while Central Asian citizens tend to regard them with apathy or cynicism, having witnessed firsthand their ineffectiveness and vulnerability to political pressure. Attacks on civil society groups have increased over the past few years. Even Kyrgyzstan, whose abundance of foreign aid organizations lent it the nickname "NGO-stan", has been cracking down, most recently arresting a researcher for the International Crisis Group.

The observation that civil society initiatives have failed should not be interpreted as a criticism of the people working for the organizations in question. Most are sincerely attempting to improve living standards in Central Asia and many have played a vital role in documenting corruption and repression. The problem lies with the term "civil society" itself, and the misguided policy initiatives that have derived from using it as a category of analysis.

"Civil society" is a concept that has little application to the reality of authoritarian rule in many countries. Civil society groups often declare they are apolitical, but to declare oneself as apolitical in an authoritarian state is a political stance. What civil society groups may see as an impartial focus on the citizen, the government interprets as a willingness to act outside of state parameters and ignore state objectives.

In Central Asia, governments portray themselves as both the expression of and the patrons of the people — a relationship promoted as sacrosanct. That a category of independent, civically engaged citizens should exist outside government patronage is offensive to authoritarian leaders and implausible to the people forced to live under them.

The term "civil society" forces citizens to pick a side — "the government" or "the people" — in a system where to choose sides is personally harmful, difficult to practice, and tricky to conceptualize when the government is so thoroughly embedded in citizen life. To be a "civil society activist" is to essentially declare oneself as an enemy of the state. To be an enemy of the state under an authoritarian regime is to be reclassified as an "enemy of the people." That the term is a Western import only increases its subversive status.

Complicating the matter further are groups which promote goals that both Western NGOs and authoritarian regimes find objectionable. In Central Asia, this includes Hizb-ut Tahrir, a nominally banned organization which seeks to improve civic life through Islamic education — and to replace Central Asia’s dictators with a caliphate. Under the sweeping definition of "civil society" used by international organizations, Hizb-ut Tahrir ostensibly qualifies as a civil society group. When religious expression is controlled by the government, as it is in most Central Asian states, citizens will turn to groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir for alternative sources of information on Islam — but that does not necessarily mean they share the group’s goals. Similarly, citizens will seek out Western civil society groups for money, access to technology, or educational advantages without supporting their ideals.

Both the category of "civil society" and the purpose such groups serve for citizens are more ambiguous than either authoritarian governments or Western activists portray them. Daily life in an authoritarian state is a series of compromises, often without ideological underpinnings or firm allegiances. Participation in "civil society" initiatives — whether those promoting democracy or Islamic fundamentalism — should not be taken as an indicator of anything other than the resources (or lack thereof) available to the individual in question.

Yet international organizations continue to treat "civil society" as if it were a magic bullet, a set quality that can be "strengthened" until democracy is achieved. In authoritarian states, civil society is not a solution, because it is not even a category. Instead, it is a distraction from the serious problems citizens face. The brevity favored by policy-makers does not reward ambiguity, but "civil society" is a term that should be stricken from the agenda. Authoritarian states are shadowy and self-contradictory enough without introducing a piece of Western jargon that sheds no light on political conditions and potentially harms the people encouraged to identify as its representatives.

Most of all, talking about "civil society" gives authoritarian states far too much credit. Catherine Ashton should not be talking as if civil society exists in Uzbekistan. She should be talking about the tiny group of embattled activists persecuted for promoting democratic ideals. That is not a society. That is an abomination, indicative of the triumph of authoritarianism in Uzbekistan and the inability of Western policy officials to realize meaningful reform.

To acknowledge this defeat is not to preclude hope for a better future. Rather, it is to ground future initiatives in reality instead of abstractions of little local relevance. Authoritarian states need to be challenged, literally and figuratively, on their own terms.    

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