With a growing interest in participatory forms of development and the idea that institutions outside the state are also important contributors to social and economic advancement, civil society has acquired a new significance. Sitting between the family and the state, the civil society arena is where the private becomes public; the social becomes political. As part of a project to undertake comprehensive governance assessments, we focus here on the nature of the rules (formal and informal) that affect the civil society arena. The extent to which civil society is an integral part of policy-making is an important factor in national development. More broadly, the rules in the civil society arena are important for how people perceive the political system at large.
This paper presents the findings for the civil society arena in 16 developing countries. We find that the civil society arena is generally considered to be quite open in the countries included in our study. And it has recorded a solid improvement in recent years. In this respect, democracy has scored a victory. Not everything, however, is fine. Comments by respondents indicate that in many countries there is still a tendency for governments to arrest or intimidate citizens who propagate views different from those in power. It is also clear that in many countries there is discrimination in the public arena. While civil society may be vital, there is a general impression that public input into policy is still quite limited. Many governments simply do not provide an environment in which such input is facilitated.
The discussion has interesting implications for research and practice. An important issue for further research is to better understand why a strong civil society does not necessarily translate into increased policy influence. Our work suggests two particular lines: first on different forms of social capital and second on the relations between civil and political society. For practitioners, it does seem that investments in civil society made since the late 1980s are beginning to pay off; people can speak out and form groups. But, the work higlights that we cannot continue treating civil society and state as if one is the "good guy", the other the "bad guy". The survey reinforces the argument that the quality of the state reflects the quality of its societal base. It is important, therefore, that efforts to improve governance tackle reforms of the state as part of strengthening civil society.