The dawn of 21st century has seen a growing interest in civil society organizations and their potential role in achieving development goals and sharing the burden of governance and public management. These civil society organizations have shaped up in the backdrop of modern concepts such as public accountability, policy advocacy and social and political change, and have also played their role in defining the new paradigms of public administration and global governance. Pakistan has seen a remarkable growth in the number of civil society organizations as well as their scope and role in the public space. This paper lays the foundations of exploring the idea of civil society, its philosophical connection with political liberalism and various challenges it poses as new social and administrative phenomena. The paper argues that NGOs, with their organized mobilization of citizenry for social and political change on the one hand, and while competing for provision of public goods and services due to privatization and contractualism on the other hand, have become a powerful tool of political and administrative control.

KEYWORDS:           Liberalism, Civil Society, Public Management, Governance, Non-Governmental Organizations


The idea of Civil Society is not a new or fresh concept. It has existed in the Western political thought for centuries; however, the modern concept of the civil society started emerging in the age of Enlightenment most notably beginning with the Theory of State by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), a major figure in German Idealism. Hegel promoted the idea of a relationship between the state and the civil society that is of contrast and mutual dependence at the same time. The theory states that the society would be governed only by the mechanical laws resulting from the interaction of the acquisitive and self-centered motives of many individuals. (Sabine, 1973)

At the height of industrial revolution, political and social theorists were concerned with the development and possible fall out of industrialization and the idea of civil society lost its appeal. The idea came under fresh light in the post World War II period through the writings of Antonio Gramsci; an Italian Marxist. The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at the turn of the 1990s and the ‘triumph’ of western capitalism has given birth to this global belief that the liberalist democratic conception is the only worthy conception of the good life. This has also opened up a renewed global interest in social capital, the civil society and the role they can play for good governance in a pluralist democratic world. Everyone, everywhere, seems to be talking about the ‘civil society’, the ‘third sector’, ‘community organizations’ and ‘volunteer’ work. A wide array of organizations in this so-called ‘third sector’ has sprung up globally that call for individual and social activity and interaction to achieve common ‘good’.

The dawn of the 21st century and the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the Millennium Summit in 2000 have intertwined the ideas of development and civil society with each other. The summit was attended by representatives of over a 1000 non-governmental and civil society organizations.

The term ‘civil society’ in its modern sense has considerably drifted away from the Hegelian thought, and has been explained, like other concepts in the social sciences, by as many number of definitions as the number of thinkers and writers who have attempted to explain it. The concept is largely debated and understood in a variety of different perspectives, however, certain elements are central to its understanding such as ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, ‘freedom of speech’, ‘independent judiciary’, ‘pluralist state’ and a ‘democratic’ society.

Dictionary.com defines the term as “the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens; individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government”. (Dictionary.com)

The civil society has also been defined as “a sphere of social interaction between the household (family) and the state which is manifested in the norms of community cooperative, structures of voluntary association and networks of public communication … norms are values of trust, reciprocity, tolerance and inclusion, which are critical to cooperation and community problem solving, structure of association refers to the full range of informal and formal organization through which citizens pursue common interests”. (Veneklasen, 1994)

Therefore, the modern sense of the term “civil society” includes all forms of community organizations, think tanks, professional associations, non-governmental development and humanitarian organizations, social and political movements, parties, pressure groups, unions, trade bodies, the media as well as other forms of organizations which are based on voluntary participation both in the public and private sector. These organizations, or “civil society organizations (CSOs) as they are called, are also commonly referred to as the ‘third sector’. In its proper understanding, the civil society means all forms of private association which exist outside the sphere of the state and the market. (Carothers & Barndt, 1999). However, in their contemporary understanding, civil society organizations are often, mistakenly, understood as the non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) mit Studenten. Lit...

Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) mit Studenten. Lithographie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Historical Development & Grey Areas:

The mankind has long indulged in the practice of policy making and policy implementation ever since the birth of organized society or civilization. This process and practice of governing; policy making and policy implementation has been called as politics and public administration respectively. The academic field of public administration originated in the United States and has been defined in numerous ways, most simply put as “the study of government decision-making, the analysis of the policies themselves, the various inputs that have produced them, and the inputs necessary to produce alternative policies”. (McKinney & Howard, 1998)

Scholars of public administration have traditionally emphasized the politics-administration dichotomy, and the modern discourses on the scope and nature of public administration argues on separation of policy making and policy implementation, the former being the sphere of politics and the latter being the arena of administration.

In a liberalist-democratic tradition, it means that both the political and administrative hierarchies are open to competition, performance based careers, and is neutral of moral and religious restraints; which in itself is a moral view-point. It is imperative to understand that the political-administrative systems in Western democracies are based on a complex and often ambiguous mixture of norms and values, connected to political-administrative control, codes of professional behavior, due processes and government by rules, democratic responsibility, public service ethics and participation of affected groups. (Christensen & Lægreid, 2001). These ‘affected groups” are the organized elements of the civil society which are referred to as civil society organizations (CSOs), or in their contemporary understanding as NGOs.

In the 1990s, as the primacy of capitalist liberal democracy gripped the world, and saw a renewed focus on civil society, a new approach to public administration emerged among the experts and scholars of the field. This new approach or set of reforms are called as “New Public Management”. These reforms have originated from public choice theory, microeconomic theory and managerialism and have distinct premises or characteristics. (Christensen & Lægreid, 2001). These characteristics include focus on performance, market competition, privatization, outsourcing, contractualism, customer driven devolution and disaggregation of units, efficiency, empowered managers, and deregulated government, whereas it also de-emphasizes the role of government as producer of public goods and services. (Rosenbloom & Kravchuk, 1989). It advocates an entrepreneurial spirit in the public sphere and the concept that the government should “steer, not row”. (Osborne & Gaebler, 1992)

It has been argued that the non-governmental organizations play an increasingly significant role in shaping up policy by exerting pressure on the government, as well as by provision of technical expertise in policy making. (Carothers & Barndt, 1999). However, it should be noted that these NGOs also provide services to the public administrators in policy implementation and provision of public services due to contractualism and outsourcing approaches prevalent in the New Public Management paradigm. Therefore, they are a source of considerable political coercive power, and a competitor in administrative control thereby positioning the third sector as a serious contender to the “throne”.

In the context of developing, and democratizing countries, the burgeoning NGO sector is often dominated by elite run groups that have little connection with the citizenry they claim to represent and which exist on resources funded by foreign donors. (Carothers & Barndt, 1999) . The scope and character of these NGOs are often vague and suspicious, and have considerable, often mysterious, influence on political affairs and domestic and foreign policy behaviors of states. (Kim, 2011). NGOs and transnational civil society organizations such as Albert Einstein Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and International Center for Non-Violent Conflict have a suspicious history and have been traditionally used as a foreign policy tool for regime change by the United States in the guise of “democratization”. (Golinger, February 10, 2011). The colored or flower revolutions in post-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were also the machinations of similar transnational activism by civil society organizations and transnational NGOs focused on regime change. (Chaulia, 2006)

The advent of social media has made such social and political mobilizations even simpler and convenient. The revelation by the Deputy CIA Director in a congressional testimony came as no surprise, which stated:

“After years of secretly monitoring the public, we were astounded so many people would willingly publicize where they live, their religious and political views, an alphabetized list of all their friends, personal email addresses, phone numbers, hundreds of photos of themselves, and even status updates about what they were doing moment to moment. It is truly a dream come for the CIA.” (Schonfeld, March 21, 2011)

This particular role of transnational NGOs and the social media becomes more clear and reflective in the context of the Arab Spring and the growing conflicts and upheaval in the Middle East as well. (Adly, 2012; Cartalucci, 2011; Eltantawy & Wiest, 2011; Khondker, 2011)

English: Yemeni protests typical day at Sana'a...

English: Yemeni protests typical day at Sana’a University. Started with few hundreds in February to several thousands in March and hundreds of thousands on April. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growth of NGOs in Pakistan:

The history of Civil Society in Pakistan is as old as the civilization in the region itself. Several social, religious and political movements have embraced the sub-continent before Islam arrived. Islam brought a completely new and dynamic perspective to social and political life of the region, as well as newer trends of administration. The British Colonial rule and contemporary global developments such as French, American and Russian revolutions, industrialization, and abolishment of Ottoman Caliphate as well as the World Wars significantly altered the concepts of statehood and national identity in the region. The western ideals of civil society, political activism, democracy and public administration had been long ingrained in the local populace before the partition of India and independence of Pakistan.

However, the contemporary academic discussions and journalistic writings tend to employ civil society as an umbrella for a range of non-state and non-market citizen organizations and initiatives, networks and alliances operating in social, economic and cultural fields. It manifests many forms, practices and values characterizing a tussle between a pre-capitalist collectivist social and religious thought and pro-capitalist, liberal political aspirations. (Baig, 2001)

Over the past several years NGOs have grown like mushrooms in Pakistan. These NGOs, advocacy groups, social and political change movements, are formal or informal alliances that are working to promote Western ideals such as consensus based decision making, pluralism, feminism, women empowerment, tolerance, equality, human rights, liberty, democracy, freedom and autonomy. A very few really understand the ontological and epistemological origins of these fancy jargons and the  result of such instrumental thought that now defines the Western world.

There is a lack of definitive data and classification on the types and area of activism for NGOs operating in Pakistan, however, broadly three types of NGOs are observed in the country i.e. 1) there are indigenous community organizations or NGOs which have specific areas of interest and operate largely on local resources, 2) indigenous organizations which have a wide array of social and political activity area and their survival and prominence is courtesy to foreign funding, 3) are international NGOs and transnational agencies which operate in a much broader spectrum from political and administrative reforms to grassroots social re-engineering. NGOs are also classified functionally as charitable, service oriented, participatory and empowering. (Gupta, 2008)

The role and scope of several of these NGOs are often controversial and arguable. There operations have been similarly difficult to track and evaluate. The paradox lies in the fact that these NGOs have developed in the backdrop of New Public Management paradigm, and their ontological roots lie in liberal political thought, however, empirical evidence have called for accountability, monitoring and evaluation of the scope, role, and activities of these NGOs.

In purely administrative context, NGOs have operated in Pakistan under five different laws, and some even operated devoid of any formal legal existence. The state not only faces a dilemma here as far as concepts of deregulation and freedom are concerned, but it also faces a clear administrative and policy challenge. The rising social and political powers of the NGOs significantly limit the effectiveness of state authority and control, and in certain ways pose serious challenges to the integrity and sovereignty of the state as have been seen in the cases of Middle East, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

The Background Ideals:

Liberal theorists beginning with John Locke (1632-1704), known as the “Father of Classical Liberalism”, have promoted various theories which reflect on exclusively European experiences related to society, religion, economy and politics. The liberal political ideals are grounded in various theories such as individualism, utilitarianism, social contract, natural rights, and laissez-faire, and promote various conceptions such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of ownership, secular governments, democratic societies, free markets, pluralism, tolerance, equality, and autonomy. (Donohue, 2003; Lalor, 1884; Wolin, 2009; Young, 2002)

As liberalism is rooted in the philosophy of individualism, the modern conception and usage of the term ‘civil society’ is intimately connected with liberal thought such as the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). (Zaleski, 2008)

In its essence, liberalism dictates that rational actors seek to advance their material or instrumental interests through a framework which is institutionally free of control and free of state intervention based on free market and autonomy. The political implication of the liberalist thought is premised on limiting the power of the state to interfere in private economic and social sphere. This is achieved through freedom of association of individuals to pursue any activities that are not forbidden by constitutionally valid laws. (SJessop, 2002)

It is understood that this freedom of association of individuals is now known as the “civil society organizations”. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the ontological and epistemological origins of the civil society have been laid down in a politically liberalist tradition of a democratic capitalist society where social, political and economic transactions are deregulated, free of religious and moral mores, based on competitive material interests.

It is also safe to assume that the civil society, capitalism, democracy and liberal political ideals are deeply entrenched into each other and it might not be theoretically possible or practically plausible to disconnect any of the crucial links.


Firstly, there is a need to re-emphasize among the scholarly and journalistic circles that NGOs may be a part of the Civil Society; however, just NGOs are not the Civil Society.

Secondly, as the experience within Pakistan, and elsewhere in the globe particularly in Middle East and former Soviet Republics evidently make it clear that many among these local and international NGOs operate in grey and questionable areas. This necessitates the need for a comprehensive legal and administrative framework that binds the third sector in track-able, transparent, and accountable set of operations.

The Government of Pakistan is developing a new legal framework that calls for mandatory registration of non-governmental organizations in Pakistan; as well as monitoring of their activities and their funding. (Tribune, 2015)

Thirdly, it is also important to point out that the modern conception of civil society has its roots deeply entrenched in the Western experience and subsequent Western approaches to policy making and administration. There is a dire need to critically evaluate the growth and development of these conceptions as well as to address political and administrative needs according to local cultural, social and moral aspirations and experiences. In absence of such critical evaluation and consideration for local aspiration, this blind import of Western experience will only ferment increasing social polarization and political-administrative catastrophe. 


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