The concept of civil society is a political one and has been familiar to most political thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Hegel. In earlier eras, the civil society had been distinguished as an organized society over which state rules. Such a distinction is not entirely valid, since the state itself is a part of society. The state institutions are bound with formal authority and political control while civil society works in a framework that is not bound by formal authority of state.
The relationship of human beings in different spheres of life, including social, family and religious which do not have any political authority in any way, require a formal and broader understanding. But sans political authority, civil society cannot live long or separate without any framework given by the same. Therefore, no boundary can be drawn between the two in this modern age.
The world is rapidly changing with blurring boundaries between the roles of different actors in ensuring an equitable and just society where there is no discrimination against marginalized segments of society. This role of safeguarding the rights and interests of those segments of society has successfully been played by civil society organizations (CSOs) the world over. In a country where there democracy is still in its nascence and political leaders are still struggling to cope with basic instincts of preservation of their self-interest over collective interest, the role of CSOs becomes increasingly important. And, it has also observed over the years with a number of improvements in development projects particularly in social sector. Now, these organizations are working vigorously for protecting collective rights and interests of the society; giving concrete input to government for improving governance and visualizing an inclusive narrative across the board.
The civil society organizations include INGOs, labour unions, professional organizations, faith organizations, charitable organizations or foundations, etc. Their roles and functions have also undergone substantial changes since 1980s and particularly in 1990s when IMF entered with them in a long-term partnership. Now a number of development projects are being monitored and implemented by these organizations or their affiliates across the world. Following is the definition of CSOs as given by the IMF:
“The term civil society refers to 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. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.”
From electoral reforms to monitoring development projects; from protecting marginalized groups from exploitation to ensuring health and education of children and women; from raising voice against environmental issues and creating mass awareness about rights of the people to their protection by the state in the form of good governance; all are the issues dealt by the CSOs. And, the governments have now started realizing their importance in governance and creating an environment of trust and confidence between the people and the state institutions.
Since late 1990s, the media has made a tremendous progress in Pakistan to such an extent that the parameters of assessing the performance of state institutions have become a household affair nowadays; giving tough time to the government functionaries by holding them accountable before public and creating an environment of healthy competition among different stakeholders of the society. The tacit understanding between media and CSOs to bring all the public-related issues before common man, which hitherto were unknown, have changed the whole scenario in the last decade. This partnership should go a long way in the pursuit of wellbeing of the masses.