|Civil society||Graphical version|
Society consists of individuals but also of different groups of people. Free cooperation between citizens is an important element of democracy. Civil society means those relationships and activities between people which are ”private” as opposed to ”public” government, administration and decision-making mechanisms.
Civil society can also be seen as the area in society that falls between public authority and the market. In this respect civil society means voluntarily organised human activities – associations, non-governmental organisations, clubs, families and an endless variety of different groups, movements and communities formed by people.
Civic activities mean activism by people for other people – acting together, for the common good. In other words, civic activities aim for good rather than for a benefit or profit.
Key political actors in civil society include:
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and movements are groups of people which are teamed up for a common cause and try to influence decision-makers.
Economic actors try to advance the conditions of their own business, trade or profession. Trade associations and unions are at the same time both NGOs and interest groups. In a market economy market forces have a strong influence on the entire society.
Parties act as gatekeepers between civil society and government.
Civil society differs in nature from the public and private sectors.
Civil society is characterised by
Concepts typical for the public sector include power, authority, legitimacy and democracy, and those typical for the private sector include the market, competition, profit, the customer and the consumer.
Citizens’ self-reliance and activism mainly stems from a desire to participate and act. People are motivated to act by their interest in an issue. Participation and inclusion provides them with the opportunity and ability to influence.
Civil society provides many opportunities for influence, especially through political and trade union activity. Such opportunities open up an important dimension for spontaneous activities and activism in the context of civil society.
Civil society is able to flexibly adapt to people’s wishes, needs and preferences as well as changes in society around them. Absence of official obligations and responsibilities makes it easier to adapt and provides space for response.
Civil society activities are not dictated by heavy investments or shareholders’ profit expectations either. This allows space for creativity and innovation. Indeed, many functions and policies have been created within civil society and later been adopted by the public sector in its services or methods.
The boundary between civil society and government is like a line drawn in water. There are constant demands arising from civil society – from normal people’s lives – that public decision-making tries to respond to. Citizens want the government to take care of many aspects of health care, security and wellbeing.
On the other hand, public authorities control civil society in many ways. Parliament enacts laws and decrees that govern people’s lives. People usually accept the fact that the government regulates citizens’ private lives to a certain extent.
It is important that the government does not reach everywhere. Citizens would protest if the government tried to tell them which books they are allowed to read or what clothes women can wear in the streets. Even issues such as building permits or import restrictions are seen as patronising by many.
In a democracy, the border between government and civil society is under constant redefinition: How deep into people’s private lives can the government go? How much government regulation do people need and how much are they willing to take? These borders have moved and will move in the future. Such pressure for change can be both local and global.
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Updated on October 12, 2006