Just Governance for Human Security Conference Participants, July 2015
The Role of Civil Society in Just Governance
Dr. Carl Stauffer
I am often struck by the many innovative and powerful roles (both formal and informal) that civil society can play in promoting just governance. If given the opportunity to flourish, there are at least eight essential leadership functions of civil society in paving the way for good governance and the concern for the “common good”.
- Provocateur Role- Often referred to as “speaking truth to power” this role is concerned with uncovering ‘truth’, and aimed at unmasking the “powers that be”. Civil Society often only takes this risk when they have counted the costs, they are tired of the status quo and there is nothing to loose except life itself. It allows the poor governance to be exposed for what it really is, stripping away political rhetoric and hidden motives or agendas. Often civil society institutions are the only structures that possess enough moral and ethical fiber to play this role in society, provided they have not become irrelevant, hold a vested interest in corrupt government or have politically aligned themselves to a failing government.
- Voice for the Silenced (voiceless) - This role is critical in order to bring to light the plight of those that have been most marginalized by poor governance. Illegitimate government must hear these cries of the ‘silent majority’ so as to not forget the human consequences of their behavior. The Civil Society must have constant contact with these groupings if they are to be an authentic mouthpiece for them. Civil Society organizations should be one of the key structures with a hand on the pulse of the interests and needs of grassroots communities who are the primary constituencies of those in positions of political power.
- Able to Mobilize the Masses - The real power of civil society is its ability to harness the energy of the populace and wage peace nonviolently in times of unresponsive and uncaring government leadership. Nonviolent action such as mass demonstrations, petitions, protests, vigils, symbolic public acts, marches, civil disobedience, strikes, economic and social boycotts, sit-ins, blockades, and many more are very effective tools for people on-the-ground to withdraw their support for corrupt and oppressive governemtns. The power behind this type of mobilization is in the sheer numbers, the human dimension and the moral high ground that comes with nonviolent action.
- Intermediary Role - This role involves civil society actors playing the part of mediator or third party intervener. This role usually comes when the civil society players (whether from inside or outside) are seen and experienced by all parties to the conflict as impartial, morally and ethically honest, with clear motives and no stake in the final outcome of the negotiated agreement. Interestingly enough, there are times when civil society leaders may play a sequence of roles. Initially it may be crucial that they take on the function of conflict provocateur in order to weaken the position of the oppressive state. However, at this point it may then be appropriate to take on the function of mediator (e.g. Mandela and Tutu in South Africa).
- Conduit for Dialogue – Ideally, civil society structures should provide the ‘safe-space’ for governments and the citizenry to build relationship and trust. Civil Society should be able and willing to provide the containers and platforms where social compacts between government and the people can occur – spaces where deliberative and participatory democracy processes can take place so that the people can have a say in how they want to be governed. If civil society has influence in multiple sectors in society, many ‘spheres of dialogue’ can occur simultaneously.
- Moral Voice for Healing & Reconciliation – Civil society provides one of the few environments that can carry the balance necessary to call for justice (accountability) and mercy (restoration) when dealing with unjust governments. Civil Society organizations have the responsibility to ‘put a human face’ to the often destructive and dehumanizing affects of unjust and repressive governments. Civil Society should represent the sanctuaries for those needing ‘holistic’ healing and trauma recovery. Civil Society can offer the locations where everyone’s story regardless of category of ‘perpetrator’ or ‘victim’ can be heard – where the dominant and subjugated narratives of society can be transformed.
- Role in Peace Building – This is a long-term, proactive conflict prevention strategy that contributes to sustainable good governance for the future. It involves an intentional effort by Civil Society to institutionalize peace. Civil Society structures must look for creative ways to model peaceful organizations with just and collaborative decision-making, and with equitable systems for redistribution of power and wealth. Of great importance in all this is the role of peace education that the civil society can and must take on for the generations to come.
Dr. Carl Stauffer
Centre for Justice and Peacebuilding
Eastern Mennonite University, USA