During a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland January 2009, UN Secretary-General mentioned the following: “Our times demand a new definition of leadership—global leadership. They demand a new constellation of international cooperation—governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective global good.”
The above quotation gives us a clear indication of what civil society means in contemporary discourse: a sphere of activity poised between government and the private sector, yet separate from them both.
According to the definition adopted by the World Bank, civil society is a broad term that encompasses the vast range of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that publicly express values and interests, and thus occupy a place in public life. These interests can be ethical, philanthropic, scientific, cultural, religious, or political, and can be promoted by groups as diverse as labor unions, faith-based organizations, and foundations.
Though this definition might seem overly removed from the daily lives of many of us, the most important thing to remember about civil society is that it is in fact all around us, operating constantly, and impacting us whether or not we are active participants. Have you recently donated blood, attended a play, listened to an environmental activist give a presentation, watched a news bulletin on student protests, been on strike, accepted a pamphlet from a local church, or volunteered at a community sporting event? You have experienced civil society at work.
Bahman Baktiari is the Executive Director of the International Foundation for Civil Society.