Civilising civil society

Donors and democratic space in Nepal

Civil society as a concept has had a long and distinguished, if somewhat rarefied, existence among political philosophers. In recent decades, having undergone some alchemic transformations at the hands of development theorists, it has surfaced among the people with more rhetorical allure than it has ever had in the past. In this more seductive guise its ecumenical progress has been very sumptuous. At the hands of development publicists it has now become a tidy blueprint to explain what is amiss in 'underdeveloped countries' and what awaits them if they only make their societies more civil. But as with all nostrums, this demotic concept of civil society cannot afford to look too closely at its own constitutive axioms. Reconciling its numerous and fundamental inconsistencies is a potentially self-negating act. Given the evident inadequacies of the concept, what is surprising is that the development priesthood has managed to secure for it such widespread acceptance across the global south.

It is customary, for instance, in Nepal, as in other "less-developed" countries in the present time, to predicate viable democracy largely on the emergence of a vibrant and active 'civil society'. In the cannon of development, a concomitant assumption is that such a civil society can be financed into existence. But this constant reiteration that civil society is the solution to all of Nepal's ills does little to clarify the nature and potential of democratic space in Nepal. Instead, civil society and other associated terms in donor liturgy — "democracy", "development"  "empowerment", "gender" — are deployed in simplified, sanitised and circumscribed forms. As the anthropologist Saubhagya Shah points out, shorn of their "particular political and economic histories, these privileged discourses get circulated as transparent and free-floating normative orders". Across the world civil society has been accorded a single uniform connotation that does not admit of the different political possibilities that its pedigree affords.

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Himal Southasian