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Back | Programme Area: Governance

New Directions in State Reform: Implications for Civil Society in Africa



There is a gap between the discourse of civil society and the pressures for state reform in many countries in Africa. Whereas civil society discourse celebrates the power of social groups and organizations to contribute to the institutional changes necessary for democracy and development, the debate on state reform cautions against such optimism.

The author of this paper agrees that institutional change and democratization require sustained and enlightened pressures from organized groups in civil society. However, he explains that African economic development and social change have produced fragmented civil societies, and discourses, across countries. Contestation is important. But devoid of efforts to build substantial constitutionality and public sector capacity, it may lead to state collapse or anarchy—not civic power—as Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan show. To be effective, civil society will have to build its own institutional capacity and competence in policy advocacy.

There are also limits to what civic pressure can achieve in the absence of institutional reform of the state system itself. The wide array of public sector reforms under way in Africa has different implications for civil society. The author looks at the range of reforms currently taking place to address three major crises of the state: capacity, governance and security. Reforms of state capacity tend to be market and management oriented, while whose of governance and security are concerned with political equity and participation. They call for varying forms of engagement between organized groups in civil society, state institutions and policy makers.
This paper also considers theoretical debates around the concept of civil society. Civil society has no widely agreed definition—should, for instance, market-based agents or, indeed, every non-state institution qualify as part of civil society? There is also controversy over how to categorize different civic groups, such as religious bodies or public sector interest groups—as well as fundamentalist movements that seek to impose “uncivic” practices.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Sep 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD