Civil Society

Christopher Hurtado —  December 12, 2005
Civil Society | Christopher Hurtado

The Church of Ascension on London’s Blackheath has a small metal plaque set into its wall that reads “Fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death, but in hell there is no brotherhood but every man for himself.” John Ball, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, spoke these words nearby in 1831. Ball would not have thought of himself as part of “civil society,” but citizens who join groups, form associations or volunteer to defend or advance the causes they believe in have, in effect. echoed his sentiments down through the centuries (Edwards 1). However, “citizenship is not a cure for spiritual malaise but spiritual malaise is a roadblock to citizenship because it impairs the capacity to create the community institutions on which a civil society and a democratic culture must rest” (Barber 275). It is through our participation in the institutions that make up civil society that we learn what it means to be a citizen (Barber 276).

Citizenship can be defined as belonging to a community, or can refer to the quality of our response to our membership in that community, or how actively we participate in it. (Merriam-Webster Online). Civil society can be defined as “the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations or institutions which form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force backed structures of a state” (Wikipedia). According to the London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society these organizations and institutions act “around shared interests, purposes and values,” and are separate from the family and the market as well. Examples include “charitable organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups” (Wikipedia).

Popularly, the organizations and institutions that make up civil society are referred to as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Bhagwati). Although NGOs are independent from government and usually do not have a profit motive, the government and/or private sources often fund them. Usually the term NGO is used to describe organizations and institutions that are designated so by the United Nations (U.N.) (Wikipedia). In the past, the U.N. only dealt with governments. Today, according to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, “peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without partnerships involving governments, international organizations, the business community and civil society.” Annan adds, “in today’s world, we depend on each other.” (The United Nations and Civil Society). According to a 1995 U.N. report on global governance, there are almost 29,000 international NGOs and even more national NGOs, most of them formed over the last three decades (Wikipedia).

The breadth and depth of civil society today is staggering. According to a recent study, “if civil society were a national economy, its expenditures would account for $1.6 trillion, making it the world’s fifth largest economy” (Son). Furthermore, “non-profits in 37 countries account for 47.6 million full-time jobs provide work for 4.5 percent of the economically active population and 7.7 percent of non-agricultural employment.” (Son) Often, it is governments that fund non-profit organizations in order to reach what are to them hard to reach groups of people (Son). According to John Hopkins, the main source of revenue for non-profit organizations is fees and charges levied. Their second largest source of funding is the governments that depend on their services to fulfill their own responsibilities (Son).

There are, perhaps, as many kinds of NGOs as there are reasons for them to exist. There are operational NGOs, frequently divided into relief-oriented or development-oriented organizations; “they can also be classified according to whether they stress service delivery or participation; or whether they are religious and secular; and whether they are more public or private-oriented.” They can be local, national or international (Wikipedia). There are also advocacy NGOs. These organizations exist to defend or promote particular causes. They work to raise awareness, acceptance and knowledge of the cause they promote through lobbying, public relations and activism (Wikipedia)

Organized religion or faith-based organizations make up a large number of operational NGOs. These organizations operate at all levels: locally, nationally and internationally. One international NGO, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) states that its mission is “to assist the poor and disadvantaged, leveraging the teachings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to alleviate human suffering, promote development of all people and to foster charity and justice throughout the world” (Catholic Relief Services). The U.S. arm of CRS, Catholic Charities USA, is a membership association that provides “vital social services to people in need, regardless of their religious, social, or economic backgrounds” (Catholic Charities USA). Another example is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known to many as the “Mormon” church.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” sent over 4,000 volunteers wearing bright yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” T-shirts to Louisiana and Mississippi from neighboring states to help clean up the communities devastated by the Hurricane. Volunteers donated an estimated 73,000 hours of service. I and 13 other members of my local Houston congregation donated 168 of them over a two-day period. The Church also provided the area with 140 truckloads of commodities and hygiene items totaling 5.6 million pounds of supplies, or 2,800 tons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The more than 12 million members of the Church worldwide who pay tithing and offerings fund Church relief efforts such as

In his book, The Wilding of America: How Greed and Violence are Eroding Our Nation’s Character, professor of sociology Charles Derber of Boston College points out the significance of civil society to democratic institutions. Wilding, argues Derber, is a degenerative form of individualism. Civil society, he says, is essential to combating this ill. “He argues that modern society has a declining ability to socialize citizens toward more collective concerns for public life and that those institutions, particularly the market, that have been successful are socializing people to become more isolated and concerned with their own self-interest, thus lacking any public context (Sawyer 10- 11). Organized religion, on the other hand, socializes people to become more concerned with others than with themselves. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches, “Service changes people. It refines, purifies, gives a finer perspective, and brings out the best in each one of us. It gets us looking outward instead of inward. It prompts us to consider other’s needs ahead of our own. Righteous service is the expression of true charity, such as the Savior showed.” (Cuthbert 12)

There are clearly many benefits to civil society. However, some argue that there are drawbacks as well. There are those who fear that government will lose its incentive to carry out its responsibilities if civil society is doing it for them. Zimbabweans are more loyal to NGOs than they are to their own government. Clearly their government is failing its constituency. As stated above, it is often through its investment in NGOs that government carries out its responsibilities. Others feel civil society takes power away from government. In 1997, Russia enacted a law on religious organizations to prop up the Russian Orthodox Church to the detriment of religious organizations from abroad. Russia used this law to expel the Salvation Army, which it argued is “a violent paramilitary group out to destroy the Russian state” (Rosenberg). This is obviously ludicrous. The problem in both the case of Zimbabwe and Russia is ineffective government, not civil society. Who can imagine the world without civil society and the people who participate?

Works Cited

Barber, Benjamin R. Jihad Vs. McWorld. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Bruyn, Severyn T. “Civil society transcends right-left gap.” Christian Science Monitor September 2005. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Cy-Fair Lib., Cypress, TX. 23 Nov. 2005 <>.

Catholic Charities USA. About Us. <>.

Catholic Charities USA. Local Agency Recovery Efforts in Response to Hurricanes

Katrina and Rita. < agencies.cfm#LA>.

Catholic Relief Services. Who We Are. < who_we_are/index.cfm>.

Cuthbert, Derek A. “The Spirituality of Service.” Ensign May 1990: . 23 Oct. 2005 <$fn=default.htm>.

Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2004.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joining Hands as Neighbors and Now Friends. 13 Sep. 2005. <,15503,4028-1-22145,00.html>.

Merriam-Webster Online. Citizenship. 24 Nov. 2005. <>.

Rosenberg, Steve. “Moscow bans Salvation Army.” <>

Sawyer, Peter R. Socialization to Civil Society. SUNY Press

Son, Johanna. “Development: Civil Society Fuels Economy, Millions of Jobs.” Global

Information Network October 2005: . ProQuest. Cy-Fair Lib., Cypress, TX 24 Nov. 2005 <>.

The United Nations and Civil Society <>.

Wikipedia. Civil society. <>.

Wikipedia. Non-governmental. <>.

Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.