The Function and Impact of Civil Societies and Civil Society Organizations
Civil societies can take on many forms and can change based on the communities that they emerge from, making the term somewhat ambiguous. In one definition, civil society can be the perspective of looking at societies as a community of people sharing common interests and activities. Civil society includes the family and the private sphere, separating itself from governments and the private sector of business. Generally, civil societies manifest as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as other similar groups and institutions. These organizations are typically run by people experiencing some sort of dissatisfaction with the status quo, who then through the power of the collective civil society, advocate for the change they want. Civil societies are often comprised of groups of people who have been marginalized, oppressed or underrepresented. Civil societies can form anywhere that people are experiencing these inequities, but they are especially common among groups and nations who have a long history of economic and political instability. In these situations, civil societies create a voice and a call-to-action for people without autonomy and access. Civil societies are often less formal than they may sound. While some civil societies do manifest as defined and structured organizations, many are simply groups of people who share the same cause. These civil societies often have no official or elected leaders and many may not have political channels or representation to allow their actions to have a large impact. It is important to consider this when looking at the roles and impacts of civil societies. Regardless of their lack of direct political influence, civil societies have been some of the main drivers of change and progress throughout history. This has become especially prevalent with the emergence of social media which allows messages from movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Zapatistas to reach the world. Due to their lack of official leaders, these civil societies typically function based on shared governance, allowing the people experiencing a problem to advocate for themselves and their desired change. In Brazil, for example, there are over 200 organizations working to advocate for the poor in São Paulo. These organizations are all experiencing a change in leadership and representation as Brazil continues to grow as an impetus for human rights and justice in South America. Many of these civil society organizations are seeing the gap between the represented and their representatives close, allowing people to advocate for themselves in a meaningful way. While it may appear that civil societies and civil society organizations can only operate at a local level, there are hundreds of growing organizations around the world that are working to advocate for people who share common inequities across borders. Among these civil society organizations are NGOs, trade unions, faith-based organizations, indigenous people’s movements, etc. all working outside of the government to bring equity across borders, using globalization and the media to their advantage. This network of organizations can be defined as the global civil society which is rapidly expanding, following the same template as more localized civil societies: a participatory democratic structure, representation for the underrepresented, and upholding the universal values and experiences of marginalized groups across borders.
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