There are more civil society organizations in the world today than at any other time in history, so why isn’t their impact growing?
When you look at the numbers, the growth of civil society has been remarkable: 3.3 million charities in India and 1.5 million across the United States; NGOs like the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee that work with hundreds of millions of people; 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90 per cent of them launched since 1975. That’s not counting all the street protests, social movements and informal community groups that are often omitted from the data. In the UK, for example, these latter outnumber registered charities by more than four to one.
These statistics are mightily impressive – except when compared to the problems that civil societies want to solve. You could argue that things would be worse without the involvement of these groups. There’s also evidence to show that they’re making inroads around the edges of poverty and injustice.
But there’s no sign that the underlying structures of social, political and economic violence and oppression are being shaken to their roots.
As a result, fewer people in the world are dying young, and basic indicators of health and education, income and employment are getting slightly better – at least for most people in most countries. However, economic inequality is rising, democracies are being hollowed out, climate change is worsening, and discrimination based on race, gender, ability and sexual orientation remains endemic.
Social movements have helped to challenge these underlying problems, and they’ve successfully unseated dictators in many parts of the world. But they haven’t been able to secure lasting gains in democracy, equality and freedom.
Expecting civil society groups to achieve these gains by themselves would be foolish. However, given the rapid growth of all these organizations, shouldn’t they be having at least some impact on the deep transformation of self and society? What is going wrong?