Manufacturing Civil Society from the Outside: Donor Interventions

J Howell, J Pearce


How have donor concepts of civil society been operationalised? What dilemmas and contradictions do donors face in attempting to create and strengthen civil society from the outside? This chapter from the book ‘Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration’ traces the specific paths leading different donors to engage with the concept of civil society, and seeks to answer these questions. It argues that civil society cannot be manufactured from the outside according to Western blueprints.

Donor agencies became interested in the concept of civil society in the context of growing disillusion with the state as an agent of economic development and arbiter of justice. The market seemed an effective alternative to the inefficiency of state planning, whilst civil society seemed to offer an effective challenge to oppressive state systems. This interest grew with the advent of the good governance agenda and the collapse of socialism. Donor assistance to civil society grew in the 1990s, although remained relatively small. The US is by the far the biggest donor, although a number of other bilaterals, multilaterals, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and foundations are also significant.

In seeking to nurture civil society, donors have adopted three broad approaches:

  • Institution and capacity building: This implies a wide range of activities. It is complicated in countries emerging from authoritarian regimes where freedom of association is sharply circumscribed.
  • Partnerships: There is a consensus that there are four main actors on the development scene: the state, market, civil society and donor agencies. It is assumed that they a share common vision and common interests, and several agencies have sought to foster greater co-operation between them.
  • Financing: Revenue for non-state organisations in the South is much more precarious than for those in the North, increasing their reliance on Northern funding. Private philanthropy is particularly important where the non-profit sector is newly emerging.

Donors face certain dilemmas and contradictions in attempting to construct civil society from the outside:

  • Donors tend to define civil society in terms of lists of organisations, which depoliticises and technicises the arena of association. There is an equation of civil society with plurality, which disguises the differential relations of power and diversity of interests in civil society.
  • Donor agencies are part of a politics of civil society and development, but the neutral appearance of civil society discourse masks political agendas and ideological hegemonies.
  • The partnership approach assumes that all players enter the field on equal terms, masking often explosive, contradictory relations. Donors’ assumed neutrality is a powerful political tool for furthering political agendas, as they appear to have no agenda of their own.
  • For most donors, civil society is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is reduced to a technical exercise of coordination and joint effort.
  • There is a tendency to assume that there is only one kind of civil society in the world, and that it is made up of particular kinds of organisations. This can lead to the creation of NGOs without a social constituency of support. It can also hinder understanding of the complexity of social forces underpinning processes of change.
  • The financial dependence of civil society in the South on donors can lead to the distortion of local agendas. It can weaken organisations’ capacity to develop their own understandings of how to achieve social and political change.


Howell, J. and Pearce, J., 2002,‘Manufacturing Civil Society from the Outside: Donor Interventions’ Ch.5 in Civil Society and Development, A Critical Exploration, Lynne Rienner Publishers pp. 89-122