Sunday, February 26, 2012

CSOs and State 12: From NGOs to GFOs

This is my article for the online magazine today, refreshing the page. Original title is Civil Society and the State.

Civil society, like many other social concepts, has a varying definition for different groups. There is no single, “unanimous” or “consensus” definition of the term. And very often, the definition is patterned after the social or political philosophy that a particular group adheres to.

Take the following definitions of “civil society”:

1. Civil society is an invention to correct state failures and inefficiencies, later lambast market's self-correcting mechanisms (such as de-monopolization of industries through deregulation & more competition).

2. Civil society is a cultural phenomena and has other tasks aside from a mere focus on economics. It does not exist just for the market. To balance out market imperatives is only one of its functions.

3. Civil society role is to encourage and empower individuals and citizens to take on more personal and parental/guardian responsibilities in running their own lives. The principle of subsidiarity says that things that can be done better by the lower level of social organs or entities should not be given to higher social organs, things that can be done by the individual should not be given to the government.

(Above three definitions lifted from CSOs and State 10: The Role of Civil Society)

4. Civil society is the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere and then referred to as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business.'s 21st Century Lexicon defines civil society as 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.

(Wikipedia definition)

5. Civil society is as a "third sector," distinct from government and business. In this view, civil society refers essentially to the so-called "intermediary institutions" such as professional associations, religious groups, labor unions, citizen advocacy organizations, that give voice to various sectors of society and enrich public participation in democracies.

(Definition from

6. If all means of decentralisation, deregulation and privatisation have been implemented and citizens have been involved as comprehensively as possible, there is nothing to stop the definitive self-administration of citizens. A civil society has emerged.

It is possible to find a hundred (or more?) definitions of civil society, along with their respective role in relation to the government, private enterprises and individuals. I am taking the liberal definition of the term. The 3rd definition above is actually mine. And this clashes with the mainstream or dominant definition, that civil society organizations (CSOs) exist to fill in the gap by government inefficiencies -- note that they do not want to use the term “government failure” while frequently mentioning “market failure” -- in addressing various social and economic problems, from garbage to health to poverty alleviation.

In the mainstream definition therefore, there is a close if not symbiotic relationship between government and CSOs. A big and interventionist government is consistent with a big and interventionist civil society community, they often conspire to harass what they think is the source of various social ills – the private enterprises, corporations big and small, businessmen and capitalists. So that in this symbiotic relationship, many CSOs get various contracts and funding from government – local, national and multilateral or foreign aid. But CSOs are supposedly “non-government” groups and organizations; when they get huge funding from government, they become government-funded organizations (GFOs).

The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) has released a new regulation, National Budget Circular (NBC) No. 536 dated January 31, 2012 or just two weeks ago. It is called “Guidelines on partnership with civil society organizations and other stakeholders in the preparation of agency budget proposals.” The DBM has created a “CSO Desk” that will monitor the initial 12 departments and 6 government owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) that will be covered by NBC 536, so that those departments and GOCCs are required to involve CSOs in their budget preparations.

 I attended the DOH-DBM meeting with CSOs about this circular last February 14, 2012. All CSO leaders and representatives involved in health introduced themselves, their organizations and their specific interests on public health issues. As expected, our group, Minimal Government Thinkers was the odd-man-out because we always link rights with responsibilities, entitlements with obligations, and delineate which healthcare services are personal and parental/guardian responsibility and which ones are government responsibility. I emphasized that people who over-smoke, over-drink, over-eat and over-sit cannot just assert that “health is a right” because they did not recognize that “health is a personal responsibility” too. It was good to see a number of heads among the participants nodding after I spoke. 

I observed later how some CSO leaders would use the occasion to lobby for more DOH support if not funding for their specific advocacies. And this is part of the process by which NGOs become GFOs. I think the appropriate term for that will be "CSO Insertion" to differentiate it with "Congressional Insertion" and pork barrel in the national budget that many NGO leaders and the public so dislike.

 Government is very often the arena of irresponsibility and hypocrisy. Of living beyond one’s means, of spending much larger than income and revenue, and resorting to endless borrowings to finance the funding gap, year in and out. The continuing financial turmoil worldwide is very much caused by government fiscal irresponsibility and huge public debts. From north America to Europe to many Asian economies. One can count in his fingers the number of governments that are not heavily indebted, say with public debt of 15 percent of GDP or lower. The bulk of these governments have debt/GDP ratio of 30 to 200 percent, and such ratio is still understated because contingent debts (debts by government corporations and financial institutions guaranteed by the national or central/federal government), as well as local government debts (provinces, states, cities) are often not included.

When CSOs become indebted and dependent for funding with government, their capacity to fiscalize and criticize the government for its excesses and wastes becomes limited. This is something that CSOs should try to avoid as much as possible.

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