While scholars continue to debate the virtues, relationship and contributions of civil society to democracy (Chandhoke 1995), in the 1990s donors began actively supporting civil society strengthening programmes, driven by the belief that the relationship between civil society and democracy is natural and inevitable (Howell and Pearce 2002: 51). Driven by policy influenced by neo-Tocquevillian thinking, it was believed that through financial and technical assistance to civil society, democracy could be built. When conducting interviews with donors in Armenia in 2002–3, I was struck by the fact that none of my respondents from donor agencies who were engaged in democracy promotion programmes ever questioned whether civil society should be strengthened as part of their democracy building efforts; the question was always how it could best be done. Indeed, as the transitions progressed in all the former socialist countries, the radical democratic ideas and visions of civil society that had emerged in the 1980s dissipated, giving way to more established and less revolutionary neo-liberal ones. Subsequently, civil society became a project that was implemented in the name of democracy building, which eventually led to the projectisation of civil society (Sampson 2002). While this approach has led to the phenomenal growth in the number of NGOs, it has not generated genuine participation or public debate. The following quote, cited by Timothy Garton Ash from an Eastern European colleague, sums up the projectisation which occurred in the 1990s: ‘We dreamed of civil society and got NGOs’ (Garton Ash 2004).
Since the early 1990s, programmes strengthening civil society, in particular American, have excluded political associations and parties (i.e. political society) in an attempt to appear non-partisan and to avoid accusations of ‘playing politics’ (Ottaway and Carothers 2000: 12). Instead, although donors have recently sought to expand the definition of civil society to include more actors than just NGOs, in practice civil society was often equated with the development and growth of NGOs and as a result, the infusion of donor funding and focus on civil society strengthening throughout the 1990s led to an unprecedented and exponential growth in the numbers of NGOs worldwide. Many have referred to this as the ‘NGOisation’ of civil society.
At a moment when democracy at a national level appears to be ‘hollowing out’, the informal political sphere is increasingly active through NGOs. This includes those operating at local levels and those with global brand names like Oxfam, Human Rights Watch or Greenpeace, as well as a new wave of global social movements like the Social Forums, the anti-war movement or Islamist and other national or religious movements. Moreover new types of informal policy making are being pioneered on big global issues like social justice, climate change or war. These are being tackled through consumer practices (fair trade or carbon miles) or through volunteering (delivering humanitarian aid, acting as civilian monitors).