Civil Society Beyond the State

Throughout the history of democracy, civil society organizations have evolved to defend and promote their members’ interests at the level of local and national policy-making, but are hardly present at the regional level.

Because major policy decisions are increasingly being taken at the regional level by regional intergovernmental organizations, civil society is faced with a fundamental challenge of relevance. Where regional civil society organizations do exist, their membership is often over-representative of one or a few countries whose civil society organizations can afford regional representation, causing an asymmetric representation at the regional level.

The risks are significant. Popular dissatisfaction with regional institutions, due to stakeholders’ limited or nonexistent voice at regional level, can have reactionary domestic level repercussions with political consequences, and can result in disengagement of governments from regional structures. Also, national governments may use regional policies as excuses to override domestic civil society concerns. The  absence of a regional voice can thus weaken the effectiveness of domestic civil society organizations.

Regional international associations are sustained when member countries’ domestic civil society organizations are integrated into regional civil society associations. A country’s integration into a regional community is strengthenedwhen its civil society is integrated into regional civil society. Intergovernmental protocols, treaties, and agreements are not sufficient for a country to be successfully integrated into a regional association. For regional integration to be successful, national-level civil society must be integrated into, and effectively represented in, regional civil society.

It can be demonstrated that strong regional civil society, i.e. in which domestic civil society is well represented, is necessary for strong regional government associations (ie that benefit from civic engagement). What will be the role of regional associations in the Middle East and Africa as regional democratic governance models are established, and what relationships will national level civil society groups have with them? The experience in Asia and Central America has little to offer in this regard. Perhaps because of the small size of the Caribbean region there may be more experience in this area though Cuba and Haiti are woefully under represented on the regional level in spite of (or because of?) CARICOM.

Integration of domestic civil society organizations into regional civil society is critical if the regional institutions with which they engage are to reflect the regional interests of civil society. It is not enough to trust that national governments will reflect, at the regional level, the interests of their domestic civil societies.

©2017 B.Laurent, The Caribbean Institute for Sustainable Development

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