Structural problems of Pakistan’s civil society

In my previous article titled “On State and Civil Society”, I argued that a strong and vibrant civil society is necessary for development. Moreover, I pointed out that the gap between our civil society and our government is problematic as it doesn’t allow the former to grow and be a potential partner in the nation’s development. This article continues the discussion. The question that can set the premise for this article is whether the gap between the civil society and the government, and lack of seriousness on the part of the government is the only reason behind the not-so-active presence of civil society in Pakistan’s development context.

The answer is no. It is not the only problem. Before elaborating, it is necessary to have a glimpse of the civil society structure in Pakistan. A comprehensive research can be done to explain it. Put briefly, civil society is not just the non-governmental organisations rather it is more than that. In Pakistan, the tribal associations, biradaris, and religious groups are also part of civil society. The reason for this is because of their functionality, these entities regulate the collective social life as intermediaries between the state and society.

The law, however, recognises NGOs as civil society. There is no particular legislative recognition of non-NGO formal and informal institutions and organisations as part of civil society. The absence of a legal recognition can be seen as beneficial as it sets these entities free to regulate themselves. But meanwhile it is alarming to see these entities so divided along many fault-lines. Some of the fractures exist along sectarian and ethnic lines. Researchers like Muhammad Qadeer and Iftikhar H Malik stated in the 1990s that the denominational interests of these entities have come to dominate the civil society arena.

This depicts a picture of scattered potential. Whereas these institutions and organisations bear a lot of potential in terms of critical mass, cultural norms and intellectual endeavours, their potential is unharnessed. Sometimes, certain civil society actors are alleged to be played as pawns by the government to alter public attention from key issues. This is because of a lack of proper structure that should converge on the spectra of civil society.

A consortium of various civil society fora should exist where these civil society organisations come together to deliberate and agree on a broader civil society agenda. By doing so, they can create a momentum in favour of social development. Otherwise in the absence of a common platform to interact, random attempts to attain wide-scattered agendas leave the civil society dysfunctional. It’s probably why the government also seems not in a position to devise a policy related to civil society as there is no prevalent tangible structure of the civil society that can be dealt with as a unified whole.

By saying this, I do Rather a collective effort can be more effective than scattered efforts. Moreover, by coming closer to each onot mean that various denominations of civil society should relinquish the positive role they already play in highlighting key social issues. Sharing experiences, various organisations can advance and sharpen their objectives. Also, through dialogue, these civil society organisations may be able to find common areas of interest and recommend suggestive paths for the government.

Formally, parliament can take the lead for this. By establishing a standing committee on civil society, parliament can help civil society organisations establish a consortium to interact, deliberate, discover key problems and devise action plans. By doing so, apart from elected representatives, parliament can have additional resources and direct input from civil society actors in legislation that is more responsive to public needs. This will empower civil society, eliminate structural problems within civil society and enable it to act more efficiently for the social well-being. This seems necessary to harness the scattered potential of civil society and make it more useful for the public good.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2020.

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