A Discussion about The Evolution of Civil Society

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I4DI Researches the Evolution of Civil Society and the Emergence of The Fourth Sector

The meaning of the term “civil society” in the arena of international development was first expressed as a homogeneous goal between the people and organizations carrying out various projects. However, the history of civil society can be recorded back to the Greek Empire, in which the term was directly related to political society. During this period, there were educators known as sophists, who began to discuss the essentials of political philosophy through the shared belief that virtue could be taught and developed. This group of thinkers emphasized the importance of understanding the principles of natural and positive law, eventually forming the underlying foundation of democratic theory.

Diving head-first into this research are José Santos and Jacob Alexandre Tibi, two associate interns at the Institute for Development Impact (I4DI). Santos and Tibi are researching the evolution of the foundational concepts defining today’s understanding of civil society under the guidance of I4DI’s Vice President, Bernard Vicary. “It’s important to understand the contextual foundations upon which civil society derived it’s meaning,” Santos explained, “and how the connotation of the term has changed over the course of history and has impacted the way people envision the social sector today.” 

For many centuries, the terms political society and civil society were used as interchangeable expressions, based on the moral theory of natural law. Ancient thinkers argued the importance of natural law as standard for governing human behavior, playing a crucial role in determining the legal authority based on normativity. The combination of natural law with the rule of law developed an interconnected structure in society that for many years was controlled by the bourgeoisie based on their common interests, which did not align with the utilitarian view for the sustained development of society.

One of the turning points of society began with the enlightenment period during the 18th century when individuals began adapting themselves to different ideologies. This way of thinking in which society drives their own desires directed the enlightenment period towards an era of disruption. Figures like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke completely changed the way in which civil society was portrayed. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke emphasizes the importance of understanding the roots of political society to understand the development of civil society, by which he believed natural law continued to have a drastic influence in civil and political society.

The rapid advancements in technology, communication and efficiency during the industrial revolution allowed individuals to have access to multiple resources that facilitated the economic development in many regions. These new practices transformed political and economic ideologies, which enabled humans’ ability to adapt based on their necessities, thus, leading to an increase in inequality resulting from protectionist ideas that did not allow society to pick their course of life.

Adam Smith was one of the first philosophers to oppose the protectionist idea of mercantilism, arguing that natural law had superiority over economic, political, and social interests among individuals. Smith believed that economic development will better function without government intervention, in which the market coordinates society’s economic activity and where the national economy was enhanced by free trade rather than by mercantilism. Smith explains the importance on reducing the role of the state over individuals to allow them to specialize in certain activities that will boost their talents, therefore acquiring new skills. The role of the state over societies drastically changed over time adapting to society’s interest, which led to a constant increase from individuals questioning the best practices that should be implemented to develop a “utopian” state of mind. The constant friction gave us two of the deadliest wars in human history; completely shaping the course of the world and making individuals realize the prominence of peace, the importance of understanding multiple philosophies based on diverse interests, and the significance of collaboration to fully develop a unique society.

In his 2012 re-election speech President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of development towards the future in collaboration with any given party stating, “As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.”

Jose and Jacob highlight the complexity associated with the landscape of international development, and it’s apparent that it will be increasingly difficult to ensure that the private, public, and social sectors can create high levels of positive, sustainable impact across the globe.  The idea of “The Convergence Continuum” was discussed by Gib Bulloch and Louise James in a report which theorizes the future evolution of the international development field.

Convergence continuum

Convergence Continuum; Source: Accenture Innovation Center

The convergence continuum highlights the ways in which the private, public, and social sector partner to create sustainable solutions to aide social progress, and indicates that they are converging toward a new landscape of international development that combines business methods with social purpose. Thus, there is the emergence of new hybrid organizations with models to tackle societal challenges that blend viable, sustainable strategies from all three sectors – effectively creating the fourth sector.

For more information and to continue the discussion please feel free to contact: Info@i4di.org