If the twentieth century was dominated by the rise and reach of the state, its close has been marked by the ascendance of civil society. Yet this long-overdue recognition of the importance of civil society has too often evolved into a simplistic equation of democracy with a strong civil society. A strong civil society, however, may not necessarily be a democratic one. For example, popular social forces have recently sought to undermine democracy in Ecuador and Venezuela, and democratic voters have returned former authoritarian leaders to power in Guatemala and Bolivia. Even a democratic civil society does not ensure a democratic state, but the latter is unlikely to be sustainable without the former. Democratic deficits within civil society jeopardize its ability to perform its proper social functions -- and its legitimacy at home and abroad. Democracy requires not just more civil society, but better civil society. The debate on democratizing civil society has important consequences for public policy and international relations. Both external actors (governmental and nongovernmental) and the governments of democratizing countries must take into account the relative legitimacy and representativeness of civil-society organizations when making policy decisions. In Colombia, for example, government officials, peace commissioners, international organizations, and foreign funders struggle to assess the autonomy and accountability of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking human rights in Latin America's oldest and most threatened democracy. Since such evaluations determine the level of resources, protection, and representation these organizations receive in a country where more than a thousand people are killed each year in political violence, civic status may be a matter of life and death.

Democratizing Civil Society in Latin America’, AlisonBryskJournal of Democracy, 11 (3) (2000): 151–165. © 2000 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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