To understand the needs of your protest movement properly, it is important to understand the theory that underpins civil society in general. When identifying partners, it helps to understand the various forms of civil society. Theory also points to gaps between formalised civil society organisations and those that are more grassroots in nature. Understanding these gaps, and what causes them, makes it easier to avoid these shortfalls when forming partnerships with other organisations and movements.
In this section:
Did you know?
CIVICUS found that in Argentina, there are low levels of membership and volunteering in civic initiatives and formalised civil society organisations. Given that Argentina has seen recent waves of protests, the implication is that formalised civil society organisations have not been able to engage non-formal and individual activism sufficiently (see here).
Understanding what is meant by civil society is important. Broadly speaking, civil society is the area outside the family, market and state, and encompasses a spectrum of actors and entities with a wide range of values, worldviews, purposes, structures, working styles, types of organisation, membership and geographical coverage (see here, page 8). Civil society functions as a realm of free association, a space that should be guaranteed by the state and international community through civil rights, but not directly controlled by the state and often in opposition to it. While the civil society space is home to many different views, it should function through inter-personal civility. Civility refers to a ‘game without agreed rules’ which depends on the ability to make appropriate moves and anticipate responses in a changing context based on implicitly understood codes of behaviour and social norms (see here, pages 2-3).
Actors that make up civil society can include:
- Civil society organisations, including those classed as non-governmental organisations, that have an organised structure or activity, and are typically registered entities and groups;
- Online groups and activists, including social media communities that may in some way be organised but do not necessarily have physical, legal, or financial structures;
- Protest movements of collective action or identity, which can be online or physical;
- Faith-based organisations, faith communities and faith leaders;
- Labour unions and labour organisations representing workers;
- Social enterprises and social entrepreneurs employing innovative or market-oriented approaches to social and environmental problems;
- Grassroots and community associations and activists at the local level;
- Cooperatives owned and democratically controlled by their members.
This is not an exhaustive list, and the nature of civil society is constantly evolving (see here, page 8).
One way in which civil society groups, including protest movements, can be characterised is the way they frame their campaign strategies. There are four broad categories that can be discerned, noting of course that some movements will use a variety of strategies that fall within multiple categories.
Reformers pursue their objectives through official or mainstream institutions including parliaments, government agencies, courts and corporations. Effective reformers see their claims incorporated into official policies and scrutinise the implementation of their proposals. Outside of the Velvet Revolution, protests around transport and domestic violence legislation in Armenia are useful examples of effective reformatory movements as they worked within the law to achieve policy and legislative reforms. However, the risk is that ineffective reformers will promote and accept minor reforms, alienate their grassroots constituencies and identify more with power holders than their movement (see here, page 1.)
While different definitions exist, revolutionaries are generally characterised as lacking the inclination to act within the constraints of legal or pre-established rules; sometimes ignoring conceptions of ‘civic responsibilities’ by using violent or confrontational protest methods. Understanding what violence means is complex and contested in the context of violence against public property and private property, and self-defence (see here, page 179; note that the author uses the term ‘uncivil society’ rather than ‘revolutionary’.) Revolutionaries are often forced into this characterisation by the closed nature of civic space in their country of origin or through an unwillingness of a state to engage. For instance, in apartheid South Africa, all actions taken by groups such as the African National Congress and South African Communist Party were revolutionary because the organisations were banned and could not pursue their objectives though lawful means.
Reinvention often comes when protest movements become overly formalised and institutionalised. Some movements adopt formal structures and move away from their grassroots origins. Members who are dissatisfied with such moves often break away and attempt to reinvent their movement using innovative and diverse means. Two examples of the tactics used by reinventors are online activism and cultural expression. Because these breakaway movements are often small, they tend to rely on the internet to spread their messages and ideas and organise supporters to conduct protests. The internet is the preferred method of communication because it is easier to access than mainstream media. Cultural expression encompasses an eclectic range of activist tactics, including graffiti and visual and performing arts. Often these are publicised on the internet. For example, Australian activists for migrant rights projected ‘boat people’ campaigns onto the Sydney Opera House, drawing national attention and debate (see here, page 2).
This is a small category, which generally exists alongside one of the other groups. Activist research is a form of inquiry that involves working with activists to explore problems they consider important through research methods that they endorse. Researchers and activists collaborate to define problems, design and conduct the research, and interpret and apply findings (see here, page 3). While the researchers themselves are certainly activists, the research they produce is regularly used to underpin conventional campaigns and protests. For instance, the Chilean student movements worked with policy researchers to produce a policy document that argued against commercialised education systems, and used this document as academic backing for their protests against the government’s tertiary education system. Similarly, the countless pieces of academic work sparked by the South African Student Fee protests, if harnessed and publicised correctly, could be seen as activist research that can assist movements in future.
The gap between formalised civil society and protest movements
Recent experiences point to gaps between formalised civil society organisations and protest movements. These gaps can be characterised by a rise in citizen protest actions without proper or adequate support from formalised civil society organisations that have access to resources and expertise, and in closed civic space conditions where little formalised civil society is allowed to exist (see here, page 3). Further, it appears that while globally, there is still significantly greater trust among the public in the actions of civil society organisations, as compared to those of the state and private sector, membership of civil society organisations remains low, funding is declining and the number of volunteers in organisations has decreased. There is likely a gap between the idea that people have of civil society organisations and the reality of those organisations (see here, pages 42-43).
“In conditions where there is limited institutionalised civil society, protest can find other forms; it also suggests that there is a constituency, and potential social capital, ready to be mobilised which formal civil society organisations have had limited contact with.”
There are likely countless reasons why gaps exist between civil society organisations and protest movements. Moreover, such gaps are informed by different causes depending on the location and focus area of the movement involved. There are, however, some general themes. First, it appears that formalised civil society organisations may be perceived as urban, elitist, remote from people and disconnected from the values expected of them (see here, page 40). In comparison, protest movements may be perceived as representative, responsive and diverse (see here, page 5). Formalised organisations may have weak roots in the communities they claim to serve, face external influence and pressure from funders that place restrictions on the way that money can be used and have to struggle against states that place restrictions upon registered civil society organisations (see here, page 4). Formalised organisations can be accused of becoming over-professionalised and of hiring full-time staff who have little experience of activism, potentially depoliticising them and making them harder to relate to for the people they work with. Many established organisations have a history of working to support government efforts, which can lead protest movements to distrust them and view them as too close to government (see here, page 3). This problem is compounded by the fact that many civil society organisations have taken on service delivery roles, including on a contracted basis. When civil society organisations fill these roles, it raises the danger that they are no longer motivated by the demands of citizens, but rather by imperative to provide services, often funded externally. Their success will be measured on the basis of deliverables rather than the achievement of broader goals (see here, pages 12-13). Finally, there exists a gap between civil society organisations and protest movements because of deliberate misinformation and conspiracy theories relating to one of the main funders of formalised organisations, George Soros and his Open Society Foundations. Anti-Soros sentiment is expressed by many on the right as they complain of Soros exerting pressure through funding to bend states to his will. These sentiments are encouraged by right-wing populist political leaders. This rhetoric seeks to refute progressive values and developing norms and attack George Soros individually. As a consequence, some protest movements may be wary of partnering with formalised organisations out of fear that they will be delegitimised on the basis of the organisation’s funding.
Gaps between civil society organisations and protest movements are problematic because they decrease the efficacy of all parties involved in protests. To bring about change, it is necessary that pressure comes from a variety of different sources and strategies are diverse and multifaceted. This is best achieved when protest movements, formalised civil society organisations, international actors and others work together. Gap between civil society organisations and protest movements jeopardise this coalition building and the overall impact of advocacy efforts. Organisationally, while protest movements are often comprised of a loose coalition of individuals, formalised civil society organisations can help organise these coalitions into a solid force to be reckoned with, nationally and internationally. Moreover, when it is necessary to develop leadership strategies, the professional experience of formalised organisations can be useful (see here, pages 3-4). Gaps also hinder the ability of formalised movements to attract new volunteers and cater for the needs of those who already rely on them. Protest movements have made the protest space far more dynamic than it was before, and civil society organisations must stay abreast of this, help this dynamism to grow and stay in constant contact with citizens if they wish to remain relevant (see here, pages 50-51). Partnerships across formalised and informal movements – and across borders – are therefore crucial.
While distrust may characterise relationships between many civil society organisations and protest movements, the reality is that organisations and movements rely on one another in informal ways. Formalised organisations often rely on protest movements to drive the activism agenda and garner popular support for causes. Protest movements often rely on formalised organisations for logistical roles, such as booking meeting spaces and printing materials – meaning that movements do not necessarily have to fundraise – and for informational reasons, as these organisations may have insights into government or be able to provide legal advice and services. This may mean that even when activists are critical of some aspects of civil society organisations they still appreciate good relations with members of these organisations. Because many people who now work in formalised organisations started their careers as activists, they understand the needs of protest movements and are sympathetic to them. It is clear that even where movements and organisations do not see eye-to-eye, collaboration of some kind is necessary to ensure effective activism (see here, pages 18 and 21). Understanding of this motivates civil society organisations to provide informal logistical and informational support to protest movements. Public disavowal of formalised civil society organisations by protest movements can endanger these informal relationships.
For more information check out:
 Interview with a member of a protest movement in Armenia.
 Interview with a member of a protest movement in Chile.
 Interview with a member of a protest movement in Armenia.
Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon via Pexels