Peter Prove, Executive Director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, addresses the future role of civil society

The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, “Resilient Dynamism”, seems a bit of a contradiction in terms. But that contradiction is exactly the reality for civil society today.

On the one hand, civil society – in its many different forms – is thriving. There has been an explosion of civil society organizations emerging in many countries across the world and at the international level, and with significantly increased visibility and influence in national and global affairs (witness the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements by way of example).

On the other hand, in many countries and through many different processes, formal and informal expressions of civil society face increasing constraints on their freedom to mobilize, speak and act for human rights and economic and social justice. Around the world, there is shrinking political space for this explosion of civil society energy.

And yet civil society is responding to these same constraints with innovative forms of organization, mobilization and action, including through social media and other new technologies. In short – resilient dynamism.

A report released in Davos, The Future Role of Civil Society, acknowledges this characteristic of civil society, going so far as to say that “civil society actors can and should provide the resilient dynamism the world urgently needs”. Significantly, it also highlights the special and increasingly recognized salience of faith and religion in this context.

But, it argues that the old-fashioned silo mentality that saw civil society as the “third sector” alongside government and the private sector will no longer serve, in light of the ways in which civil society is evolving and the gravity of the global challenges we currently face. The report says that, rather than a third sector, civil society should be the glue that binds public and private activity together in such a way as to strengthen the common good.

I think that is a far better perspective on what the role civil society might seek to play in the future. But it’s also very difficult to achieve in practice. The discussions in Davos will help test the willingness of other leaders to let civil society play this role.

Author: Peter Prove is Executive Director of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, and is also a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith and the Project Steering Group on the Future Role of Civil Society.

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