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15 May 2015

#Essay The role of Civil Society in the development of Good Governance in Latin America

Yadira Rodríguez Murcia

As part of my Global Governance Class at City University London, I wrote this essay. I share it with this community since perhaps the content is on your interest. Thanks for your feedback!

The evolution of Latin America development has characterized in the last 20 years by the incorporation of a range of reforms to adapt models and structures that globalization demands to the region. Along with the changes in economic strategies, it is the role of civil society as participator not only to fuel the discussion about governance, but also, to empower the people “The pueblo” in order to make their voices be heard.

Good governance as one of the components of Global Governance discussion reached Latin America (LA) after the neoliberal reforms of the Washington Consensus promoted by International financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and the International Monetary fund, with the purpose of influence political structures in the region. The civil society is one of the components of the governance as the executive, the bureaucracy, the rule of law, and the character of the Policy Making Processes are. The Civil Society works as a defender of ideas of transparency, accountability, democracy promotion and participation of people in public affairs.

Although the model of Good Governance seems to be a recipe that in the Latin America case has been applied in different ways, the actions, shortcomings, gains and challenges look homogenized. This essay will present an overview of the role that civil society has played in shaping Good Governance in Latin America. First, I will explore how civil society is located in the structure of Good Governance as a contested concept; the second part will focus in the contributions and weaknesses of civil society in its purpose of becoming more influential in the governance field. On the third part, I will highlight the LA cultural politics and the relevance of technology incorporation to boost social empowerment. Finally, the challenges of civil society in shaping good governance and democracy within the region will be analysed.

  1. Latin American Civil Society in the concept of Good Governance

 The concepts of Civil Society, Governance and Democracy are intimately linked, as one is part of the structure of the other and certainly, their meaning are contested in the literature as well as in the practice. However there are some characteristics that define them in the political and intellectual field. For the purposes of this essay, I will take the definitions of Jan Aart Scholte who considers for instance, that Civil Society “might be conceived as a political space where voluntary associations seek, from outside political parties, to shape the rules that govern one or the other aspect of social life” (Scholte, 2014, p. 214). Meanwhile, Democracy is generally considered as a “condition where a community exercises collective self-determination to take decisions that shape their destiny jointly, with equal rights and opportunities of participation and without arbitrarily imposed constraints on debate” (Scholte, 2015, p. 285). Two participators can be identified in those definitions: The people and their leaders. A Hobbesian analysis can be done since one participator gives the power to other in order to define the fate of their community. However, the globalization process has introduced a new concept in the political lexicon: Governance. It involves more actors than the state itself: participators in the sub state level as in the supra state, the private sector and transnational organizations. In this sense, it can be said that governance is a similar concept of “government” but with a wider system structure, with rules and norms designed to promote democracy in the global era.

It is not surprising that the general acceptance of the “Good governance” in the political sphere since the positive connotations of “good” make audience to believe that the transformations of structures will be good for the society development ignoring the origins of the term. For instance “By talking about ‘governance’ – rather than ‘state reform’ or ‘social and political change’ – multilateral banks and agencies within the development establishment were able to address sensitive questions that could be lumped together under a relatively inoffensive heading and usually couched in technical terms, thus avoiding any implication that these institutions were exceeding their statutory authority by intervening in the internal political affairs of sovereign states” (Hewitt, 2002, p.107).

The term was widely adopted after the publication of The World Bank’s Development Report (1997, p. 17) “The State in a Changing World”, in which the role of the state is considered as a partner, catalyst, and facilitator. “An effective—not a minimalist—state is needed to provide the goods and services—and rules and institutions—that allow markets to flourish and people to lead healthier, happier lives”. Also, the concept of Good Governance was presented as a need for governments “Good Governance is not a luxury but a vital necessity, without which there can be no development, economic or social” (Chhibber, 1997, p. 17). It is clear the influence of the IFIs in the adaptation of these ideas.

Beyond the discussion about the neglected position of the World Bank to ignore other dilemmas of the Latin American politics in the implementation of “Good government” ideas to pursue development, what follows is the description of the Civil Society as a component of “Good governance” and its social promise.

According to Nugent (1999), governance encompasses five components: of a) the executive that is accountable for its actions, b) the bureaucracy that should be efficient and capable of adjusting to changing social needs, c) the rule of law that should be appropriate to the circumstances and adhered to by members of both the private and public sectors, d) the Policy-Making that should be open and transparent so that all affected groups may have inputs into the decisions to be made, and finally, e) civil society should be strong so as to enable it to participate in public affairs. I will focus in the last element and its role in the system.

Civil Society circumscribes a range of participators with different views, interests and operation mode: think tanks, relief organizations, Labour unions, Human Rights promoters, environmentalists, development cooperation initiatives, academic institutions, philanthropic foundations, local community groups and peace movements, among others. According to Scholte (2012) they can be divided in groups such as Conformist, reformists and transformists. The first group advocates for the reinforce of current norms (e.g. business lobbies, professional associations or philanthropic associations); the second, advocates for the correction of existing norm but keeping the social structures (e.g. Social-democratic groups, Human rights groups and unions, or relief organizations); and the third fight for a change in the social order (e.g. anarchists, environmentalists, radical feminists, religious groups or pacifists).

The role of the Civil Society in shaping Good Governance could be compared with the actions of Civil Society in Global Governance. The differences lie on the territoriality and the participators involved. In Latin America Civil Society via ONGs and other organized groups are working in giving voice to stakeholders by implementing public education activities, fueling the debate about global governance and good governance, by increasing the public accountability of the government and by giving legitimacy to policies. As in the global level, regional and national institutions or agencies are taking more into account civil society views by considering them as a gauge of measures taken. However, there is also a wrong use of the concept of civil society, for instance, in authoritarian environments, there is an impression about “strong civil society requires a weak government, or that the latter automatically oppresses the former” (Hewitt, 2002, p.108). This anti-state discourse not only undermines the role of Civil Society in the concept of Good governance but also creates instability in the confidence of the communities.

The empathy of Latin American governments with westernized ideas, has promoted strategies to implement good government which defines a set of values that stress the role of civil society: accountability, transparency, responsiveness, equitability and inclusiveness, efficiency, rule of law, participation and consensus oriented. The combination of those elements looks good in the discourse; nevertheless, the idea of realism in this model is contested by several scholars who argue the Latin America reality cannot follow a blueprint of developed countries due to the nature of its own history, political culture and development.

  1. Civil Society in Good Governance: contributions and shortcomings

Latin America Civil Society acts as an agent of public education, a generator of inputs for policy process, an indicator of political viability and as a legitimation of policies. Furthermore, its contribution has grassroots in four actions that Scholter (2014) establishes for Global Governance but that can be applied at the regional or national level:

By increasing the public transparency of governance operations: Contributions in this area have been facilitated by the technology. The regional cooperation has promoted initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP) launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens. Since then, OGP has grown from 8 countries to 65 where government and civil society are working together to develop open government policies[1]. Each country designs a Plan of Action for Open Government that includes projects of Open Data, e-participation, accountability and public contracting Websites. Collaboration projects are being developed in addition to the construction of guidelines for the implementation of those mechanisms. Currently, people from civil society, governments, private sector and academia interested in Open Government affairs are writing the first manual open government. They are using www.gob247.org in an initiative promoted by the Lab of Ideas of the Inter-American Bank, GobAPP.

By monitoring and reviewing policies: The watchdog role of Civil Society to oversight the policies application, has promoted the development of anti-corruption policies in Latin America that include accountability as core. Furthermore, the generation studies and reports pose challenges to failures of ongoing policies. For example, over the social crisis generated by the internal conflict in Colombia, NGOs did produce studies that show the Internal Displacement issue as one of the most harmful to the region. That led the country to establish one of the strongest institutional frameworks of the world to respond to Displacement.

By seeking redress for mistakes and harms attributable to regulatory bodies: Civil Society has worked in norm change, official impeachment, reparation paid, institution reconstructed. They exert their rights through to auditors, ombudspersons, parliaments, courts and the mass media (Scholter 2014). In Paraguay for example, a community leader requested the municipal government to make public the salaries and background of public servants in the city, after the negation of the government, the case was judged by the Court of Justice with a decree of access of public information. Several institutions did public that information and several clientelistic practices were discovered since the civil society found cases of public servants contracted out of the recruitment process established by the law. What is more, a mobile application was developed with the obtained information.[2].

By advancing the creation of formal accountability mechanisms for governance: Civil Society has posed in the Good government discussion, the need to strengthen mechanism of accountability by leveraging social media, public consultations and public events in which national agencies are accountable for what they plan with the budget and what they really do and how. Also, “civil society associations in many if not most countries across the world have promoted ideas and practices of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a voluntary accountability regime for companies, in particular those that operate globally” (Scholter, 2014, p. 221).

On the other hand, the deficiencies of Civil Society to shape Good governance, according to Brysk (2000) lie in their representation, accountability, dependency, partisanship and Human Rights approach. Scholte (2002) adds one weakness, which is common between the governance in the national level as in the global: the underperformance of the organizations in their contributions. Regarding the representation, there is a personification of the ideas that locate leaders upon the aims and interests of the organization. It is in line with the trend of populism that characterized Latin America. Also, the number of the NGOs has increased to an extent that many organizations can claim they represent the same community and as a result, it is created a battle of leadership. Finally, “Outside assistance may also have the effect of making civil society less representative by creating a gap between groups that receive assistance and those that do not” (Brysk, 2000, p. 156).

In terms of accountability, the personalistic leadership as the hierarchies generated by the own organization endorse a lack of mechanism to be accountable to their own beneficiaries. Confidence is undermined in these cases.

The dependency from donors also influences the capacity of the organizations to contest positions and promote mobilization. Dependency can turn into co-optation, particularly exercised from states and corporations. One example of that is an “Amazonian Indian rights group now funded by the oil company against whose incursions it was originally formed to protest. Civic groups that lack internal democracy are the most vulnerable to co-optation, since capture is most likely when leadership is personalistic and unaccountable” (Brysk, 2000, p. 158).

The partisanship could be seen in two points: First from the personal political aspirations of leaders that can be placed over the common interests of what they represent. Organizations also can be co-opted by parties’ rules. Nevertheless, the success of social movements creating parties has been welcomed in the region, for instance, the Brazilian Workers’ Party, or the Bolivian Indian rights movement.

As far as the Humans Rights approach, some Civil Society groups on behalf of the rights of certain groups against national institutions, end up violating other people´s Human Rights and eventually, the rights of people they represent. That is the case of leftist groups supporting the generation of illegal groups such as the FARC in Colombia considered nowadays as terrorists.

Another weakness of the Civil Society is the poor coverage in media to their affairs. Generally strong press teams in governments and private sector hold the media attention. That can be caused by the lack of quality and controversial information generated by the organizations or because of the influences of the regime in place.

Finally, the lack of knowledge and expertise to present strong arguments on the documents and reports, or to provide effective education services is another shortcoming, particularly, in new and small organizations “advocates can be tempted to manipulate public opinion with sloppy argument and inaccurate data in order to score points in their immediate political contests; Campaigners also lack economic literacy, legal knowledge, sociological understanding scientific expertise, statistical training, and other relevant competences to be effective public educators” (Scholte, 2002, p. 297).

III. Cultural politics in Civil Society: the relevance of digital media

The rapid expansion of Internet in Latin America over the last 10 years has bolstered citizen empowering. The Internet implications on Civil Society development can be analysed from the access of people to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and from the mechanisms of governance established for it. Although the gap is still big, particularly in access to technology in poorest territories, the progress done in the region has impacted the way activism encompasses more participators and more issues.

In terms of access, although the interest of governments in LA for enhancing ICT use is high, the penetration varies substantially between leaders such as Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina and those with less advances such as Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras. That trend also can be seen within the same countries since there are deep gaps among subnational territories. The Mexico Internet access is lowest in those states that are the poorest and have the highest concentration of indigenous population. Same situation can be observed in Colombia, particularly in municipalities with major afro-descendants and indigene population. Of course, the access to ICT is not the only concern, the lack of skills to use technologies and to be part of civil society activism also it is. The development of strategies of know-how, require to be strengthened to enhance participation of people from the bottom of the pyramid.

ICT also has a number of positive inputs for governance. Common people have joined Organized Civil Society initiatives by using social media; agencies have developed 2.0 tools to improve communication with the users, governors are using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to respond people´s questions and the channels of communication are enhancing with the increase of users. Civil Society has played an relevant role on the design and implementation of Access to Information policies, Open Government and Citizen Participation, thus, the e-Government policies have enforced governments to implement strategies to facilitate the relationship between governors and citizens by using technology. As a result of that, the survey undertaken by the United Nations e-Government 2014 locates Uruguay and Colombia in the top ten of Countries scoring more than 66.6 per cent in three stages of participation: e-information, e-consultation and e-decision-making. In that process, International Organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Development Bank, Economic Commission for the Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) have played an essential role by supporting countries in the identification of best practices as well as the technical accompaniment.

Unfortunately, the empowering of people is undermined by the cultural politics in the region. The Open Government discourse is subjected of the type of government in place, “In Latin America, informal norms often continue to permit a degree of executive dominance over public administration that far exceeds a president’s constitutional authority. Therefore, where the publication of potentially sensitive government information is counter to the political preferences of the incumbent president, compliance with OGD and ATI legislation is destined to stay limited” (Welp and Breuer, 2014, p. 219). Apart of this, what is regrettable, is the lack of confidence of the people in their legislative bodies and political parties “surveys that have been annually conducted since 1995, citizens’ confidence in these institutions has always lagged behind that for other institutions such as the church, television, or armed forces” (Welp and Breuer, 2014, p. 220), people end up using social media to engage with sloppy arguments against the system and promoting a dichotomy of Civil Society and Government. Indeed, in contexts where citizens tend to regard all governance as corrupt, many people may look skeptically on the motives of civil society organizations as well, doubting that civil society could be a space where persons of integrity could pursue public interests” (Scholte, 2004, p. 228). Clearly, that situation is not precisely an advantage for civil society that at the conclusion it may get involved in fashionable discussions that sometimes last one-day.

  1. Challenges of Civil Society to shape Good Governance

Today more than never, Civil Society needs strength inasmuch as the transformations Latin America require a strong involvement of the third sector in the triangle relationship between government, market and people. There are four remarkable tasks for the civil society in that triangle: to be education agents of public knowledge about governance, to generate contributions for public policy process by analysis data, to monitor and offer a people perspective, to be a gauge of the political viability of existing and contemplated measures, and finally, to enhance the democratic legitimacy with the increase of public participation and public accountability. However, to fulfill these task, the Civil Society need to overcome a number of challenges to really impact governance in the region. At least five challenges need to be addressed to reduce the shortcomings of the Latin American Civil Society.

  1. Promotion of political culture. The organizations in particular might focus their efforts in two directions: Towards the communities and towards the government. On the community side, a job to fight reactiveness on political issues needs to be approached. ICT can be used for that purpose but it requires a strong educational strategy in most of the countries. On the government side, the Civil Society should be stronger to avoid being manipulated by the executive through their agencies. Also, the discourse of Good Governance used by leaders need to go from the norm to the practice in order to strengthen the capabilities and influence of civil society in public policies.
  2. Enforce mechanism of accountability. Organizations need to include their own accountability as priority. They cannot shape good governance demanding accountability of governments if they keep refusing it to their represented. Additionally, the work to press for stronger accountability mechanisms has to be boosted. That is one of the main rights but at the same time, a duty of Civil Society.
  3. Strengthen internal structures. In order to avoid, personalization of the leadership within the organisation, it is necessary to establish decision-making mechanism, goals, terms, structures, and positions with defined functions. The aims of the organizations should be upon the personal interests of their leaders, even when they are in favor of the organization.
  4. Resources. Lack of economic resources prevents Civil Society to fulfill their role. Constantly the fight for funding promotes dependency from organizations compromising their core goals. Networking and stronger structures can lead to keep independency and get access to more sources in the country and abroad.
  5. Attracting media. Organizations should work harder in their communications strategies, particularly, in PR. It is important for organizations to have more voices in main media, namely, more publications, news, opinion columns, and videos among others. However, it is necessary that those resources be characterized by quality and well-supported arguments.

Overall, there is a huge burden for Latin American Civil Society to strengthening its organizations from inside to get a major impact outside. Good governance is a good opportunity to make governments consider Civil Society as a vital part in the development of their policies, otherwise their legitimacy could be seen undermined.



As part of the changes caused by the neoliberal ideas in Latin America in the last decade of the 20th century, the concept of Good governance as a feature of globalization became popular amongst the political discourse of most of the leaders in the region. The role of civil society in the new scheme that sought the creation of a favorable environment for business and a closer relationship between the people “el pueblo” and their governments, is relevant to the extent the democracy values such as accountability and transparency cross the Good governance ideas.

Latin America region has been a sympathizer of Western ideologies and although the concept of good governance is a blueprint from developed countries, it is not responsible to say that the recipe has worked on the same way and with the same positive results than other developed countries, or even within the same region. However, there are similar features that let us to identify the role of Civil Society in this process.

ICT have supported the evolution of Civil Society in its task of shaping governance. On the one hand, it has compelled government to develop accountability mechanism through strategies of e-government allowing people to have more access to information that is public but never before was accessed, as today. Furthermore, it has promoted networking among organizations to mobilized common people, especially through social media and to obtaining resources for sharing goals.

The social promise of Civil Society in shaping Good Governance lies in the capacity to rise the voice of people by increasing the public transparency of governance operations, by monitoring and reviewing global policies, by seeking redress for mistakes and harms attributable to regulatory bodies. They do this through a range of mechanisms and strategies such as lobbying, advocacy, public education activities, fueling the political debate, legitimizing policies or influencing viability of measures taken by the government. Certainly, the role of private sector is much stronger, “even expansion of Internet is largely, result of lobbying by private business to expand their markets for infrastructure, equipment and programs” (Bonilla and Cliche, 2004, p. 376).


The shortcomings of Civil Society to shape Good governance in Latin America posed some challenges that need to be addressed from the internal structures of the organizations, from the empowerment of people and from the governments to recognize its importance in the decision-making processes. The political culture, resources, mechanisms of accountability and increasing the capacity to attract media are some of the challenges in this era. However, it is clear the need of transformation of the paternalistic government styles to empower people to play a more effective role in the good governance as a neoliberal idea brought to Latin America with the Globalization discourse.


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CAMPOS, N.F. AND NUGENT, J. B. (1999) Development Performance and the Institutions of Governance: Evidence from East Asia and Latin America. World Development, 27 (3), pp. 439-452.

CHHIBBER, A. (1997) The State in a Changing World, based on the World Bank’s World Development Report 1997. finance & Development, 34 (3) pp. 17-20.

HEWITT, C. (1998) Uses and abuses of the concept of governance. International Social Science Journal, 50 (1) pp. 105-113.

MAINWARING, S. AND SCULLY, T. R (2008) Latin America: Eight Lessons for Governance. Journal of Democracy, 19 (3) pp. 113-127.

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SCHOLTER, J.A (2002) Civil Society and Democracy in Global Governance. Global Governance, 8 (3) pp. 281- 304.

SCHOLTER, J.A (2004) Civil Society and Democratically accountable Global Governance. Government and Opposition, 39 (2) pp. 211-233.

UNITED NATIONS (2014) E-Government survey. United Nations, New York, Report No. 8.

WELP, Y. AND BREUER, A. (2014) Re-assessing ICTs for democratic governance in Latin America. In: Digital Technologies for Democratic Governance in Latin America. 1th Ed. New York: Routledge, pp. 217-224.

[1] See commitments and other advances reached per country on the site http://www.opengovpartnership.org

[2] See the full story in “Stories of outrage in Paraguay 2.0” on YoGobierno.org Available in: http://yogobierno.org/3o-premio-historias-de-indignacion-en-el-paraguay-2-0/ [Accessed: 20 april, 2015]

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