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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 151-165

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Democratizing Civil Society in Latin America

Alison Brysk

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 [End Page 151] are killed each year in political violence, civic status may be a matter of life and death.

Although most civic actors in Latin America are struggling to deepen democracy under challenging conditions, nongovernmental social mobilization may also be subject to distortion and abuse. Which characteristics of civil society influence its capacity for democratization? The answer cannot be found in the conventional wisdom, which suggests that civil society must be made "more social" or "more civil." While history and culture do create a legacy of "social capital," arguments based on cultural characteristics alone cannot explain why a Europeanized country like Chile, steeped in a democratic heritage, has witnessed greater human rights violations than Bolivia, its poorer, ethnically divided, and unstable neighbor. Civil society must be analyzed as a set of social institutions whose democratic functions parallel those of the state. To be democratic, a civil society must be representative, accountable, and pluralistic, and it must respect human rights.

How much democracy can we legitimately and realistically expect from civil society? Organizations in the private sphere (such as churches or universities) may legitimately be ascriptive, exclusive, or hierarchical. Nevertheless, we can require all public actors to be transparent, accountable, and ethical. And while we cannot require private individuals or all associations to be nondiscriminatory, participatory, and representative, these characteristics can be required when such actors receive public funds or perform public functions. These goals are interdependent; both transparency and participation, for example, are linked to accountability. We can further distinguish between democratic goals that apply to individual organizations and social sectors and those that can apply only to civil society as a whole. For an organization to be democratic, it must accountably represent its members; for civil society as a whole to be democratic, it must be pluralistic. Thus the "representativeness" of civil society is not impaired if a particular church discriminates in its membership as long as the society's range of religious institutions does not systematically exclude some social sector.

Although many supporters of democratization are reluctant to criticize emerging civil societies for fear of undermining them, it is important to recognize that civil society can also undermine itself through its own democratic deficits and that the role of civic actors shifts during different phases of democratic transition and consolidation. Under authoritarian and transitional regimes, state domination and the exigencies of crisis often mask the antidemocratic tendencies of certain civic groups. During democratic transitions and their aftermath, groups lacking internal democracy (such as...


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