Civil Society and Governance Programme

The Civil Society and Governance Programme was a major research project funded by the Ford Foundation and based at IDS.

The three-year research programme, established in April 1998, examined the interplay between civil society and governments in 22 different countries, spanning six international regions.

The idea of ‘civil society’ has achieved prominence in political and developmental discourse over the past two decades, particularly in connection with successive waves of democratisation, beginning in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and spreading across the developing world. In normative terms, civil society has been widely seen as an increasingly crucial agent for limiting authoritarian government, strengthening popular empowerment, reducing the socially atomising and unsettling effects of market forces, enforcing political accountability, and improving the quality and inclusiveness of governance. Reconsideration of the limits of state action has also led to an increased awareness of the potential role of civic organisations in the provision of public goods and social services, either separately or in some kind of ‘synergistic’ relationship with state institutions.

However, general notions of ‘civil society’ have often been overly optimistic and have disregarded the ambiguities and conflicts inherent in real civil societies. Moreover, the potentially positive impact of civil society is hard to realise in countries where states are strong and civil organisations still weak, especially amid political conflict and economic decline. We need to come to a clear determination of the character and roles of civil society, the strengths and weaknesses of civil associations in their relations with governance, and the ways in which they can be strengthened and their roles made more creative.

Therefore the main aims of this research programme were:

  • To gain a clearer analytical and practical understanding of the character and functions of civil society, both in general and in the light of systemic and other variations between and within regions.
  • While recognising that civil organisations can play a number of potentially positive roles, to concentrate on those activities which can enhance (or detract from) the quality of political life and governance in different societies.
  • To develop practical measures which can strengthen civil society and enhance its impact as an agent for improving political life and governance — with particular emphasis on seeking ways to improve government policies toward poor, excluded and vulnerable groups, and to strengthen their access to and influence on the policy process.

A number of Policy Briefs were produced to highlight a variety of critical topics and themes related to Civil Society and Governance, composed by in-country researchers and IDS Fellows involved in the programme:

Additional outputs from the Programme include a selection of the Country Reports as below.  Further material from the Programme is available on request.  Please e-mail [email protected]

Project details

start date
23 February 1998
end date
23 February 2001


Supported by
Ford Foundation

Recent work


Civil Society and Governance – A Research Study in India

The potential of civil society in affecting the state and citizens’ lives is beginning to be recognised all over the state; at the same time it is also being increasing realised that governance is not the sole responsibility of the government.

1 June 2000