N. Perlas, 04 December 2004
We often find civil society criticizing
government or business for some dubious program or project. But increasingly, we
are also finding civil society seriously considering the possibilities of
creating tactical or even strategic partnerships with government and/or
Why the shift in attitude? There are a
number of reasons.
First, civil society is beginning to
realize that criticism alone, while often necessary and justified, cannot create
a new world. They find their energies focused on the negative, and not the
possible other worlds that they can construct or create.
Second, civil society activists are
finding out that there are individuals, in business and government, who are
equally passionate about creating other, more sustainable worlds. And they are
finding out that these kinds of government officials and business executives are
also increasingly viewing civil society not as bitter critics but as potential
allies in the common search for better worlds.
Third, while appreciative of its
strengths, civil society is also developing greater self-understanding of its
inherent limitations. Civil society understands that the cultural power it
wields, while the most powerful force in any society, is not sufficient to pass
more enabling laws or to create new economic practices. They will need the
genuine cooperation of government and business to bring about significant
changes in the political and economic structures of a country or the world.
Fourth, a similar self-understanding of
the limitations of political and economic power is increasingly surfacing in
government and business respectively. Both now know that laws and markets are
not enough to create a free, just and sustainable world. Government and business
are also realizing that they need the different capacities and resources of
civil society to truly create democratic and economically vibrant societies.
Given all these, there is increasing
interest in civil society, government, and business for societal partnerships,
sometimes called threefolding, tri-sectoral, or cross-sectoral partnerships.
Especially because of this convergent interest, civil society needs to fully
realize that it is entering into a social terrain that can rob civil society of
its credibility and effectiveness. For societal partnerships can be both a
blessing and curse, and thus a heavily contested terrain.
We already saw this at the World Summit
on Sustainable Development in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Societal
partnerships, or Type 2 partnership as it was called, became one of the most
contentious issues of the Summit. We are now seeing it in the UN Global Compact,
where civil society organizations are criticizing other civil society
organizations for encouraging and supporting the “bluewash” by transnational
corporations. And we saw this recently in the World Conservation Congress in
Bangkok, attended by thousands. (See
related story on this event in TruthForce!.)
What is the main concern? The main
anxiety is that civil society will become unwitting tools for a new and more
sophisticated form of branding by corporations as well as a new form of
legitimizing questionable practices by government. This concern heightens
especially in cases where civil society receives large amounts of funding from
either government or business.
Unfortunately, there is no guide or
rule-of-thumb for societal partnerships. A lot depends on context, the potential
partners and decision makers involved, the issues, the perception of other civil
society allies, and so on. What can be a potential possibility of success in one
case can be a perfect scenario for co-optation and loss of credibility in
another. Those involved have to weigh things very carefully before they jump in.
Despite these concerns, societal
partnerships, including social threefolding initiatives, are emerging as a key
social innovation in the 21st century. The solution of the giant
problems facing humanity will require the coordinated and strategic involvement
and resources of cultural, political, economic institutions of countries and the
world. What stands in the way is ensuring that these societal partnerships are
authentic and effective.
Removing barriers to strategic
partnerships, in turn, can only signify the emergence of individuals with an
expanded range of societal capacities. These capacities will enable them to
discern whether to criticize or to engage, and, when critically engaging, they
will be able to ensure that societal partnerships bring humanity to a truly
free, dignified, democratic, equitable, prosperous and sustainable level of
appear on TruthForce!