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In their own image: donor assistance to civil society

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With the end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy and capitalist routes to development, donor agencies have harnessed the concept of civil society to promote a paradigm of development that is no longer limited to the agencies of State and market players. Such a paradigm envisages civil society playing a role not only in democratisation but also in economic development. By the mid-1990s the idea of civil society had become part of everyday development discourse. It is the purpose of this article to look critically at donor attempts to build and mould civil societies in aid-recipient contexts. We begin by outlining the political and economic background within which donors encountered the notion of civil society. In the second section we examine the modalities used to strengthen civil society. Finally we explore some of the challenges arising from external donor assistance to transitional and southern civil societies, noting in particular the issues of plurality, the forces of social and political change, dependency, elitism, and universality.

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