The "global associational revolution"

By Lester M. Salamon, et. al.
From Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector, Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, 1999

Recent years have witnessed a considerable surge of interest throughout the world in the broad range of social institutions that operate outside the confines of the market and the state. Known variously as the "nonprofit" the "voluntary," the "civil society," the "third," or the "independent" sector, this set of institutions includes within it a sometimes bewildering array of entities--hospitals, universities, social clubs, professional organizations, and many more. Despite their diversity, however, these entities also share some common features. In particular, they are:

  • Organizations, i.e., they have an institutional presence and structure;
  • Private, i.e., they are institutionally separate from the state;
  • Not profit distributing, i.e., they are fundamentally in control of their own affairs; and
  • Voluntary, i.e., membership in them is not legally required and they attract some level of voluntary contribution of time or money.

The "global associational revolution"

That these organizations have attracted so much attention in recent years is due in large part to the widespread "crisis of the state" that has been underway for two decades or more in virtually every part of the world, a crisis that has manifested itself in a serious questioning of traditional social welfare policies in much of the developed North, in disappointments over the progress of state-led development in significant parts of the developing South, in the collapse of the experiment in state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, and in concerns about the environmental degradation the continues to threaten human health and safety everywhere. In addition to stimulating support for market-oriented economic policies, this questioning of the state has focused new attention, and new expectations on the civil society organizations that operate in societies throughout the world.

Also contributing to the attention these organizations are attracting is the sheer growth in their number and scale. Indeed, a veritable "global associational revolution" appears to be underway, a massive upsurge of organized private, voluntary activity in literally every corner of the world. Prompted in part by growing doubts about the capability of the state to cope on its own with the social welfare, developmental, and environmental problems that face nations today, this growth of civil society organizations has been stimulated as well by the communications revolution of the past two decades and by the striking expansion of educated middle class elements who are frustrated by the lack of economic and political expression that has confronted them in many places.

Finally, a new element has surfaced more recently to increase further the attention that has been focused on nonprofit or civil society organizations. This is the growing questioning of the "neo-liberal consensus," sometimes called the "Washington consensus," that has guided global economic policy over the past two decades. This consensus essentially held that the problems facing both developed and developing societies at the present time could most effectively be approached through the simple expedient of unleashing and encouraging private markets. In the wake of the world-wide financial crisis and continuing social distress in many regions, however, this consensus has come under increasingly severe attack, even from some of its most ardent advocates. As World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz recently put it:

"The policies advanced by the Washington consensus. . .are hardly complete and sometimes misguided. . .It is not just economic policies and human capital, but the quality of a country's institutions that determine economic outcomes."

Reflecting this, political leaders in many parts of the world have begun searching for alternative ways to combine the virtues of the market with the advantages of broader social protections, a search that is evident in Mr. Tony Blair's emphasis on a "Third Way" in the U.K., Gerhard Schroder's "New Middle" in Germany, and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's summary declaration " Yes to a market economy, no to a market society."

Because of their unique position outside the market and the state, their generally smaller scale, their connection to citizens, their flexibility, their capacity to tap private initiative in support of public purposes, and their newly rediscovered contributions to building "social capital," civil society organizations have surfaces as strategically important participants in the search for a "middle way" between sole reliance on the market and sole reliance on the state that now seems to be increasingly underway.

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