June 2006
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School
With democratic elites in stable or mature democracies becoming disengaged from the publics they are intended to serve, can civil society counter the political apathy currently prevalent to maintain democratic governance and state accountability? Can voluntary associations ensure inclusive decision-making and the space for discussion of public affairs necessary in all democracies? With the growth in power and influence of civil society organisations or non-governmental organisations in recent decades, their legitimacy and accountability are also being challenged. Can civil society strengthen itself and breathe new life into formal democracy? Representatives from some 28 countries, with a range of governmental and non-governmental backgrounds, met at Wilton Park from 12 to 14 June, 2006, to examine and respond to these questions. The conference underlined civil society's diversity, its greatest strength, which enables it to make a distinctive contribution to democratic governance. It also emphasised the importance of context: how civil society is perceived depends very largely on the environment in which it operates, and many civil society organisations work in increasingly difficult environments.
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