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Civil Society in Africa or African Civil Society?

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For new content, see African and Asian Studies.

One of the most vociferous and voluminous debates in African politics over the past decade has been over the concept of civil society. Both optimists and pessimists in this debate tend to define (often implicitly) civil society too narrowly and ask of it too much. By insisting on a definition of civil society that is an idealized and rather narrow vision of civil society in the West, neither optimists nor pessimists have portrayed African civil society accurately. To provide a more realistic analysis, we must focus on the broad array of collective activity and norms, whether "democratic" or not, that constitute actual existing African civil society. This approach leads to an analysis of patron-client networks, ethnic associations, and some "traditional" authorities as part of civil society, demonstrating that African civil society is more rooted in and representative of African society as a whole than the pessimists have admitted, but also less internally democratic and less likely to support liberal democracy than the optimists assert.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Government, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY,13323, USA.


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