Aron Cramer, CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, writes that civil society fills the crucial gap between unwieldy governments and unconnected individuals. Read the World Economic Forum’s report on the Future Role of Civil Society.

As the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013 unfolds in Davos over the next several days, it will be clear that civil society is essential to solutions on every single question being debated – from water scarcity and human rights, to economic opportunity for young people.

The fundamental architecture of society is changing fast. The financial crisis and efforts to address climate change have laid bare the shortcomings of national governments and intergovernmental bodies to “fix” things. And while empowered individuals have more influence than ever – as we have seen through the Arab Spring and other crowdsourced movements – achieving systemic change has so far eluded the grasp of most such movements.

In between these top-down and bottom-up movements lies civil society. This sector is crucial to the achievement of sustainable prosperity for a planet with 9 billion people. But rapid changes in technology, economic influence and demography are affecting this sector in profound ways. Launched in Davos, the new report, The Future Role of Civil Society, provides important insights into the direction global civil society may take in the years ahead.

Civil society is an incredibly diverse system of local and global organizations, focusing on direct action, service delivery and coalition building. It’s easy to overgeneralize. Regardless, anyone wanting to make progress on issues of fundamental importance would do well to recognize these unique assets:

  • In a world that operates globally and locally, civil society has the flexibility to do both. National governments struggle to transcend borders, and businesses do not always have local roots; civil society has both.
  • NGOs have steadily built the expertise to deliver solutions in addition to advocacy. This is truer than was the case a generation ago, and means that civil society can often be a problem solver, not just a problem identifier.
  • Civil society, at its best, is nimble enough to enable new institutional forms to address an ever-evolving global agenda.

It is equally true that civil society faces multiple challenges. Resources are always an issue, and the financial crisis has hit NGOs at least as hard as other sectors. NGOs have not always practised what they preach in terms of transparency, which can damage credibility. And civil society faces both governmental oppression from above and potential disintermediation by social networking technologies from below.

The roadmap to solutions envisioned in Davos requires ever more collaboration with an ever more vibrant civil sector. The Future Role of Civil Society report provides important guidance to the ways to make that happen.

Aron Cramer is President and Chief Executive Officer, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a non-profit business network and consultancy dedicated to sustainability. He is a Member of the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on The Role of Civil Society.

Image: Participants race at the annual charity “City to Surf Fun Run” in central Sydney. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz