Defining Civil Society & Its Role in Jordan

At Partners-Jordan, our main focus is on advancing Jordan’s civil society. To be frank, when I first started interning at PJ, I was not totally sure what the term “civil society” actually meant. Perhaps the simplest way to define it is as the third branch of society, separate from the government and business branches. At its core, civil society, composed of individuals and non-governmental institutions, should represent the needs and interests of the citizens. Civil society encompasses a wide range of organizations and groups, from academia, NGOs, political parties, and religious organizations to trade unions, charities, sports clubs, and foundations.

In Jordan, the power and importance of civil society only continues to grow. In the fall of 2018,an article from the Jordan Times underscored the crucial role of Jordanian civil society inexpressing social and economic challenges, as well as the wants and needs of the people. Inthis way, civil society activism serves as an informal feedback loop, when formal systems maynot exist or function properly. Additionally, civil society gives a socio-political voice to those oftennot heard, including women. Women have been at the forefront of many civil societymovements in Jordan, as attention is paid to the crucial role women play in their communitiesand the greater economy.

The Philosophical History of “Civil Society”

The concept of civil society stretches back to western antiquity. Although the term “civil society”,or ​societas civilis ​was first used by Roman statesman Cicero, certain aspects crucial to afunctioning civil society, such as the need for public dialogue, justice, and civic virtues, weretaught by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

However, from the Middle Ages until the Age ofEnlightenment, the notion of civil society took a backseat to the practices of feudalism andabsolute monarchy.However, with the rising popularity of Humanist thought, the Enlightenment resurrected theclassical concept of civil society. This movement questioned the absolutist governments inplace, as well as the true source of political authority, which had always been credited to themonarch and his divine right to rule. Thinkers and political philosophers such as ThomasHobbes and John Locke called for a social contract between government and civil society toensure the functioning of the former while protecting the freedoms and rights of the latter.

In the modern age, the meaning of civil society took on new meaning, particularly with the worksof Hegel and Marx. In classical thought, the concept of civil society is the middle groundbetween the political and the social; however, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel separatedthe two spheres, writing that civil society actually exists as the middle ground between the wantsof the individual and the wants of the greater state. Although Marx agreed with Hegel’s new understanding of civil society, he viewed the state as the champion of the bourgeoisie and theirinterests, to be ultimately dismantled by the working class.

Following Marx, the concept of civil society continued to grow and evolve, as did itsinterpretations. In Soviet Europe, communist propaganda served to popularize the concept ofcivil society as a third sector with the ultimate intention to eliminate the welfare system. In the1990s, the role of civil society in developing states receiving loans facilitated by the WashingtonConsensus changed in response to their changing economic and political surroundings. Andwith the rise of nongovernmental organizations, civil societies around the globe have continuedto grow and expand to become inclusive and participatory bodies.

Autonomy and Accountability in Jordan’s Educational System

Ranked the top education system in the Middle East, Jordan boasts a strong public schoolprogram. The average educational journey of a Jordanian student is composed of four stages:pre-primary (ages 4-5), primary (ages 6-11), secondary (ages 12-17), and tertiary or universitylevel (ages 18-22). Following required primary education, students may choose to enroll in acomprehensive secondary school or a vocational secondary school.

The system itself is highly centralized. At the top is the Ministry of Education, which designscurricula, does initial recruitment of faculty and staff, and designs budgets for individual schools.The Board of Education, composed of public and private stakeholders, advises the Ministry andapproves educational policy and curricula. Below the Ministry are 41 regional Directorates ofEducation, which are in charge of the second hiring stage of faculty and staff. Directoratesreport back to the Ministry with their schools’ standardized test results, and individual schoolsreport those scores to their respective directorates.

In recent years the World Bank has devised the Systems Approach for Better Education Results(SABER) initiative, which aims to compile a database of information on educational policies andpractices from around the world with the ultimate goal of assisting countries in improving theireducation systems. Within SABER is the School Autonomy and Accountability division (SAA),which measures the degree of autonomy and accountability present within an education system.Jordan’s quality of education is quite high; however, it lags behind comparable systems due tothe systemic lack of accountability and the little autonomy present at the individual school level.SABER-SAA lists five criteria its uses to measure an educational system: (1) an individualschool’s autonomy in planning and managing its budget, (2) an individual school’s autonomy inpersonnel management, (3) the role of the school council and greater community in schoolgovernance, (4) school and student assessment, and (5) an individual school’s level ofaccountability to its stakeholders. Each criterion is then classified as latent (policy is not in placeor severely limited), emerging (policy work is in progress), established (good policy and practicewith some limitations), and advanced (international best policy and practice). In all fivecategories, SAA ranked Jordan as emerging.

SAA lists several recommendations that would vastly improve the levels of accountability andautonomy present in Jordanian schools, and, therefore, streamline the processing of informationbetween levels and give schools more independence in the decision-making process.Ultimately, this would improve the general quality of a Jordanian education. Suchrecommendations include expanding the operating budget items that individual schools’ havethe authority to plan, manage, and execute; revising existing policies with the civil service totransfer legal authority for teacher and school staff recruitment to the local Directorates;increasing the input and authority allowed to parent-teacher councils; requiring a parent-teachercouncil representative at major school meetings; mandating regular assessments of schools;publishing results of standardized tests to allow for transparent and comparative assessment ofschools across the country; making those results and subsequent analysis readily available toschool administrators and the general public; standardizing the dissemination of individualstudents’ results to parents, like a report card; and standardizing guidelines by which a schoolreports on its operations to the appropriate Directorate and Ministry of Education.