Has the growth of global civil society promoted popular self-government, and most particularly in developing countries? Many advocates of progressive social change have championed civil society—the “third sector”—as an arena of virtue, which has the capacity to overcome domination in government and exploitation in the free market economy.
The phrase ‘civil society’ usually refers to the voluntary associations whose activities seek to shape policies, norms, and/or deeper social structures. Civil society is therefore distinct from both public and commercial institutions, though the lines can sometimes become blurred (for example, in a business lobby on social issues). Civil society groups, also known as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), include consumer protection bodies, community-based organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, environmental campaigns, business forums, cooperation groups, co-operatives, labor unions, charitable foundations, ethnic lobbies, clan and kinship circles, criminal syndicates, relief organizations, religious institutions, youth campaigns, human rights advocates, farmers’ groups, labor unions, peace activists, women’s networks, professional associations, and more. Much of civil society is formally constituted and officially registered, but many grassroots civic activities are also ad hoc and informal.
Talk of global civil society began to spread in the 1990s. Commentators have spoken in related veins of ‘international nongovernmental organizations’, ‘transnational advocacy networks’, ‘global social movements’, a ‘new multilateralism’, and so on.
Many people indeed find significant empowerment through global civil society. For example, a wide range of associations often allow disabled persons, youth, lesbians and homosexuals, and indigenous peoples to gain voice in ways and extents previously unavailable to them at the national level. In addition, some global civic activities (for example, many women’s associations) provide encouraging examples of non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian, non-violent, highly participatory politics.
Environmental movements, consumer groups, and human rights advocates often contributed valuable civic education about their issues of interest. NGOs repeatedly call official agencies to account when development projects are harmful to local communities. Several civil society foundations with global operations (e. g. Ford, MacArthur, Soros, etc.) provide resources to support grassroots democracy in dozens of countries.
Civil society activities also frequently enhance democracy in globalization by stimulating open and informed debate. Democratic governance is made possible through dynamic, uncensored debates involving, or brokered by, civil society groups in which diverse viewpoints and perspectives are expressed. Many global civic groups and associations have challenged established agendas, methodologies, explanations, and prescriptions regarding political, economic, cultural, or environmental globalization. Such activities can contribute to keeping official powers’ thinking and policies rigorous and effective. Indeed, critiques from a number of civil society circles have played an important part in highlighting the shortcomings of U.S., EU, United Nations, IMF, and World Bank policies on globalization. In addition, civil society activities can contribute to a democratic legitimation of the governance of globalization. Authority is legitimate when participants feel that rulers have a right to govern them and that they, as citizens, have a duty to submit to the established rules.
The truth is that the governance of globalization has had limited legitimacy over the last 50 years or so. Citizens of all countries have accepted most policies toward global relations with passivity, ignorance, and resignation rather than active engagement. Yet if civil society offers stakeholders civic education, opportunities to speak, and chances to debate options, then people can begin to feel that they ‘own’ global politics and can positively endorse its outputs. Such increased legitimacy not only renders global governance more democratic, it also tends to make policies more viable and peaceful. For instance, a global trade regime negotiated by the World Trade Organization members and legitimated through these members’ civil society groups would have better chances of achieving its aims than a regime that is produced solely by heads of states and technocrats.
However, the legitimating potential of global civil society has remained largely underdeveloped to date. For instance, substantial parts of the Middle East and countries of the former Soviet Union—and many other parts of the world—have had little civil society input to policies on globalization simply because the states of these regions do not allow the development of genuine autonomous social organizations or have nationalized almost all media outlets. Even where global civic activism has grown on a greater scale, it has in many cases generated only modest contributions to civic education, participant representation, and policy debate. Much of the promise of global civil society is therefore as yet unfulfilled.
Moreover, global civic associations have no grounds for being complacent about their own democratic credentials. On the contrary, in practice these groups all too often give insufficient attention to questions concerning the depth of participation that they allow their constituents. Civil society organizations also frequently lack adequate consultation mechanisms, transparency, and public accountability. A civic movement can be run with top-down managerial authoritarianism just as well as a government department, ministry, or a business firm. Even some of the civic organizations that press hardest for a democratization of global relations show substantial democratic failings in their own practices. For instance, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), a Norway-based group established in 2008 and with alleged links to the United Arab Emirates, is anonymously funded by donors to the tune of $4.4 million a year, according to veteran Middle East journalist and author Brian Whitaker.
Only a small proportion of the world’s population has thus far become actively involved in global civil society. Most people have little participation in the policymaking processes of international business associations, NGOs, professional networks, religious agencies, and trade unions, the latter being in some cases even involved in criminal activities. In the West in particular, even where individuals and collective groups have membership in such an interest group they often make no input to its activities beyond the payment of an annual subscription. The wider public tends to mobilize behind civic campaigns only on a short-term and ad hoc basis, for example, in response to calls for humanitarian relief, the protection of the environment, public security, or public health. Consequently, global civil society is mostly the preserve of a relatively small number of full-time activists.
Although these civil society professionals generally hold good intentions in respect of democracy, they are not particularly representative of the world demos. Global civic activity is disproportionately undertaken by white, Northern, university-educated, computer-literate, or propertied persons. In the mid-2000s fewer than 15 percent of the NGOs accredited to engage with the United Nations were based in the Global South, and this ratio has not improved. Moreover, many purportedly ‘grassroots’ civic associations in poorer regions of the world are in fact branches of North-based organizations and/or draw their memberships chiefly from local elites in the South. To cite one illustrative example, the Secretary General of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, Marino Busdachin, an Italian, is not even originally from the indigenous groups that the agency allegedly represents. The world’s under-classes still lack the funds, language fluency, and organizational capacities required for effective participation in global civil society.
Global civic associations also demonstrate ‘democratic deficits’ in respect of transparency. Many legal business associations, community groups, labor movements, NGOs, religious bodies, and think tanks do not make clear who they are, what objectives they pursue, where their funds originate, how they reach their policy positions, etc. Many civic groups do not issue annual reports of their activities, or make them readily available to the public.
Likewise, many global interest groups have a poor record of public accountability. Many are not registered with the relevant authorities of the countries in which they operate. Most global interest groups do not hold regular, independently monitored elections of their officers, nor do they conduct and publish external evaluations of their activities. All too often the staff of global civic organizations are responsible only to a largely self-selected board of trustees, private funders (many of them anonymous) and/or official donors who have little contact with their clients.
Fortunately, some civic organizers have become aware of, and disturbed by, the democratic shortcomings of much global civil society. Critical voices within civic movements demand more social responsibility from business associations, an end to cronyism in trade unions, more dialogue and partnership between South-based and North-based NGOs, and greater voice in all civil society sectors for marginalized social groups. However, it is too early to say whether this promising rhetoric will bring substantial long-term democratic change in global civil society.
Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. His research, teaching and consulting interests include Russian politics, Eurasian geopolitics, international political economy and globalization.
This article appeared in the Diplomatic Courier and is reprinted with permission.