The darker side of global civil society

About the author
Leni Wild is a research fellow in the Politics and Governance programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She is the author of the report Strengthening Global Civil Society (April 2006).

For too long, people on the liberal left of politics have assumed that global civil society is inherently progressive and a force for social progress. This approach is partial and ignores the darker side of the phenomenon.

The high profile of some recent global civil society campaigns, like the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP) with its use of white wristbands and celebrity endorsement, has helped consolidate the notion of global civil society as synonymous with justice and fairness. In capturing media and public attention, such activities also reinforce the trend for public trust in NGOs to be much higher than for other institutions – including governments, the private sector and global institutions like the United Nations.

There are plenty of examples showing that global civil society groups have indeed been a successful vehicle of progressive social change. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief are perhaps the best known. More generally, parts of global civil society have succeeded in putting new issues and policy ideas onto the international agenda. They have helped to improve the transparency and to some extent the accountability of global institutions.

However, proponents of global civil society too often conflate a structural definition with a normative one. Much of the literature on the subject seems to assume that global civil society is reshaping world politics as a whole in a more progressive or socially just way. As Fred Halliday points out in openDemocracy, it "is infused with a kind of liberal optimism that heralds the decline of barriers between peoples, the enhanced interaction of communities and non-governmental groups across the world, and a retreat in the power of states to invade the spaces of civil society" ("Blasphemy and power", 13 February 2006). Its proponents present global civil society as concerned with promoting human rights, gender equality, social justice and democracy: the very definition of a progressive concept.

But any discussion of global civil society must begin with a structural definition, and only then consider the normative questions that arise from this. The notion, then, can be structurally defined as encompassing all associations, excluding governments, private-sector actors and families which act or organise transnationally. The rise of these global civil society actors and organisations has been facilitated by the wider processes of globalisation, including easier travel and communication, and by the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution which has provided unprecedented levels of access of information – all of which will be familiar to regular readers of openDemocracy.

Leni Wild is a research fellow in the international programme at the Institute of Public policy Research (ippr). She is the author of the report Strengthening Global Civil Society (April 2006)

As the political scientist Thomas Carothers puts it, "civil society everywhere is a bewildering array of the good, the bad and the outright bizarre" ("Think Again: Civil Society", Foreign Policy, Winter 1999-2000). That is to say, global civil society is extraordinarily heterogeneous and the groups that comprise it can be illiberal, anti-democratic and violent as well as liberal, democratic and peaceful. Various groupings of racists, extremist nationalists and religious fundamentalists have, for example, increasingly used global communications and transnational networks to advocate intolerance and violence. Organisations like al-Qaida, or some of its networks, could arguably be defined as part of global civil society (on this theme, see Faisal Devji, "Spectral brothers: al-Qaida's world wide web", 19 August 2005).

There are diverse groups, with widely varying agendas, who occupy the structural space that can be defined as global civil society. There is no single civil-society viewpoint but rather multiple views, often profoundly contradictory. On women's issues, for example, there are civil-society groups that passionately support the right to abortion and others who passionately oppose it. Any discussion of global civil society must recognise this plurality of values.

There may even be some global civil society groups (such as humanitarian-relief NGOs) who advocate progressive values, but which act in ways that run counter to these values. In the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, the activities of some NGOs led a spokesperson for the Red Cross to describe humanitarian activity as "the world's largest unregulated industry". More broadly, there are real concerns where global civil-society organisations have opaque decision-making processes or do not make reports of their activities widely available. There are even indications of fraudulent NGOs emerging to take advantage of the foreign funds available for development or post-disaster relief.

A fourfold strategy

The challenge, then, is not to promote global civil society per se but rather to strengthen those parts of it that can enhance the quality of global public-policy outcomes and help advance progressive values. In pursuing these aims, there are four ways forward:

First, global civil society needs to be made more accountable and transparent. Too often, even progressive global civil society organisations do not meet the standards of accountability and transparency that they demand of others. Some global civil society organisations or associations still offer their members little chance to input or participate beyond paying their subscriptions. Internal policy-making can seem very opaque, with little transparency as to who makes decisions, how they are taken and with what justification. More broadly, there is often little accountability to, or representation from, the very people that global civil society organisations claim to represent.

Humanitarian organisations, partly in response to these criticisms, have led the way in developing basic standards governing the operation of global civil society groups in this field. A good example is the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership – International's principles of accountability which all members must apply. This should be followed and adapted by others.

Global civil society organisations should also be encouraged to incorporate representatives onto their boards from the diverse communities in which they operate. Moreover, national governments should effectively regulate the actions of global civil society. But this should not limit an organisation's peaceful freedom of expression, freedom of association, or freedom to participate in public life – as has occurred recently in Russia and Egypt. Greater self-regulation among organisations should be encouraged. At a minimum, timely and accessible information on global civil society groups' funding and activities should be provided and where possible internal processes should be opened up to external scrutiny.

Also in openDemocracy on global civil society:

Marlies Glasius, Mary Kaldor, Helmut Anheier, "Global civil society: the politics of a new world?" (January 2004)

Marlies Glasius, "Global civil society comes of age" (November 2001)

Neera Chandhoke, "What the hell is 'civil society'?" (March 2005)

Second, there is a need to create a more level playing-field for the global south. At present too many global civil society organisations remain biased towards northern agendas, with southern-based civil society groups often lacking the resources to represent themselves adequately in global civil society networks and other forums. Indeed, global civil society still shows many of the same patterns of inequality that exist around the world.

These organisations and networks could become more globally representative by ensuring that individuals from developing countries hold senior positions within their organisations or by decentralising their operations as much as possible. The leading NGO ActionAid, for example, has devolved much of its operations to South Africa. Wherever possible, global civil society organisations and networks should provide capacity-building for southern partners. And governments, global institutions, and donors should provide increased aid to strengthen southern organisations' capacity for research and policy analysis.

Third, greater support should be given to free media and access to information. In many regions of the world, access to information is limited and freedom of expression is constrained. In the middle east, for example, government repression and censorship prevents most media from operating freely. Strengthening progressive elements of global civil society requires a national and global environment which encourages diversity. Global civil society actors and international donors should prioritise the development of new media initiatives in such relatively "closed" regions of the world as the middle east. An interesting initiative here is the new BBC World Service Arabic channel, due to come into effect in 2007. International donors should also support the creation of public broadcasters with full editorial independence.

Fourth, global civil society needs to establish a new relationship with global institutions. Global institutions continue to underuse the expertise of global civil society organisations, and processes for consulting global civil society are still inadequate. The United Nations, among others, has struggled with accusations of uneven and politicised engagement. It still tends to be the "usual suspects" – well-established, northern-based organisations – that it consults. For example, only 251 of the 1,550 NGOs associated with the UN department of public information come from the global south; and with the UN economic and social council (Ecosoc) this ratio is even lower. Opening up accreditation and increasing support for southern-based networks and organisations should be a priority. Global institutions should also experiment more with global civil society gatherings before all major intergovernmental meetings, and with the greater use of alternative reporting from global civil society actors.

Some parts of global civil society have played a significant role in mobilising public opinion and in spurring global action in the direction of fairness and justice. But too often an unbalanced picture is painted of this highly complex phenomenon. Alongside its evident benefits and opportunities, some of its limitations and downsides should be recognised. A more rounded understanding of and intelligent engagement with global civil society will help to bridge the gap between its image and its performance, and produce better global public policy.