Global civil society comes of age

About the author
Marlies Glasius is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Global Governance, LSE, and an editor of the Global Civil Society Yearbook
Movements against dams in India, Brazil and Hungary, high-profile indigenous peoples’ campaigns by the Ogoni and the Zapatistas, humanitarian efforts in war zones like Sudan, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and street demonstrations in Seattle, Prague and Genoa have all become part of our daily news since the 1990s.

A random browse through the lead articles of openDemocracy shows that politicians and corporate executives are beginning to recognise this reality. Bhutan’s foreign minister Jigmy Thinley questions the power of western-financed NGOs in developing countries, but echoes many of their concerns about the unequitable practices of global institutions. French MEP Harlem Desir describes ‘a new era of protest’, which he hopes can be bent in a socialist direction.

Maria Livanos Cattaui, the head of the International Chamber of Commerce, distinguishes between ‘responsible NGOs’, who broadly share her worldview, and ‘anti-globalisation protestors’ who stop responsible NGOs from engaging in debate.

Mapping an island of meaning

While the strength of these new forces of non-governmental action is now widely recognised, the connections between the different developments are not particularly well understood. Apart from a few political activists and policy experts, most people’s eyes would still glaze over when the term ‘global civil society’ is used. It has not yet become an ‘island of meaning’ in our mental landscape.

New research from the London School of Economics attempts to establish such an ‘island of meaning’ for global civil society, to investigate how it emerged, map and measure it, and show its contours and its main features. The first of a series of annual reports, Global Civil Society 2001, has just been published (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Global civil society has been growing and crystallising considerably since 1990: the number of international NGOs (INGOs) worldwide has grown by 29.4% since then, their membership in INGOs has grown by 72%; and the number of links they have with each other has doubled.

The number of parallel civil society events to government summits has grown fourfold, and the number of participants in these and other events dealing with global issues has just exploded.

Moreover, this is not just a western phenomenon: INGO membership in low- and middle-income regions has increased faster than membership in high-income regions, and the biggest increases have been for eastern Europe and Asia.

These are abstract figures, however, that do not tell us what global civil society actually stands for. In order to illiminate the pluriformity of global civil society, the ideas for global governance it generates, and its methods of action, I will take a closer look at one of the most eye-catching turn-of-the-century movements - what is often called the anti-globalisation movement. (A chapter of Global Civil Society, 2001, written by Meghnad Desai and Yahia Said, also addresses the phenomenon.

The ‘anti-globalisation’ movement

Four misconceptions about the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ are especially glaring. Firstly, the term itself is a misnomer: the majority of people belonging to it do not reject globalisation as such.

Secondly, there is the idea, put forward, for example, by Clare Short, the UK minister for international development, that it is a ‘northern’ movement. While most western media have focused on Seattle, Washington DC, Prague and Genoa, there have also been mass demonstrations against IMF-imposed neo-liberal policies in Argentina, Ecuador, Nigeria and South Korea in the year 2000 alone. The ‘World Social Forum’ in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, a counter-manifestation to the elitist World Economic Forum in Davos, attracted substantial media attention.

Thirdly, although the movement is often associated with violent action, in fact the vast majority of people who consider themselves part of it insist on strictly non-violent action - and this is equally true of demonstrators (between 95% and 98% according to different estimates).

It is amazing, from this perspective, that people like Maria Cattaui can draw the conclusion that the Genoa summit has “clearly shown us that it is unacceptable to prevent democratically elected members of sovereign governments from meeting”. What Genoa clearly showed most activists who were there was that, even in a democracy, peaceful demonstrators are apparently vulnerable to having their teeth kicked in and their ribs broken by security forces when they take to the streets to challenge power-holders.

Fourthly, the movement is often accused of being rudderless and inarticulate. It is true that it draws in many different strands of people. Some of its adherents are most concerned about global capitalism’s impact on biodiversity, some about labour rights, some about privatisation of public goods. It is not surprising that, amid such diversity, the anti-capitalist movement is often accused of being inarticulate.

It is not inarticulate however, just pluriform. In this respect, it is similar to other manifestations of global civil society, such as debates and action on biotechnology, and responses to so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’, as exercised in Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo (see the Yearbook website for more information on these topics).

Four attitudes to global capitalism

This plurality of forms is evidenced by the four major positions on global capitalism which can be discerned in global civil society, which may be described as reformist, rejectionist, supportive, and alternative.

The majority of activists believe that unbridled global capitalism has gotten out of hand, and needs to be civilised, tamed, humanised, democratised. They call for reform of international economic institutions, fairer trade terms and greater social responsibility by corporations.

These reformists are a large category, which includes those who want to make specific and incremental change as well as radicals who aim at bigger and more transformative change. They include the bulk of the labour movement, development organisations such as Oxfam and WorldVision; watchdogs such as the World Development Movement and the Bretton Woods Project; and issue-specific campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 and ATTAC.

There are, however, a second category of rejectionists, who think globalisation and global capitalism are the same thing, and oppose it with all their might. In addition to remnants of Communist and Stalinist groups, they include some environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth; think tanks and groups promoting national solutions to Third World development issues; anti-globalisation groups; local social movements such as the Landless Peasants Movement (MST) in Brazil; and individuals such as Walden Bello and Noam Chomsky. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are the only way forward: this is the unifying slogan which brings isolationists in the Third World together with protectionists in the North.

Global civil society also harbours supporters of global capitalism. They are often, but not necessarily, close to governments and business, and they believe that globalisation in its present form is ‘a jolly good thing’, bringing benefits for all, and that those who object just fail to understand the benefits. Maria Cattaui clearly places herself in this category when she says “All the hard data we have indicates that the opening up of markets and the integration of economies has helped every single society that we know”, a statement that reformists and rejectionists would challenge.

Fourthly, overlapping with reform and rejection, are the alternatives. Alternatives include, for example, the Zapatistas, Adbusters, and Reclaim the Streets - but also ‘submerged networks’ which come to the fore only around certain campaigns. They are wary of leaders, but there are alternative spokespeople like Naomi Klein and Subcomandante Marcos. Instead of aiming to transform or reform global capitalism, the alternatives are concerned with reclaiming things from the encroaching market and creating space for alternatives, resisting the encroachment through an alternative lifestyle.

Anti-capitalist or anti-war?

The anti-capitalist movement was temporarily blown off course by the attacks of 11 September. Like everyone else, anti-capitalist activists were stunned by the events, not least because, in the first few hours after the attack, the horrific possibility was considered that the attackers might be aligned to a militant fringe of the movement. Afterwards, the cancellation of the IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington, DC, which were meant to have attracted the biggest demonstrations yet, had a demobilising effect.

Some activists, moreover, have decided that now, anti-war mobilisation needs to have priority. Not all of the anti-capitalist movement will metamorphose into a peace movement, however. Some continue to think that economic issues are more important, sometimes making a link between the attractions of Islamic fundamentalism and joblessness, economic malaise, and feelings of disempowerment in North Africa and the Middle East.

Others, on the contrary, are not against the present war. The labour movement in the U.S., in particular, could identify with other groups on many economic issues, but is likely to be much closer to the Administration when it comes to the ‘war on terrorism’.

At the same time, the organisers of high-level summits are becoming cannier. The recent WTO meeting (9-13 November) took place in undemocratic Qatar, inaccessible to most protestors; the next G8 meeting will be in a tiny mountain resort in Canada, where transport and accommodation will be for them an equally tough challenge.

So will the anti-capitalist movement disappear? None of the issues it raises have been resolved – in fact one reading of 11 September considers them as more important than ever. The movement will probably be around for longer yet; but without the guaranteed media attention, public sympathy and natural meeting points to which it was becoming accustomed, it will have more of a swim more against the tide.

The global civil society dialogue

This is not just true of the anti-capitalist movement, but for all of global civil society after 11 September. In wars, civil liberties, freedom of information in particular, have always been curtailed. This time, too, politicians have succumbed to the logic that ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ (George Bush), a polarising discourse that goes directly against global civil society’s characteristic strengths, such as its pluriformity and its propensity to question power-holders. Transnational Islamic organisations are viewed with particular suspicion.

The global recession is also likely to have an indirect effect on the funding of global civil society. The media, while giving prime time to the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan, are paying much less attention to other items on the global civil society agenda. Activists on biotechnology, for instance, feel that this has suddenly become a non-issue.

Yet companies will not suspend their R&D because of the war, and concerned citizens cannot be expected to stop questioning their aims and methods, either. On many other topics, too, global civil society will not just close down because of the war. On the contrary, peace, human rights and humanitarian organisations can be expected to be especially active.

Some contributions to openDemocracy, such as those by Nira Yuval-Davis, Mary Midgley and Omar al-Qattan point in the direction of national and transnational dialogue as the only alternative to the Manicheist worldview of which both Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld are proponents. This cannot be a dialogue of governments. It will have to take place in the realm of global civil society.

However, we have to be realistic about global civil society. Just because it is by and large uninterested in making profits or gaining governmental power, it is not a collection of 21st century saints, who spread tolerance, equality and solidarity wherever they go.

Instead of thinking of global civil society as people we like, espousing our favourite values, it is more helpful to view it as a pluriform and contradictory phenomenon, definitely value-driven, but without one monolithic set of ethics. Supporters of ethnic or religious fundamentalism, and perhaps even terrorist networks like Al-Qaeeda, should be seen as part of this realm, not outside it.

Thinking of global civil society in this way is helpful for two reasons. Firstly, the ways in which transnational movements of this kind recruit, communicate and operate is fundamentally different from the mode of operations of governmental agencies and corporations, and has much in common with the practices of other global civil society manifestations. Looking at them in this way will help to understand them, and find more effective ways to combat them than military action.

Secondly, if one is serious about dialogue, it cannot be a dialogue only between those people who already have the same perspective on global governance. While few people in the Muslim world or elsewhere justify the attack on the World Trade Centre, and even fewer would be prepared to carry out such actions, many share the worldview underlying the attacks. Excluding them from global dialogue, declaring them ‘beyond reasoning’, can only reinforce the threatening polarisation of the world into pro- and anti-American camps.

Research on global civil society in all its manifestations will continue at the London School of Economics and other institutions. In our next Yearbook, Global Civil Society 2002, we hope to be able to begin to describe how the civil society idea has been translated into a reality in different local contexts, how global civil society is responding to the pressures it has been under since 11 September, and whether there are signs of an emerging ‘global dialogue’ – such as that in openDemocracy.