Poverty and activism: the heart of global civil society

Ashwani Kumar Helmut Anheier Marlies Glasius Jan Aart Scholte Hakan Seckinelgin Mary Kaldor
12 May 2009

The worldwide economic recession has focused attention on the problems of poverty and those who endure or are being pushed into it. The fact that - even before the onset of the current crisis - one-sixth of the world's population continue to live in extreme poverty and that many millions suffer and die needlessly for want of proper healthcare or clean water is a standing rebuke to claims that economic growth will automatically spread material affluence and "lift" millions from hardship.

Ashwani Kumar is associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics (LSE). Among his publications is Community Warriors: State, Peasants and Private Caste Armies in Bihar (Anthem Press, 2008)

Jan Aart Scholte is professor of politics and international studies and director of the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation (CSGR) at the University of Warwick. He is co-editor of the journal Global Governance

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance and co-director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics (LSE)

Marlies Glasius is a lecturer in international relations in the department of politics, University of Amsterdam. Among her books is The International Criminal Court: A Global Civil Society Achievement (Routledge, 2007)

Hakan Seckinelgin is a lecturer in international social policy in the department of social policy, London School of Economics (LSE). Among his publications is International Politics of HIV/AIDS: Global Disease-Local Pain (Routledge, 2008)

Helmut Anheier is director of the Center for Civil Society at UCLA's School of Public Affairs, and professor of sociology at Heidelberg University

The prevalence of poverty on this scale must be considered a failure of the world order (see Peter Singer, "A life to save: direct action on poverty", 11 May 2009). That means it is an issue not just for governments or international organisations, but for "global civil society" too. What has global civil society to say about poverty; what does the engagement of the one with the other reveal about the life of this vital idea itself?

India in the global order

These are the twin themes of the Global Civil Society Yearbook 2009 (Sage, 2009), the ninth edition of a series and a project that has sought to track and make sense of the evolution of civil-society initiatives and ideas around the world over this tumultuous decade. The many contributors to the latest volume consider the role of global civil society in pressing for a fairer world order which can address the problems of poverty.

In the first edition of the yearbook, global civil society was defined as the "sphere of ideas, values, institutions, organisations, networks, and individuals located between the family, the state, and the market and operating beyond the confines of national societies, polities, and economies" (see Helmut Anheier, Marlies Glasius & Mary Kaldor, Global Civil Society 2001).  

But any creative notion must be open to critical questioning. The focus of the current yearbook on poverty - a collaboration between the LSE's Centre for the Study of Global Governance and Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences - raises several. Among them are the following:

* Is global civil society in practice dominated by the ideas and values of rich countries purveyed by international NGOs and other institutions organised and funded  in the global north?

* Are the prevailing conceptions of poverty shaped by those who have never experienced it?

* Worse still, is global civil society a mechanism for legitimating extremes of wealth and poverty, for "naturalising" the continued existence of poverty?

* Is it an expression of the hegemony of rich states? Does it represent a form of "governmentality", which manages inequality on behalf the rich?

* Alternatively, does it offer a potential platform for the voices of the poor?

To explore these questions, the yearbook took as a lens for investigation the Indian context, where approximately a quarter of the world's poor people live - a huge number of them belonging to the categories of dalits (traditionally lower-castes), and adivasi (indigenous peoples and tribes). India may have made progressive strides in reducing poverty since independence, but it still harbours around 240 million people living below the "poverty-line".

In contrast to western developed societies, the Indian variation of the poverty-line is (infamously) defined in terms of absolute poverty - access to sufficient food energy for biological survival - that focuses on a "'minimum level of living' rather than ‘reasonable level of living'" (see R Ramakrishna, Economic Reforms: Poverty and Inequality, 2004). Moreover, chronic hunger is systemic and violence against poor people is pervasive in many parts of India. As important, rising inequality has exacerbated the conditions of the country's poor. All these reasons make India a suitable core theme for the study of poverty with a global civil society focus.

The need to encompass India's place in the global order, to accommodate comparative studies, and to examine the global-local nexus led to a decision to alternate chapters that focus on India and are written by Indian authors with those tackling global concerns. It is through the global-local interchange that some answers begin to take shape; and the hope that poverty may be ultimately eradicated begins to transcend national boundaries, cultural barriers, and ethnic prejudices.

The anti-poverty resource

A key proposition that emerges from our researches, particularly relevant at a time when "naturalising" explanations of poverty retain their appeal, is that poverty - in India and elsewhere - is not a natural or passive state that results from backwardness or lack of engagement with modernity and globalisation. Nor are poor people a single entity, categorised under the label "poor" and defined in terms of bundles of goods or money. They are - in India - adivasi, dalits, sex-workers, homeless migrants, street-vendors, squatters, bonded-labourers, displaced people, eunuchs, construction-workers, riot-affected people, excluded diasporic citizens, refugees, street-children, and slum-dwellers. They lack the resources, opportunities and participatory avenues in collective-decision making that would enable them to overcome their poverty. Their poverty is reproduced over and over again through obstacles actually constructed as a consequence of modernity; they are the victims not of a timeless condition of poverty but of an ongoing and renewable process of impoverishment.

The Indian focus of the yearbook is an opportunity to feature those engaged in the great variety of civil-society activism in the country, as well as encompassing those living in extreme forms of absolute poverty and those lacking voice and representation in collective decision-making (sometimes distinct but often overlapping categories). In Indian and other contexts, scholars and practitioners from India, Australia, Wales, Mali, Thailand, South Africa, the United States and Egypt interrogate discourses of poverty as well as statistics; study local groups that engage global issues as well as global organisations that intersect with local contexts; and explore theory and practice, the secular and the religious, the visual and the verbal.

Amid this variety, a theme that emerges clearly in the 2009 edition of the yearbook is that the most resourceful, entrepreneurial people in the world are indeed those real "slumdog millionaires" who must scratch out their survival every day in the bleakest, most degrading of circumstances and ultimately overcome all forms of adversity to embrace and hang on to life. Their poverty, these studies show, is owed not to their own failings (or past karmas) but to structural realities - both economic (the inequitable distribution of global capital, the exploitation of cheap labour) and political (the manipulation of global institutions of governance, the legacy of authoritarian and ineffective states).

This discovery helps to rebut the trend of some of the critical questioning outlined above that sees global civil society as at its core a set of western NGOs which act as a non-political group of transnational service-providers. To the contrary, most civil-society scholars today view civil society as "inherently a political project" whose purpose is to resist dominant structures of power, enhance the hold of popular sovereignty in decision-making and reconceptualise the rights of poor and disadvantaged people, locally and globally.

The yearbook's authors treat the "poverty-reduction project" as an open-ended process whereby inegalitarian and unaccountable structures of power are interrogated, criticised, challenged, and ultimately reversed. The critical scrutiny of global civil society should continue, but the evidence of our researches is that its actors are at the forefront of campaigns that have the best chance of "making poverty history".

Also in openDemocracy:

Marlies Glasius, Helmut Anheier & Mary Kaldor, "Global civil society: the politics of a new world?" (15 January 2004)

Marlies Glasius, "Global civil society comes of age" (14 November 2001)

Neera Chandhoke, "What the hell is 'civil society'?" (17 March 2005)

Leni Wild, "The darker side of global civil society" (3 April 2006)

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