Global Civil Society or Networked Globality
KeywordsCivil Society Fair Trade Social Movement International Criminal Court Global Governance
The impact of individuals in world politics has been a subject of interest to those working in the fields of International Relations (IR), public policy, and political theory. The term transnational or global civil society is used to articulate a global political space where individuals attempt to form transnational organizations and debate political issues outside the operation of states and the market. The terms global civil society and transnational civil society are often used interchangeably, although the term transnational suggests a more modest conception of this political activity which acknowledges that these political debates are not always universal or comprehensive. As such, the term focuses upon questions of public debate, political activism, and the operation of non-state actors such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), social movements, and religious groups which try to influence public opinion and thus publically influence the behavior of states, International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) established by states, and transnational businesses. This chapter presents an overview of the literature which considers global civil society by first defining the term global civil society, secondly by outlining the diverse dynamics of this activity, thirdly by considering how global civil society can influence global politics, and lastly by considering the consequences and potential of global civil society.
Defining Global Civil Society
The idea of civil society is usually defined as the space which exists outside of the state and market where individuals publically debate political issues (Walzer 1995). This is sometimes referred to as the “third sector” of society (alongside the government and business sectors) which involves various non-state voluntary associations or a “public sphere” of peaceful deliberation about matters of public concern which involves various civil society activities. Civil society organizations (CSOs) encompass a range of organizations and forms of assembly which include NGOs, social movements, community groups, unions, faith-based organizations, journalists, academic and research networks, lobby and consultancy groups, think tanks, and professional associations. The reference to lobby groups indicates that civil society does not just refer to progressive or radical political groups but can encompass actors which seek to protect the interests of industries and corporations. Indeed, while civil society refers to largely peaceful forms of political activity, civil society groups attempt to influence existing forms of governance with a range of different objectives and tactics. Consequently, they have varying levels of success in realizing their objectives in influencing the actions of governments and public opinion.
Civil society has a tendency to take on transnational dimensions. While some NGOs only work in their own country, there is no neat way of keeping civil society only within states because such actors often have a presence on the internet and in social media and thereby network with other NGOs in other countries and directly address people living in other societies around the world. Consequently, the term global civil society refers to the development of a global public sphere and transnational civic activity which cuts across national borders with International NGOs being an important part of this activity (Anheier et al. 2001; Price 2003; Dryzek 2012). This activity attempts to influence states, IGOs, and official forms of global governance and sometimes actually create forms of transnational governance or alternatively protests and resists global governance, states, and transnational corporations. In some idealized visions, this is seen to relate primarily as an global political ideal of cosmopolitan global civil society which involves the promotion of humanitarian and human rights values which transcend the idea of the state (as advanced by scholars such as Richard Falk and Mary Kaldor), while most others consider a more modest vision of global civil society which focuses upon the existence of transnational actors involved in the idea of a global public sphere which is comprised of debates between various actors animated by a wide range of agendas and values (Anheier et al. 2001, pp. 15–16). Despite a wide variety of values being present, there is no doubt that moral causes were prominent in the early operation of global civil society. The activity of global civil society can be seen in the humanitarian efforts of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement to end slavery and the International Committee of the Red Cross which was a private humanitarian organization established by Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier in 1863. NGOs continued to play a role in the twentieth century in supporting the development of the United Nations (UN) and the development of international law, especially with regard to human rights principles after the Second World War.
While global civil society has a long history, there has been significant growth in the presence and impact of global civil society in recent decades which has involved increases in number, size, and profile of CSOs. The growth in the number of international NGOs can be seen in the Union of International Associations (UIA) database with 22,200 international NGOs in 1990 and nearly 56,000 such organizations in 2010 (Anheier et al. 2012, p. 20). Related to this rise in the number of NGOs is rising scale and size of NGOs evident in large international NGOs like Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and World Vision. The development of large NGOs with operations around the world presents mounting challenges to ensure that such large NGOs are professionally run to maximize their effectiveness, accountability, and reputation (Ronalds 2010). Unions and business lobby groups have also taken on global forms of organization and coordination. Furthermore, formal NGOs are not the only form of civil society activism with the impact of more diffuse social movements, and networked community groups being important in constituting civil society activity. Important in this regard is the growing influence of the internet and online campaigns that address a wide range of global issues which include coalitions and networks of individuals and NGOs.
There are four primary drivers for the rising presence of global civil society. First, civil society is increasingly transnational due to the spread of liberalism and democracy in societies around the world in recent decades which have permitted citizens to create various civil society groups. Second, advances in communications and transport technology have reduced the costs and difficulties of organizing transnational political activity, with technologies like the fax machine and the internet providing crucial tools in enabling civil society to operate globally. Third, it is the case that the growing numbers of IGOs can be a location which can generate the political agendas and spaces which cultivate a specific focus for civil society activity to engage with. Sidney Tarrow (2001, p. 15) indicates that IGOs like the UN can act as a “coral reef” for civil society activity, which creates a focal point around which an ecosystem of global civil society can form and operate (Tarrow 2001). Fourth, contemporary globalization has changed the moral landscape of political action with greater awareness of injustices occurring in various parts of the world and greater recognition of global problems which require globally coordinated action. In this sense transnational activism and civil society is very much enabled by the practical interdependence and the moral independence associated with contemporary globalization.
The Dynamics of Global Civil Society
Different CSOs have different purposes and goals because they may act to reinforce, reform, or resist the status quo. Not all CSOs or NGOs are “progressive,” with lobby groups like the National Rifle Association with respect to small arms, business lobby groups, and pro-capitalist think tanks being examples. Indeed, Leslie Sklair has pointed out, there are social movements “for” and “against” global capitalism (Sklair 1997). Furthermore, many forms of civil society activity are practical in nature, which attempt to reform specific policies or problems, and thus are not forms of activism that are attempting to initiate revolutionary change which aims to transform the underlying political structures of world politics. CSOs also have different strategies and tactics to realize their objectives in the sense they may seek to advocate and influence policy change, may be in the business of directly providing humanitarian aid and development assistance to groups on need, or may actually be involved in direct forms of protest. Indeed, for some groups and causes, direct forms of civil society activism are the only hope for initiating social change that can realize justice. There are significant differences even within social movements which act to promote significant social change. For instance, the Anti-Capitalist Movement which operated in the 1990s was shaped by different logics of attempting to create autonomous political spaces separate from global capitalism and attempting to promote technical arguments for political and economic change in the global capitalist system (Pleyers 2010).
There are various ways the dynamics of global civil society can be conceptualized. Importantly most conceptions point to the ways that NGOs and activists interact with other types of actors to influence world politics. One prominent way is developed by Kathryn Sikkink and Margaret Keck’s focus on the way activists and NGOs work with other agents, including elements of some governments to form “transnational advocacy networks” which comprise of the “relevant actors working internationally on an issue, who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and a dense exchange of information and services” (Keck and Sikkink 1998, p. 2.). Another conception is the idea of “transnational policy networks” which are specific forms of political practice which consider the ways policy making includes individuals and agencies beyond governments. Dianne Stone contends that transnational policy networks include “internationalized public sector officials,” diplomats, public officials, and regulators engaged in international issues and networks; “international civil servants,” officials working for IGOs; and “transnational policy professionals”: “consultants, foundation officers, business leaders, scientific experts, think tank pundits, and NGO executives” (Stone 2008, pp. 30-1.). Lastly, the term “epistemic communities” is sometimes used to emphasize the ways that a variety of actors influence the creation of ideas when transnational networks of “knowledge-based experts” are formed to help policy makers comprehend the problems they face, identify various technical policy solutions, and assess the policy outcomes (Haas 1992). These conceptualizations claim that transnational agents such as activists and CSOs combine with IGOs and parts of some governments to share information, strategize, and apply coordinated pressure to governments in relation to a particular issue.
However, global civil society may be evident in other forms of political activity more independent from states and IGOs because not all CSOs play a direct role in policy engagement and may focus their efforts to mobilize public interest in their causes. Some CSOs create their own political spaces to debate political issues and thereby create social movements. Social movements are generally understood as social collectivities which involve “a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity” (Diani 1992, p. 13.). Such movements comprise various forms of policy and political engagements which are developed in specific contexts which can take on various transnational dimensions. For instance, the environmental movement has involved various forms of protest since the 1960s but also led to policy engagement with IGOs and led to creation of Green political parties around the world. Some social movements have shorter lifespans or more narrow geographical focuses. Furthermore, some campaigns exist primarily on the web and are somewhat derisively referred to as “slacktivism,” as was in the case of KONY 2012 campaign which used Facebook to create an online campaign to raise the profile of the issue of child soldiers in Africa. Lastly, some CSOs create their own transnational systems of governance and rules which they try to get governments, businesses, or the public to use to regulate and avoid problems in a particular issue area (Hale and Held 2011). The idea of Fair Trade is an example of this.
Despite playing various roles in policy making and pushing social change, it is important to explain that there are some immediate limitations and dangers associated with the idea and operation of global civil society. First, it is the case that not every deserving cause gets active and effective civil society attention because some causes do not attract support and some groups do not create effective connections with larger civil society networks. Such exclusions are sometimes related to the problem referred to as the “digital divide” which acknowledges that some subaltern groups do not have the resources or access to technology to engage their message with transnational civil society. Second, a related limitation of global civil society is that it reinforces western perspectives and ideas in world politics given that the larger NGOs are largely based in western societies. Third, CSOs – even NGOs – may have strategic imperatives that shape what they do which may differ from the people they purport to serve. Clifford Bob makes the claim that NGOs are “merchants of morality” which act as mediators between wealthy people who want to help and poor people needing help, but that the interests of various NGOs determine which causes receive attention and assistance and which causes do not (Bob 2002).
A fourth limitation of global civil society is that there are some rare cases of policy issues where there is scant civil society activity because the policy environment is hostile to CSOs. The area of global finance has been traditionally dominated by governments and business interests with critical CSOs being limited by a lack of capacity and expertise in conjunction with a lack of transparency of the systems of governance that govern global finance (Scholte 2013). Lastly, it may be the case that the capabilities of CSOs can be co-opted by governments or other authorities. Clearly for CSOs to realize their objectives, they have to negotiate with governments to deliver aid or politically engage their societies. In order to gain ongoing access to such societies, CSO may moderate or censor their political agenda. Indeed, in the worst case, civil society can be faked by the government. This is sometimes called “astroturfing” where governments or businesses create or use CSOs to generate fake or artificial support, rather than real “grass roots” support.
The Influence of global Civil Society
The overall impact of CSOs and global civil society is often hard to discern because while the presence of civil society is ubiquitous, the effects vary in different policy areas and contexts. Imperfect as global civil society is, there are different types of power and influence, which entails different strategies and tactics to influence authority and various publics around the world. Consequently, understanding the power of CSOs and global civil society requires a nuanced view of power evident in Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall’s typology of “compulsory power,” “institutional power,” “structural power,” and “productive power” (Barnett and Duvall 2005). Transnational activists sometimes possess compulsory power, which includes direct attempts to influence the actions of another actor through direct threats or coercion. While activists do not generally have the capacity to coerce governments and do not use intense physical violence, they do often conduct physical protests, occupations of particular spaces, or direct action. Most forms of physical protests are deemed to be legitimate in liberal democratic societies, such as those conducted by the Anti-Capitalist Movement in 1990s or the Occupy Movement after the 2008 global financial crisis. However, sometimes direct action is highly contentious, as evident in the attempts by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to intercede and disrupt whaling ships at sea.
Transnational activists sometimes develop forms of “institutional power” where they are able to exercise indirect forms of control via formal or informal institutions, which set the policy agenda. This can involve a CSO lobbying states to create forms of international law that address issues of concern to that organization. For instance, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court involved NGOs who collectively advocated for the creation and effective operation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). There is also the possibility that elements of civil society will be included in the operation of official forms of governance. This inclusion is referred to as multistakeholderism or multisectorialism, such as the way that civil society groups are represented in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (Brown 2009). This can also involve CSOs creating their own rules to address a specific problem. Creating transnational governance is a tactic of activists. It is a form of institutional power whereby activists want to create authority in the form of rules and regulations for a given policy area. For instance, Fair Trade is a form of transnational governance which is a form of voluntary regulation and certification whereby consumers pay an extra premium for goods produced in a manner where the producers get above market remuneration. In cases where binding international law is unlikely to be realized, such informal forms of transnational governance is the best form of regulation that activists can hope to realize.
The “structural power” of transnational activists is evident in direct efforts to influence the capacities of other actors by creating particular forms of incentives to act in ways which correspond with the agenda of certain CSOs. This is evident in efforts of NGOs who provide public services such as the delivery of emergency humanitarian or development assistance. This is demonstrated in efforts of International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Oxfam, and Save the Children. This also requires raising public awareness and fund raising to finance this activity. Another form of structural power is evident in efforts to conduct boycotts and embargoes of corporations or countries in order to induce changes in policies and practices. Such a tactic was used by the Abolitionist Movement against slavery but more recently has been used successfully by environmental groups calling for a boycott of Nestlé because of deforestation caused by its products, which ultimately led it to change its supply chain policies. Furthermore, sometimes CSOs seek to disseminate information to illuminate the activity and influence the behavior of states and corporations. The WikiLeaks campaign to leak sensitive information is one prominent and controversial example of this type of influence (Slaughter 2014).
Lastly, transnational activists can be seen to have “productive power” where they are able to indirectly influence and produce particular social capacities of governments and other actors. CSOs have considerable impact on ideas in society and government as they “shape policies, norms, and structures in society at large” (Scholte 2002, p. 284.). This is where CSOs can influence political discourse to shape how IGOs, governments, or the public perceive an issue. A successful example of this was the shift initiated by the anti-whaling movement which successfully shifted public opinion in many societies from seeing whales as a commodity to a valued and endangered animal (Epstein 2005). Furthermore, there has been an increase in attention paid the problems and contributions of women involved in conflict thanks to the sustained lobbying of the UN by Women rights NGOs who demonstrated the ways that rape in the civil conflicts of the 1990s was seen to be “tactical rape,” meaning that it was a deliberate tactic of war in these conflicts and was a serious issue of International Humanitarian Law and a threat to human and international security (Fitzpatrick 2016). Less successfully, the Occupy Movement also attempted to change the public discourse around inequality by using the terms the “1%” and “99%” to outline problems of economic and political inequality. These examples demonstrate that this type of power is shaped by both technical expertise as well as moral and emotional persuasion, which utilizes symbols, images, and narratives to induce changes in the beliefs and opinions of policy makers and the broader public. In this sense, CSOs can be seen to be “moral entrepreneurs” which disseminate ideas and norms in world politics (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998).
These types of power and influence overlap in practice. It is sometimes the case that direct protests may support and strengthen other types of power. However, there are limits to the influence of CSOs. It is often difficult to convey their message in a media-saturated world, especially when the message is a complicated response to a deep-seated political problem. It is also the case that the diversity of moral and political positions in the world is bewildering and difficult to represent in global governance (Dryzek 2006). The power of CSOs also depends upon whether particular states, IGOs, and corporations are susceptible to moral and political pressure. Also there have been some sharp responses to the foreign influence of global civil society, and consequently, some governments do not allow some types of CSO actors to operate in their territory with respect to some or all policy sectors. This has been evident in the response of the Russian government to LGBT human rights groups by restricting the operation and transnational relationships of these groups and also by advancing the importance of “traditional values” as a counter narrative to human rights (Wilkinson 2014). These reactions to the operation of CSOs and global civil society demonstrate that this civil society activity represents an important counterpoint to a world where political decisions are made primarily by governments and official forms of authority and governance.
Political Consequences of Global Civil Society
The idea that CSOs are playing an increasingly active role in world politics gives rise to the idea that global civil society means that there are indications that we are witnessing a shift away from the conventional “Westphalian” image of interstate cooperation where states are the only significant political actors, toward a more complicated model of cooperation where a wide variety of CSOs have some impact on the rules and operation of global politics. Indeed, some scholars suggest that this is the emergence of “complex multilateralism” where states and IGOs are routinely overlayed by non-state actors (O’Brien et al. 2000). However, neither the ubiquity of CSOs nor their routine engagement with states detracts from some of the immediate and potential impacts and consequences of global civil society.
The existence of global civil society has a considerable impact on the official processes of global decision-making. It is clear that there are now a wide range of perspectives routinely brought to bear on any global political issue and that states no longer have a monopoly on representing their publics. Consequently CSOs have a played a key role in publicizing the ideas such as human rights and environmentalism which have challenged the conventional agendas of states (Anheier et al. 2012, p. 2). While this makes world politics more chaotic than a world just comprised of states, it also opens up new forms of contestation and transparency. The activity of CSOs in global civil society offers a key way to promote various forms of transparency and accountability which would not otherwise exist. CSOs can act as watchdogs against arbitrary power and give a practical form of representation of vulnerable people and neglected causes which can play some role in promoting justice. In particular, CSOs play a crucial role in holding various IGOs and forms of global governance more accountable than they would be otherwise (Scholte 2011). In this sense, CSOs play a crucial role in reducing the “democratic deficit” that IGOs normally have with respect to being remote from the societies around the world that these IGOs effect. This produces an additional hope that CSOs can provide alternative ideas and information to these forms of governance and thereby improve the decision-making of IGOs.
Of course questions are leveled at the accountability of CSOs themselves. After all CSOs are not formally elected by the public nor procedurally accountable to the public (Dryzek and Niemeyer 2008), and they often act to contest the decisions of elected officials of states and IGOs which are legally enacted by states. John Dryzek wards off criticisms about whether CSOs in global civil society are substantively unrepresentative by contending that:
A better response to the charge is to ask: Unrepresentative compared to what? Compared to some ideal model of egalitarian democracy, global civil society may do badly. Compared to other realities in a global order dominated by large corporations, hegemonic states, neoliberal market thinking, secretive and unresponsive international organizations, low visibility financial networks, and military might, global civil society does rather well. (Dryzek 2012, p. 107)
The point here is that CSOs are imperfect but the context of world politics has typically permitted arbitrary forms of power which mean that efforts to promote justice have been limited. Consequently, we should not deny the beneficial consequences of increasing the diversity of voices in global governance and giving marginal voices some agency. While CSOs who represent marginal voices need to engage with more well-funded CSOs, including corporate lobby groups and think tanks, at least this means that deliberation between different groups is made more visible within this transnational context. The potential consequences of global civil society are also not just restricted to global politics. CSOs are a routine part of domestic politics and provide an important external prompt for national publics to be reminded of the external implications of national decisions.
In addition, there are potential consequences of contemporary global civil society being a more fundamental challenge to the Westphalian notion that world politics is shaped mainly by states. Recently observers of global civil society have argued that the increasing efforts of CSOs to systematically contest arbitrary power in global politics are more than just political influence on discrete policy issues and that these forms of transnational activism and contestation are best understood as early stages of an incipient process of transnational democratization (Dryzek 2011; Keane 2011; Goodin 2010). These incipient forms of public engagement are democratic in the broader sense of attempting to promote transparency and therefore publicly moderate and hold authority to account. However, these forms of global civil society are not currently a democratic world government, and most CSOs do not intend to create a form of transnational democracy (The World Federalist Movement is a notable exception. See Luis Cabrera 2010). Yet this activity can be seen to be an early and embryonic sign of a fundamental change in world politics. As Robert Goodin cautions:
When it comes to the global polity, we are still very much in the early days – both of developing a global polity, and still more of democratizing it. What we should be looking for in that context are “first steps,” not final steps. (Goodin 2010, p. 179)
This vision is where the individuals involved in CSOs are harbingers of a changing context of world politics. While there are a range of different theoretical models of what democracy could look like in world politics (Bray and Slaughter 2015), it is clear that global civil society is a crucial element to enacting efforts to democratize world politics.
The term global civil society depicts a world where there are a wide variety of transnational actors which debate political issues and attempt to influence prevailing systems of governance. Indeed, virtually every issue area has civil society actors attempting to influence the behavior of states, IGOs, and businesses. While there are situations where civil society dynamics are ignored, there are occasions where civil society groups are able to influence powerful actors and potentially transform the nature of world politics.
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