Global Policy Forum

Civil Society as Global Actor:


By Walden Bello

Focus on the Global South
May 2000

Today, there is much talk about the emergence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or civil society organizations (CSOs) as major international actors. CSOs have elicited criticism from some quarters. For instance, Martin Wolf, the columnist of the Financial Times, has called them "uncivil society" and attacked them for opposing the project of globalization advanced by the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, saying that that their stands on various issues stem from ignorance and simplistic interpretations of a complex world.

More liberal quarters, however, have acknowledged that their criticisms have some justification, for instance, on the issue of the dangers posed by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and globalization. Both corporations and governments have moved to initiate "dialogue" with NGOs, oftentimes with the purpose of coopting them into corporate or government agendas by conceding some of their criticisms while rejecting others, particularly their more fundamental critiques of the processes of corporate globalization. The elite World Economic Forum that meets in Davos, Switzerland, every year now assigns top priority to consulting NGOs to ensure that the alleged benefits of globalization are spread more widely.

When we examine the problems and promises posed by civil society organizations (CSOs), an important thing to remember is that they are not invariably a progressive phenomenon. While we are familiar with CSOs that are liberal or belong to the left, the right also has its CSOs, such as business associations, trade groups, and conservative religious formations--for instance, the formidable Opus Dei in Catholic countries. Oftentimes, as influences on political and economic actors, these CSOs on the right are far more influential than CSOs on the left.

This influence is, however, sometimes not noticed because it is covertly exercised via the many different networks in which members of conservative CSOs participate. In contrast, progressive CSOs or NGOs are oftentimes more public and transparent, so that the press has an easier time chronicling their activities. Despite this greater visibility, however, the civil society organization of the right is generally much more influential than the civil society organization of the left. They are, to borrow Gramsci's famous term, more "organic" to the class structure.

Promise of CSOs

Having flagged this, one can now turn to the promise of progressive CSOs in the creation of a more just and equitable order at home and abroad.

First of all, CSOs are quickly emerging as a third or fourth actor in the formulation and implementation of macro-political and macro- economic decisions. In many Asian countries, for instance, real decisionmaking power used to be monopolized by politicians, technocrats, and the business elite. That is increasingly less and less possible in the face of the mass mobilization by labor groups, environmental groups, and human and social rights groups, often working in coalitions. Coordination, even of a rough sort, among a variety of CSOs, has become more pronounced after the Asian financial crisis, which underlined the hopeless corruption of the old order and the necessity of constantly monitoring and checking the old elites outside the usual governmental institutions and processes.

Second, CSOs are crucial not only as checks on elites. They are also the key to the evolution of democracy. Representative democracy has always suffered from what Rousseau saw as its tendency to develop a "corporate will" separate from the General Will, thus perverting the purposes of representation. The development of the US democratic system into a plutocratic system, where Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been subjugated by corporate money, is the best example of the Rosseauean dilemma of large-scale representative democracies.

With their constant pressure on bureaucrats and parliamentarians to be accountable, CSOs are a force for more democracy. By organizing the energies of millions of citizens to impinge on the daily political scene, CSOs are a force pushing the evolution of more direct forms of democratic rule. CSO activity, combined with advanced applications of information technology that allow citizens and citizens' groups to instantaneously communicate with one another, may be the key to the emergence of direct democracy in contemporary mass societies.

Finally, CSOs are a force for effective internationalism that can check the power of politically hegemonic forces like the US government and transnational corporations. The power of states and thus of counter- hegemonic alliances among states has been eroded by corporate-led globalization. But the combination of citizens' resistance to globalization and communications technology has created global citizens' movements that can assemble and meet the "enemy" at a moment's notice. The "Battle of Seattle" in November 1999 and, more recently, the "Battle of Washington," are examples of the new transborder activist movements.

The development of civil society, in short, presents opportunities for democracy both vertically and horizontally. It is the route to a more humane, more participatory, more equitable future.


There are, of course, major obstacles that need to be surmounted if this vision is to become a reality.

First of all, there is the North-South divide among NGOs. Many Northern NGOs are, oftentimes, focused on single issues, such as the environment or human rights and carry agenda that are filtered through the lens of these particular issues. Southern NGOs, on the other hand, are more comprehensive in their concerns. They are concerned almost equally with the environment, social equity, development, national sovereignty, and democracy. Thus, while NGOs in the North working on climate change are sometimes solely concerned about bringing down the level of greenhouse gas emissions, Southern NGOs want to make sure that bringing down CO2 levels in the South does not conflict with the legitimate aspirations to development of their countries. Similarly, they are concerned that environmental standards in the North do not become a protectionist screen against the entry of products from the Third World.

Second, there is the question of compromising with or fundamentally opposing corporate-led globalization. For some CSOs, both in the North and the South, corporate-led globalization is inevitable; the main task is to humanize it. For instance, some labor and environmental NGOs see the World Trade Organization as a fact of life and focus their energies on attacing "social" or "environmental" clauses to WTO agreements. Others see the WTO as fundamentally problematic and push for abolishing or radically reducing its powers.

Third, there is the question of working with governments. Some CSOs adopt a stand of maximizing cooperation with governments so as to get governments to adopt some of their agenda. Many environmental NGOs in the North, for instance, worked with the US government to ban imports of tuna and shrimps to the US if these were not caught with methods specified in US government legislation. In the South, some NGOs have strongly supported the nationalist policies of certain governments, while muting their criticisms of other aspects of their governments, like the bad record of these governments in the area of human rights and democracy. Other NGOs in both the North and the South, in contrast, have made it a point to limit working relationships with governments to a minimum, while maximizing their critical stance.

A fourth problem is that competition and intrigues among CSOs are often just as intense and destructive as conflicts in the political and business worlds. Among NGOs in the North and the South, a source of intense competition that can quickly make allies into adversaries is funding. Indeed, some observers contend that nothing has proven more problematic in terms of building common fronts and common programs among CSOs and NGOs than fights over funds which often mask as fights over principles or politics.

In any event, pluralism will continue to mark global civil society. This is its source of strength. But it can also be a source of fatal weakness, one which will prevent the emergence of a working unity of CSOs, whether at the national or global level. The challenge is how to ensure that differences in strategies and tactics do not become the sources of permanent and bitter divisions. The challenge is how to keep dialogue going so that differences on some issues do not prevent coming together in solidarity on other issues. To take a very current issue, can CSOs that found themselves on different sides of the battle on the question of the US's granting of permanent normal trade relations to China work together to radically reduce the powers of the WTO.

Corporations, governments, and multilateral organizations that carry the pro-corporate globalization project are waiting to seize on divisions among CSOs and NGOs. It is important to make sure that even as CSOs disagree among themselves, they do not play into the hands of forces with a different agenda.


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