During the eighties many activists in the United States and elsewhere embraced a simple but evocative slogan: “think globally, act locally.” The message: In acting at the local level, one needed to understand how global forces affected local reality. In short, trying to tackle local issues without understanding the ever-increasing power of global processes was tactically inappropriate.
By the mid-nineties, activists, particularly from the global South, began to question this logic. Devaki Jain, for example, one of the founders of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a grouping from the poor countries of the world, challenged this slogan. She asked whether this did not trap local people solely in local interventions when in fact many of the causes being pursued locally now need to be advanced in the range of global forums and processes that has become so influential. She argued that perhaps we need to turn this slogan on its head and instead “think locally, act globally.”
Rajesh Tandon, the former chair of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and I have recently suggested that social activists need to think both locally and globally and act both locally and globally since the realities of globalization now deprive us of the luxury of national parochialism. This rise toward global activism around a range of issues is happening precisely at a time when many citizens of the world have, for the first time, achieved representative electoral democracy at the national level. Even so, we often have the form of democracy but not the substance.
Democracy should not be reduced to the singular act of casting a ballot once every four or five years. Even in societies with longstanding democratic traditions, democracy is under threat, with high levels of citizen disillusionment and loss of faith in public institutions. More and more, citizens active in various global alliances are challenging basic notions of governance and democracy, including the very nature of the nation-state.
Jessica Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in 1997 of a “power shift” in which governments and intergovernmental organizations are increasingly having to recognize that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other nonstate actors have become real power brokers in various political, social and economic processes. Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University speaks of a “global associational revolution,” which he argues is as significant to the twentieth century as the development of the nation-state system. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan observes that the “growing pains felt by civil society are also being felt in the wider international community. The international community, after all, is a work in progress. It has failed many tests. But it passes much more often, if still not often enough.”