The New Civic Globalism
The impact of what is now simply called Beijing--shorthand for the multitude of recommendations to come out of the women's conference--has been far-reaching. Beijing has added impetus at the national level to the push for greater gender equality, with specific interventions around women in politics and in society more generally. Issues that were struggling to find their way into mainstream policy agendas, such as the troubling trend toward persistent and, in places, increasing levels of violence against women, have now achieved a much higher profile. In this process, it is not only the longstanding democracies that have put forward innovative ideas and strategies. For example, the work done by the Women's Budget Initiative in South Africa, which seeks to interrogate the government budgeting processes through a gender lens, and indeed to institutionalize gender criteria in budgeting, has offered new insights to the world. This expansion of civil-society networks, organizations and activity has been accompanied by an increasing flurry of academic work on the subject, with a mountain of new literature written over the past ten years.
What are the implications of this new civic globalism? On the positive side, citizen-inspired organizations are developing the capacity to relate globally to the organized power of global business as well as global institutions such as the UN, World Bank and so on. This trend has allowed activists at the national level who might not be able to get a foot in the door with their own governments to be able to push for global commitments. For example, governments that signed the agreement arising from the Copenhagen summit are being pressured by NGO groups at the national level to meet the specified targets concerning poverty and social development. In some cases where governments have ignored international treaties, civil-society groups are energized by the campaign to push for ratification of such treaties. Yet many in civil society remain, understandably, skeptical about the long distance between ratification and implementation.
Although some may believe that the recent growth of global activism has successfully created a global civil society, realistically we have not yet reached that stage. We have developed only transnational civil-society movements, because there are no networks or organizations that can claim representation in all the countries of the world. For example, many "global" organizations do not have significant representation in Indonesia, Japan, Russia or China, all countries with large populations. The other problem is that global civil-society networks are often driven by English, and sometimes French, as the lingua franca, which therefore excludes many important voices.
Without a doubt, the phenomenon of this new civic globalism has been accelerated by the emerging information technology. It is worth noting, however, that while many speed off on the information superhighway, more than a third of the world's population has no access to telephones, let alone other information technologies. There are more telephone connections in Manhattan than in sub-Saharan Africa. Again, these disparities underscore realities about who are global players and who are not.
Notwithstanding these weaknesses, international civil-society organizations and networks are serving to check the power and practice of the nation-state system. They have challenged the practice of international law, and, perhaps most important, they have challenged the self-interested geopolitical policies of the wealthy nations of the world. In this respect, some citizens see their global activism as a way to undermine the nation-state system. However, others emphasize the positive role that the nation-state system can play; indeed, many activists from poorer countries now see the need for effective, accountable and efficient nation-state infrastructures to insure that the negative aspects of globalization do not go unchecked.
Unfortunately, not all cross-border citizen activity is necessarily positive. We have also seen the rise of intolerant, violent, racist and sexist groups organizing across national boundaries, with many exploiting the Internet. The race-hate pages on the Internet continue to grow at an alarming rate. Thus, although we should continue to promote global activism and the positive impacts that it can have, we must keep in mind that there is now more work to be done to counter the negative aspects of this phenomenon.