The New Civic Globalism
How can nonprofit public-interest groups and movements such as Jubilee 2000, Transparency International, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and others get a seat at the global table? What global institutional infrastructure is needed to support civil society's global emergence? At the heart of these questions is the challenge of representation. Many governments, as well as some international bureaucrats, are quick to point out that most of these global organizations, and indeed their national constituent parts, are self-appointed and are not elected or accountable to a clearly defined constituency. On the other hand, governments should not take a victory at the ballot box as a blank check to behave as they wish till the next election comes around. The key challenge is how to insure that there are effective ways in which we can connect local civil-society action with national and global civil-society movements. Arising out of that is the question of civil society's legitimate right to participate as a partner in making and implementing global decisions and policies. Rajesh Tandon and I suggest that "global formations of civil society must become the voice of citizens at global forums without getting bogged down with the formalization and bureaucratic patterns of representation."
Another challenge is whether civic activists are not sometimes too purist or too self-righteous in their stridency to be able to reach practical accommodations with their opponents. In this context, the suggestion is made that perhaps civic globalism is just no substitute for democratic governance. The argument goes that just as charity and volunteerism are probably no substitute for governmental solutions to big problems like healthcare, poverty and education, global activists may serve a role, but one confined to being the outside catalyst for social change.
What, then, is a global space? Is every local space today a truly global space or are global spaces defined as the locations of institutional and economic power? Far too often when people talk about global processes and the centers of global power they are focused exclusively on Washington, New York, Geneva, Paris and London. This raises the question of the North-South divide within global activism. It is not uncommon to hear activists from the South raise criticisms of the manner in which they feel dominated by their counterparts in the North, even though they are notionally all on the same side. For example, Jubilee 2000 now has a specific component called Jubilee South: Activists from the world's poor countries wanted to carve out a space to engage in dialogue with one another without their Northern counterparts. Related to this is the challenge of cultural relativity. Within a single network, exactly what constitutes a healthy civil society, for example, can vary considerably from society to society.
It is in this context that the US government should be doing more to enable the NGO community to be more effective. Rather than bask in the reality of the United States being the only world superpower, the United States should develop a more respectful attitude to both the formal intergovernmental institutions, particularly the UN, and the various international civil-society institutions. For starters, the United States should invest more in the UN system (starting by paying its dues more diligently) rather than carve out a life for itself based on notions of hegemony. It should ratify the various international treaties that it was part of creating, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the coming years, the US government, along with other governments, will have to negotiate a new set of power relations with an ever-stronger civil-society movement around national and international policy issues.
It is important that we recognize that this move toward global activity is not simply a phenomenon of the nineties. Trade unions have long organized at the international level, as have religious movements. The World Conference on Religion and Peace, which was set up in 1970, brings together the world's major religions around the theme of peace and social justice. There is no doubt, though, that the Internet has accelerated this process. These trends are likely to continue, with several transnational networks and organizations emerging more rapidly. They will probably grow in sophistication and will also face a range of challenges pertaining to legitimacy, operational efficiency and political viability. In meeting these challenges, there will be many voices that will stress that at the heart of this enterprise is the struggle for accountable democracy.
As has been said, global activism may not be a substitute for democratic governance, but it can certainly play an important role in improving and strengthening it. For example, the formal institution of electoral systems does nothing to guarantee genuine democracy. We have the form of democracy without the substance. In fact, electoral democracy runs the risk of becoming in many societies a preordained elite-legitimization process. To counterbalance this, strong citizen-inspired activism is going to be needed at the local, national and global levels.