The New Civic Globalism

The New Civic Globalism

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


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.”

Today we have a range of global civil-society actors. These include international membership organizations, such as Amnes-ty International and Greenpeace, but also autonomous international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. Civil-society networks have arisen around specific areas of concern, such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jubilee 2000, which campaigns for the cancellation of Third World debt. Numerous antinuclear civic action groups exercise an enormous influence over proliferation and security issues.

It is striking, however, that despite significant cultural, social, economic and political differences, there is a growing amount of common ground. This includes, for example, seeking to establish a code of ethics for the nonprofit community within a country, sharing concerns about growing inequality in the world and about the environment. An important feature of this trend is the way NGOs and other civil-society groups have been able to push their agendas through important UN conferences. In all the major UN conferences during the nineties civil-society participation has been visible, if not vibrant, persuasive and effective. Kicking off this trend at a high-profile level was the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Some 2,400 NGO delegates attended the substantive part of the conference alongside government leaders, as well as an NGO forum with about 17,000 participants. This was followed by the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen and the Beijing Women’s Conference, both in 1995, and others. While the United States has not aggressively tried to block civil-society participation in these conferences and in fact promoted participation in some, it has often undercut the process by failing to ratify the outcomes of such conferences formally.

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.

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.

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