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Spring 2004

Is Global Civil Society a Good Thing?

Ann Florini is senior fellow of the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution.

Washington—Tanks in the streets of Seattle in 1999. Molotov cocktails in Prague in 2000. Gunfire in Genoa in 2001. A hundred thousand people gathering every winter in a World Social Forum to talk about how to improve the world. Global agreements on everything from human rights protections to banning weapons systems. Fifteen million people on the streets in cities around the world on a single day in 2003 to protest the Iraq war. These headlines reflect the rise of a force now so potent in world affairs that the New York Times has referred to it as “the second superpower.” It is the power of civil society, that ill-defined, amorphous realm of human associations that are not family or government or profit-seeking business.

But does the rising power of civil society augur good or ill? Is the world to be rendered just and prosperous by hordes of concerned citizens banding together to demand, and create, a better world? Or will the fragile progress toward democracy around the globe be undermined by unelected, unaccountable extremists? Few in democratic societies dispute the right of citizens to come together in peaceful associations to pursue common purposes. But governments, corporate leaders, and pundits are raising alarms about just how well organized and powerful some parts of civil society are becoming.

They particularly fear the formalized part of civil society: non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are legally recognized entities able to do such things as hire staff and open bank accounts. It is the NGOs that organize the massive street protests seen around most meetings of world leaders. NGOs led the global campaign that resulted in a widespread ban on landmines, over the objections of such major powers as the United States. NGOs lead campaigns targeting corporations they accuse of harming the environment or mistreating workers, campaigns that sometimes cause share prices to plunge.

The influence of NGOs is hardly new in world affairs. NGOs drove the international anti-slavery campaign starting more than two centuries ago and since then have weighed in on every major question of their day, from war and peace to environmental degradation to the rights of indigenous peoples. But two things have changed of late. The sheer number of NGOs is skyrocketing in most parts of the world. And those NGOs are becoming ever more effective at linking up across borders to pursue transnational agendas.

As they become more powerful, their role faces increasing scrutiny. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has assembled a high-level panel led by former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso to conduct a sweeping assessment of interactions between the UN and civil society organizations. Within the US, long a proponent of citizen activism in other countries, an anti-NGO backlash has emerged. A Washington think tank has launched an NGO-monitoring project that describes the activities of such groups as Amnesty International and Greenpeace as a threat to democracy. The US Agency for International Development, which gives much of its funding for development and relief projects to NGOs, told several such recipients that they were not allowed to speak to the media. Others were threatened with loss of funding if they were unwilling to conform to Bush administration foreign and domestic policy.

Some of this backlash just represents the efforts of the powerful to squash rivals and critics. Some reflects legitimate concerns about the terms on which various groups get to influence the rules that run the world. But in either case, the fight is likely to intensify because this greatly enhanced power of NGOs is here to stay.

In part, this is because globalization has created new battlegrounds over what rules (on everything from trade to Internet regulation to protecting endangered species) will govern the world. As governments get together to come up with those rules, NGOs flock to the meetings, determined to ensure that their views are heard. The series of UN conferences that began in the 1970s were meant primarily to draw governments together to consider how to deal with global issues. But as it turned out, the most important role of the conferences was to provide a focal point around which global civil society could coalesce. Non-governmental groups appeared in force at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, with accredited NGOs outnumbering governmental delegations two to one. Over the next 25 years, the UN hosted more than a dozen enormous conferences on everything from food to population to the role of women. Each stimulated a flurry of networking among the non-governmental groups working on the issues.

And information technology has linked those groups together into powerful networks of the socially concerned. Activist groups have always relied on information technologies to get their messages out and mobilize citizens. The Western social movements of the 1960s were transformed by television. A few mentions on the evening news could do much of what previously required massive organizing. This had been somewhat true in the age of print, but visuals proved much more compelling. The effects were national because television at that time was a national medium. But the Internet and e-mail are free of such geographical constraints, enabling networks to incorporate a vastly greater range of people than ever before possible. The massive protests against the Iraq war were pulled together in weeks, coordinated via e-mail list serves and Web sites.

In addition, thanks to higher levels of education and material standards of living, more and more people from all parts of the world have entered the middle class, with the skills and leisure time to participate in civil society. And once they start, they tend to keep going. Movements and coalitions often recruit their members from existing organizations that serve a different purpose. Churches were the springboard of both the early American women’s movement and the more recent civil rights movement. But we seem to be reaching a self-sustaining cascade, as so many people are involved in some form of civil society organization in so many parts of the world that vast numbers are available for recruitment.

As democratic ideals spread, governments are finding themselves under pressure to allow citizens to form NGOs. The US used to be unusual in making it fairly easy for organizations to establish themselves. But after the Cold War ended, central and eastern European countries found themselves overwhelmed with Western funds to support the creation of NGOs, along with strongly worded advice about the necessity of allowing citizens to organize themselves. Even Asia, where many governments strictly regulate which organizations can be legally registered or allowed to exist at all, is seeing change. In 1998, Japan abolished onerous regulations that had, among other things, required would-be NGOs to have 300 million yen (about $3 million) in “basic capital” permanently in the bank.

Most NGOs have nowhere near $3 million. But some have considerably more, and all have to raise funds from somewhere. That money general comes from three sources: governments (which are the largest contributors, especially to non-profit service providers like hospitals, educational institutions and various charities), voluntary contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations, and fees charged for services rendered. And there may soon be a lot more money available. In the world’s rich countries, the next 50 years will witness a huge transfer of wealth from one generation to the next, totaling well over $10 trillion for the US alone. Since bequests often provide a means for channeling large amounts of money from private hands to NGOs, a fair chunk of this money may go to support civil society. The examples of Bill Gates, George Soros and Ted Turner, whose donations are in the hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars, may spur other members of the world’s growing group of extremely wealthy individuals to follow suit.

In short, it seems likely that the explosion of NGO activism around the world is still in its infancy. Globalization will continue to create targets of opportunity. More and more people will be able and willing to participate. Information technology will continue to lower the costs of staying connected to distant regions. Money, while not plentiful, will be available. And governments will accommodate the growing pressures for civil society participation by providing the legal conditions under which these groups can exist, and perhaps even flourish.

So is this a good thing? The world of NGO-watchers resounds these days with criticisms about the lack of accountability of the self-appointed do-gooders inhabiting the NGO community. These unelected guardians of the global public good, the critics say, claim to speak for the world but in fact speak only for themselves. The so-called “anti-globalization” movement comes in for the harshest criticism, dismissed as ill-informed Northern do-gooders or wild-eyed anti-capitalist anarchists, who either don’t know or don’t care that their campaigns against global economic integration will hurt the very poor they claim to want to help.

For the most part, this is a bum rap. Few oppose global integration per se. Instead, they are “globalization’s critics”—people who object to specific consequences of certain global rules, or to the political processes by which globalization is being governed, or both. It is a broad, loose-knit collection of NGOs, labor unions, church groups and other associations from both rich and poor countries—so broad that many of its participants, rejecting the “anti-globalization” label but unable to come up with an accurate replacement, simply call it “the movement.”

The movement arose because many of the activists whose primary concerns are local and national have come to believe that the roots of their problems lie at the global level. Those concerned with national environmental protection or labor rights must pay attention to global trade rules that affect domestic regulations. Those concerned with national economic development can hardly ignore the implications of International Monetary Fund conditionality or financial volatility. Yes, there are plenty of participants more interested in street theater than in serious substance, but many of the groups are well-informed and deeply concerned with the substance of global issues. And the violent fringe is just that, a tiny minority widely resented by the much larger number of peaceful protestors.

Although the attacks on globalization’s critics are often unfair, there are real and important questions about the newfound global power of NGOs. NGOs are powerful to the degree they can persuade others (government officials, corporate leaders, voters, consumers) to act. They are primarily conveyers of information and opinions. But not all are motivated by the pursuit of truth, justice and equity. Some are little more than front groups for various concealed interests. There’s a whole lexicon of pejorative terms for such groups: GONGOs (governmental NGOs), BONGOs (business NGOs), QUANGOs (quasi-NGOs) and, my personal favorite, MANGOs (Mafia-front NGOs). A good case can be made for a new term: TANGOs, describing the “charitable” groups that channel money to terrorists.

But the existence of bad groups does not mean that NGOs as a whole should be restricted. The good ones, who far outnumber the bad, do a great deal of good for the world. Without NGOs, there would be little pressure to stop governments from torturing citizens, devastating the environment, or caving in to corporate pressures to design the rules of globalization to favor corporate interests. Without NGOs, many of the pressing issues now on the global agenda, from human rights to the inequities of global trade rules to ozone depletion, would never have received much attention.

The way to deal with NGOs isn’t to attack them all as somehow illegitimate. Instead, NGOs should be required to demonstrate the same transparency they regularly demand of governments and corporations. Good NGOs are already recognizing that their growing role carries with it new responsibilities for public accountability. Through such initiatives as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (http://www.hapinternational.org/en/), the British-based organization Account Ability (http://www.accountability.org.uk/) and the Global Reporting Initiative (http://www.globalreporting.org/), NGOs are trying to come up with ways to hold themselves to the same standards they are demanding of others. That is a huge first step, but it needs to go much farther. Those who have designated themselves the guardians of a global public interest must now make it much easier for others to watch them. The public whose interests they adamantly claim to defend has the right to see what they are up to in the public’s name.