Global civil society

The role of NGOs in supporting progress toward multi-party elections in authoritarian countries is well documented. Since the early 1990s, civil society organizations increasingly became global and challenged global policies of international institutions and led to the development of new accountability norms. They also offer (or state to) more legitimacy to global governance mechanisms by representing and being the voice of non-state and non-corporate actors. Many global institutions tend to associate with NGOs and the civil society at large to gain extra legitimacy and higher levels of public trust.[1]

For many scholars, the global civil society has not only the power to change the society, but also to influence the international relations system in many ways. First, it participates in international decision-making processes –most of the time as an observer. Here, it claims to represent the interests of some people and to influence world leaders. The global civil society aims to be the voice of groups and individuals during international negotiations on global issues, especially for marginalized people or minorities.[2] In this sense, it can provide more legitimacy to the international relations decisions making mechanisms by involving more stakeholders, being more open and making the mechanisms more transparent for the general public.

However, the question of their legitimacy should be raised: who and how do they represent? While these entities often argue that they speak and act on behalf of humanity for global issues, they remain unelected actors playing on the international stage, whether as service providers (implementing development programs in the field, providing technical knowledge or information), information providers (denouncing human rights violations or environmental damage), or lobbies for a particular public good (child rights protection, prohibition of the trade in endangered species).

Nevertheless, the global civil society represents a great variety of interests from civilians, and in this case its participation in international institutions is extremely valuable and allows balancing state’s interests and agendas. Many studies confirm the influence of civil society organizations on global politics, especially when it comes down to agenda setting and monitoring results of a policy implementation.[3] This is particularly true for their participation in the conferences of the United Nations.[4] Another way in which the global civil society has an impact on states’ decisions is with the production of specialized information about global issues such as the environment, refugees, etc.[5]

In addition to scientific expertise, grassroots organizations have gained a lot of field experience they share with states and inter-governmental organizations. Part of this experience was accumulated “working with local and international actors in analyzing understanding and responding to violent conflicts in constructive and creative ways”[6]. Some studies show successful examples of the influence of global civil society on developing states, especially in terms of monitoring human rights violations of states; or generating international pressure.[7] States and IOs became more conscious of the social and environmental aspects of their policies, programs and decisions due to the work of civil society.[8]

A successful example of the existence, action and influence of the global civil society is the “Save the Narmada Movement” in India. A dam project, co-funded by the World Bank in 1989, was aiming to build thirty large, 135 medium and 3000 small dams in Narmada Valley in Madhaya Pradesh and Maharashtra, flooding an estimated 120,000,000 hectares of land and displacing more than 300,000 people. In response to that threat, a group of indigenous people formed the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), which established links with many other Indian groups and international organizations.

Sixty thousand indigenous landless laborers and peasants gathered to protest against the construction of these dams. Local protests were coordinated with political pressure by international non-governmental organizations such as the environmental defense fund in Washington, Survival International in London, and Friends of the Earth in Tokyo. According to the World Bank official in charge of the project, the international networking was pivotal to the World Bank’s cancellation of the project.[9]

In addition, in many regions of the world where the state is inefficient, NGOs are leading programs providing basic services to populations such as food, health, or education.[10] They seem to be more flexible than government bureaucracies and therefore sometimes more efficient in delivering these services.[11]

Although often confined to the role of observers, the non-profit sector is given more and more attention, in particular since Agenda 21 urged states to take “any legislative measures necessary to enable the establishment by non-governmental organizations to protect the public interest through legal action[12]”. As Glasius states, “global civil society is diverse, creative and chaotic. That’s what makes it always interesting, often unpredictable, and sometimes very powerful.” [13] It is indeed playing a key role in the international agenda setting: by raising awareness about a specific issue among the general public, they try to influence governments’ actions and decisions. 

[1] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.13.

[2] Kaldor, Mary, Anheier, Helmut and Glasius, Marlies (2003) Op Cit, p.148.

[3] Florini, Ann (2000) The third force: the rise of transnational civil society. Washington, DC: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, p.211.

[4] Clark, Ann M., Friedman, Elisabeth J., Hochstetler, Kathryn (1998) The sovereign limits of global civil society: a comparison of NGO participation in UN world conferences on the environment, human rights, and women, World Politics, Vol.6, Issue 1, p.27.

[5] Nowrot, Karsten (1999) Legal Consequences of Globalization: The Status of Non-Governmental Organizations Under International Law, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol.6, p.320.

[6] Ohanyan, Anna (2008) NGOs, IGOs, and the Network Mechanisms of Post-Conflict Global Governance in microfinance. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, p.6.

[7] Keck, Margaret E., Sikkink, Kathryn (1998) Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press p.80.

[8] Rugendyke, Barbara (2007) NGOs as Advocates for Development in a Globalising World. London, UK: Routledge, p.124.

[9] Jamison, Andrew (2001) The Making of Green Knowledge: Environmental Politics and Cultural Transformation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p.111.

[10] Kaldor, Mary, Anheier, Helmut and Glasius, Marlies (2003) Op Cit, p.148.

[11] Kaldor, Mary, Moore, Henrietta, Selchow, Sabine (2012) Op Cit, p.211.

[12] United Nations Environment Programme (1992) Agenda 21. New York, NY: United Nations. Retrieved 20 January 2013 from

[13] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.107.