The political role of civil society

Increasingly, problems debated and discussed in the public sphere are transnational by nature: climate change, humanitarian intervention for instance. The participation of civil society has evolved with the emergence of these new challenges. The political role of the global civil society has evolved over time as describes Kaldor[1]: (1) old social movements pre 1970s, (2) social movement 1970s and 1980s, (3) NGOs, think-tanks, late 1980s and 1990s (4) transnational civic networks late 1980s and 1990s, (5) new nationalist and fundamentalist movements 1990s, (6) new anti-capitalist movement late 1990s and 2000s.

Early social movements (before 1970s) dealt with issues such as redistribution of wealth, employment and welfare, self-determination and anti-colonialism. They took place in a world mostly dominated with one type of international actor: states. Cold war and the end of colonialism post World War 2 triggered many old social movements.

They were composed of workers and intellectuals with a strict vertical hierarchy. Their main forms of action were street demonstration, strike and lobbying. Theirs funds were stemming from their members, and their objective was to capture state power in relation to the issue they fought for.

New social movements from 1970s and 1980s dealt with questions of human rights, peace, women, environment, and third world solidarity. They come from 1968 student revolutions with new cosmopolitan values of peace and world collaboration. These movements incarnate a new vision of the world and a first mass consideration of global issues that need to be taken care of at the global level.

They were composed of students, new information class, and caring professions with a loose and horizontal hierarchy. Their favorite form of action was either direct action such as demonstration, mass events like concerts, and the use of media. Funding came from members and supporters, but also cultural events. Their relation to power was not to capture state power, but rather change the society and the world according to cosmopolitan values.

The growth and expansion of global civil society as a phenomenon in the 1990s seemed closely associated with a major shift in cultural and social values that took hold in most developed market economies in the 1970s. This shift saw a change in emphasis from material security to concerns about democracy, participation and meaning (…).[2]

In the late 1980s and 1990s, NGOs, think-tanks, and scientific and professional commissions represented the actors of the global civil society. As stated previously, 1990s is the decade that saw an unprecedented increase in the number of NGOs in the world that slowed down afterwards thanks to “ (…) political opportunities in a broadened political space, institutional weakness of the state and transnational regimes, and easier and less costly communication.”[3]

From the period of time onwards, civil society became more and more professionalized and included professionals and experts who worked on human rights, development and poverty reduction, humanitarianism, and conflicts resolution. Their organizational mode ranged from bureaucratic and corporate to small-scale and informal depending on the size of the organization. Their action was also professional through service provision, advocacy, expert knowledge, and use of media. Funding came from governments, international institutions, and private foundations. Their relation to power was not to capture state power but rather to influence civil society, states and international institutions.

The 1990s also saw an increase in new nationalist and fundamentalist movements. These movements were composed of workers, small entrepreneurs, farmers, and informal sector. They often benefited from a charismatic leadership with vertical and horizontal leadership. Funding came from diaspora, and criminal activities. Their objective was to capture state power and to achieve this objective they made great use of media, mass rallies, and violence.

The late 1990s and 2000s saw the emergence of new alterglobalist movements as discussed previously. They aim at defending victims of globalization, and abolition or reform of global institutions. They are composed of students, workers, and peasants. They include networks of NGOs, social movements, and grass roots groups such as the World Social Forum.

They organize street protests, parallel events, use of media, and mobilize through the use of new ICTs as shown further with the Arab Spring or the WSF. Funding came from individual supporters, churches, and private foundations. They confront with states, international institutions, and transnational corporations to achieve their objectives.

New ICTs and the global civil society developed exponentially and in parallel. They are an expression of the values that first emerged in the 1970s such as nature conservation, human rights, peace, religious and sexual orientation tolerance, or democracy. Some of these values are similar to Internet values such as transparency and cooperation, which explains why the Internet and INGOs developed at a similar time. These values first irrupted as protests against the war in Vietnam and grew from the 1970s onwards.

The Internet and emails increasingly became valuable tools for the global civil society to organize and communicate through emails, online networks, website and social media. These tools are important for all actors of global civil society. Websites are as important for Diaspora groups as for INGOs.[4] All scholars talking about social movements agree on the importance of the different forms of communications. In earlier times indeed, the invention of the printing press participated in the emergence of modern forms of protests.[5]

However, and as stated previously, cyberspace is not a free and open space: its access depends on private companies, the neutrality principle is about to disappear, states scrutinize more and more users and content. Data exchange on new ICTs is stored, manipulated, and controlled by a small group of private transnational companies and some states. The privatization of communications reduces the possibilities of debate and negotiated consensus in the public sphere, and therefore might increase conflicts between various parts of society and among civil society.[6]

Modern forms of protests are cosmopolitan, modular, and autonomous. They are cosmopolitan, for people become aware of a wider community and not only people they know. They are modular, for people can learn from others and understand their demands through new forms of communication. Finally they are autonomous since any individual can sign a petition or write a message on a blog, a forum or a Facebook page.[7]

Nevertheless, the growth of INGOs didn’t lead to the emergence of a new international relations system where civil society is formally integrated in the decision-making processes as a recognized international actor. The generalization of new ICTs didn’t lead to the creation of new online governance mechanisms at a global level. The international relations system remained state-centered. Civil society organizations are kept in a role of observer in the vast majority of global environmental agreements. This fact can probably explain part of the stagnating number of INGOs since early 2000s.

If the number of INGOs has not evolved much since early 2000, their distribution over the planet also remains the same as in the 1990s: INGOs are predominantly from developed countries. Therefore it could be argued that they promote western values and a westernized vision of nature conservation. Only one geographical area sees a growth and changes in terms of INGOs in the last ten years: Africa. This continent sees the biggest increase in the number of INGOs, although not proportional to their population growth.[8]

Although the international relations system remains state-centered, and the number of INGOs is stagnating everywhere except in Africa, Internet values of transparency and cooperation are expanding.[9] In parallel to the adoption of new ICTs throughout the world, a new trend has emerged with the latest generation of biodiversity agreements. For instance, the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) focuses on communication and information sharing about biodiversity.[10] Similarly, networks of individuals (citizens, scientists, academics) are booming:

Looking at NGOs first, the trend towards NGO form changes that we first observed in 2002 has continued. The number of NGOs that are not conventional membership organizations or corporate NGOs increased (…). This category includes a very broad spectrum: from foundations to information networks and from diaspora organizations to hybrids such as ‘informal quasi-organizations’. [11]

These informal quasi-organization offer new models of governance while taking into account the reality of the international relations scene: state-centered system, observer status of conventional NGOs, high costs to take part in and influence formal global decision-making processes. These new forms of NGOs are solely possible thanks to the use of new ICTs.


[1] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.81.

[2] Kaldor, Mary (2012) Op Cit, p.22.

[3] Ibid, p.19.

[4] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit , p.105.

[5] Ibid, p.103.

[6] Edwards, Michael (2014) Op Cit , p.75.

[7] Kaldor, Mary (2004) Op Cit , p.103.

[8] Kaldor, Mary, Moore, Henrietta, Selchow, Sabine (2012) Op Cit , p.19

[9] The values of Internet are not considered as western values, but rather global values.

[10] IPBES (2014) About IPBES. Bonn, Germany: United Nations. Retrieved 14 August 2014 from

[11] Kaldor, Mary, Moore, Henrietta, Selchow, Sabine (2012) Op Cit, p.21.