A new model for global civil society?

Michael Edwards

Despite the emergence of increasingly powerful transnational NGO networks and global social movements such as the landmines campaign and Jubilee 2000,[1] there is a more somber and critical mood within global civil society following the violent scenes at the G8 Summit in Genoa and September 11th’s terrorist attacks in the US.

Networks are reflecting on their strengths, weaknesses and future directions, and there are more questions from the outside too, particularly about legitimacy, structure, expertise and ‘disconnection’. Can movements such as Shack Dwellers International (SDI) and similar community-to-community exchanges provide answers to some of these questions?

The rise of SDI is well documented by Patel and colleagues.[2] Briefly, since 1990, slum and shack dwellers in Asia, South Africa and elsewhere have supported a gradually expanding programme of direct, community-to-community exchanges aimed at transforming the lives and livelihoods of urban citizens. This movement (since that is what it has become) has since grown to include more than 650,000 people in 11 countries. SDI has also sparked the emergence of similar exchanges between other communities, including home-based and street-based workers, and communities affected by multinational mining operations.

What makes these movements different from most other transnational citizen networks is that the locus of power and authority lies and is kept in the communities themselves, rather than in intermediary NGOs at the national and international levels. This is partly because SDI and its counterparts were not set up to influence global policy-making or to lobby the international financial institutions (though they are now playing an increasing role in both). Rather, they aimed to promote practical solidarity, mutual support, and the exchange of useful information about development strategies and concrete alternatives among their members. As Patel et al put it (p232), ‘The links within this movement lie not in formal constitutions or email circulars but in one group of visitors sharing their stories around a fire in someone’s shack.’ Despite the inbuilt limitations of this approach, SDI has grown to become an increasingly powerful player on the global stage.

Fall from grace: the problems of ‘global civil society’

As a result of the political openings of the last decade, NGOs and citizen networks like SDI feel that they have the right to participate in global decision-making. But much less attention has been paid to their obligations in pursuing this role responsibly, or to concrete ways in which these rights might be expressed in the emerging structures of global governance.

This has given the rising number of critics of the anti-globalization movement an opportunity to tell a now-familiar story about the weaknesses of global citizen action. These criticisms usually focus on four areas: legitimacy and representation (NGOs that claim to speak on behalf of others but lack any mechanisms for accountability to their constituents); structure (too many voices from the North and not enough from the South, or from the grassroots anywhere); expertise (are NGO positions tested and substantiated with any level of rigour?); and ‘disconnection’ (the tendency to ‘leapfrog’ over national debates and go direct to Washington or Geneva).

Addressing these issues requires a different way of building international alliances, with more emphasis on horizontal relationships among equals; stronger links between local, national and global action; and a more democratic way of deciding on strategy and messages. Jubilee 2000 provides some good examples of these innovations. In Uganda, for instance, local NGOs developed a dialogue with their own government on the options for debt relief, supported by technical assistance from Northern NGOs like Oxfam. The results of this dialogue were then incorporated into the international debt campaign. Barry Knight argues that these processes should similarly apply to intermediaries (‘In Search of the Ideal Intermediary’, pp21-22).

Learning from SDI

SDI and its counterparts offer another – and potentially even more important – set of innovations that go some way to answering the critics. They do not resolve the problems of global citizen action, nor would they claim to – these are movements that have arisen for specific purposes in specific contexts, for whom global policy advocacy has usually been a secondary consideration. Nevertheless, by evolving in ways that are substantially different from other transnational civil society networks organizationally and structurally, SDI does have many useful lessons to teach. Their experience shows that there are different ways to organize global citizen action that may be more effective in dealing with issues like accountability, legitimacy and structure.

In terms of legitimacy and accountability, SDI scores highly because, as a membership organization, it can develop formal and democratic internal accountability procedures. It is also significant that most of the leaders of the movement come from within the communities concerned.

In terms of the problems of ‘disconnection’, SDI is rooted much more solidly in real communities of shack and slum dwellers, who are just as concerned with problems and solutions at the local level as at higher levels in the system. The global activities of the movement are the ‘icing on the cake’ so to speak – layered on top of local and national campaigns instead of displacing attention to distant international institutions. Indeed, if this were not the case the movement would probably fall apart, since its members would be unlikely to receive any tangible benefits in the short term.

In terms of its structure, SDI is much more a movement of equals than most NGO networks, and a majority of its members come from Africa and Asia. This is the mirror image of many global campaigns, which are heavily dominated by Northern NGOs accustomed to the power relations of foreign aid. These power relations make it almost impossible for large non-governmental institutions to stand back, make space for grassroots voices, and allow the agenda to be driven from the bottom up.


As the world moves towards a more genuinely democratic system of global governance, huge and difficult questions remain. Many relate to how to make civic participation at the global level more genuinely inclusive and democratic, and their answers are as yet unclear. However, a century ago we could not have imagined the extent to which citizens across the world have since succeeded in their struggles for more complete and inclusive democracies in their localities and national polities. In the 21st century, the globalization of power demands a new form of global citizen action that extends the theory and practice of democracy still further. SDI and its counterparts in other communities are pioneers along this journey.

Michael Edwards is Director, Governance and Civil Society, at the Ford Foundation, and author of Future Positive. He can be contacted by email at M.Edwards@fordfound.org

1 M Edwards (1999) Future Positive: International cooperation in the 21st century London, Earthscan; M Edwards (2000) NGO Rights and Responsibilities: A new deal for global governance London, Foreign Policy Centre; M Edwards and J Gaventa (eds) (2001) Global Citizen Action London, Earthscan and Boulder, Lynne Rienner

2 S Patel, J Bolnick and D Mitlin (2001) ‘Squatting on the Global Highway: Community exchanges for urban transformation’, in Edwards and Gaventa (eds) (2001).

This article is an edited version of an article appearing in Environment and Urbanization, October 2001, vol 13, no 2.
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