Can civil society take its place at the global table?

Lisa Jordan

Today global decision-making is more far-reaching than ever before. Because so many crucial areas of life are affected, all sectors naturally want to be part of this decision-making – including civil society. This issue of Alliance addresses the question of how civil society engages in the global political arena. This article starts by looking at why civil society should be engaged, why this engagement is controversial, what form engagement has actually taken, and how effective it has been so far.

Since the founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions, most nation-states have been engaged in collective negotiation to resolve global problems and create a global market. These negotiations require the ceding of sovereignty. Today, the issues under global negotiation include the deployment of peace keepers, judicial procedures for war criminals, protection of the seas and air, accounting standards, food safety standards and internet policy. There is hardly a field that is not at least touched upon by global decision-making.

At the national level, different countries have different political systems for negotiation when the inevitable trade-offs between competing goals have to be made. In an increasing number of countries, these issues are negotiated through a democratic system that includes state forces, political parties, civil society and the private sector. At the global level, no one system of negotiation prevails. The ground rules have to be negotiated for each institution and each new contested issue.

Who is involved in global policymaking?

At the global level, where the rules of political engagement are not set, each sector of society that has a stake in the outcomes has tried to gain representation. The nation-state has the most authority in the global political arena as most institutions have been created by and for nation-states. However, the private sector is often at the table, either by invitation of nation-states or through the power of its considerable financial resources. Political parties, on the other hand, are almost completely absent from the global political arena.

And that leaves civil society. Some civil society organizations (CSOs) are present in the global political arena – religious organizations, thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a handful of social movements such as the Campaign to Ban Land Mines or Jubilee 2000. However, the presence of civil society is still very thin, its powers are limited to persuasion, and its presence is heavily contested.

The lack of agreed standards for civil society participation is a further complication. Every time the WTO, the World Bank or a UN Summit begins to negotiate a policy or statement, the wheel of civic participation has to be reinvented. Though the UN has a vast array of expertise in this area, the lessons do not extend to new issues and arenas. Today, civic actors interested in information technology are starting from scratch to negotiate with the UN agencies and member governments on civic engagement in the World Summit on the Information Society. Actors from all sectors have entered this fresh negotiation space with suspicion and hostility towards one another.

Why does civil society need to be engaged?

There are at least five good reasons for civil society to be engaged in global governance.

Conferring legitimacy on policy decisions

First, civil society can confer legitimacy on policy decisions made in the global political arena. While governments have authority, they do not necessarily have legitimacy. This point has been recognized since the beginning of multilateralism. From the 1920s the International Chamber of Commerce was heavily engaged in trade negotiations, in the League of Nations and even in the failed International Trade Tribunal. The UN was established with a whole host of NGOs mobilized to explain the need for the UN back home. National governments have long recognized the need for the public to ‘own’ the outcomes of political deliberations. This is no less true at the global level. International negotiators need political support both to quell nationalistic tendencies and to generate consent for the outcomes.

Increasing the pool of policy ideas
Second, civil society engagement increases the pool of competing policy ideas. Competition is not always a positive force, but in searching for a best possible outcome for the broadest range of people, it is enormously helpful. Many of our current global problems are highly complex. Climate change, for example, requires an understanding of biological forces that is not the first specialty of most government negotiators. In recognition of this, global climate change negotiators established the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, a committee of scientists to provide evidence and options. CSOs often make it their business to analyse the impact of policy options on the constituency that they are most closely involved with. Third World Network, for example, looks at the impact of trade negotiations on a vast range of development issues and proposes the least harmful of these options to trade negotiators.

Supporting less powerful governments
Third, all governments are not created equal. The dizzying array of negotiations that are now handled at the global level (17 simultaneous negotiations are under way under the auspices of the WTO alone) put smaller and poorer states at a disadvantage. Civil society can help to rectify these imbalances either by providing data and analysis to smaller states free of charge or by acting as their eyes and ears in the expensive cities in which most of these negotiations take place (Geneva, New York, Washington DC). Many smaller states have developed symbiotic relationships with NGOs based in these cities, such as the South Centre, which works on trade, environment and a host of other issues.

Countering a lack of political will
Fourth, CSOs help government negotiators keep their eye on the prize, so to speak. The level of inertia in the global political arena is high, and public officials are often risk averse. CSOs can continually remind negotiators of the stakes. This happened with the Campaign to Ban Land Mines, where there was no political will to tackle the matter at a global level. Similarly, governments operating collectively were unable to find a reason to address the debt crisis faced by most developing countries until Jubilee 2000 mobilized hundreds of thousands around the world to remind them of a moral imperative.

Helping states put nationalism aside
Fifth, there is a difference between a nation’s interest and people’s interests, though states are often loath to acknowledge this. For example, cleaner air is in the best interest of all people but difficult to resolve through a national lens. CSOs can propose sensible global solutions without having to prioritize national borders. Civil society is often able to help states find a rationale for putting nationalism aside.

Why is civil society participation controversial?

Good reasons notwithstanding, civic participation is controversial. Why?

The representation question
The most commonly expressed reason for contesting civic engagement in the global political arena is the lack of representation. ‘Who do these NGOs represent?’ is a common refrain among government officials and bureaucrats that work for multilateral institutions. Governments often claim to represent their people and thus argue that there is no need for alternative sources of public representation. Multilateral officials claim to represent the collective interests of their government shareholders and thus cloak themselves in a ‘representative’ legitimacy. While some NGOs do represent vast numbers of members (like Consumers International[1]), others do not rest their legitimacy on representation at all, but on expertise, popular support (eg Amnesty International) or moral imperatives that transcend national borders (such as animal welfare).

These differing sources of legitimacy are rarely acknowledged by those who wish to limit civic engagement in global governance. Political systems the world over allow for bodies of experts to advise or otherwise participate in the political process, so it is not clear why the global political arena should be exceptional in recognizing only one form of legitimacy, especially when forms of representational democracy are increasingly questioned at the national level.

State prerogative
Some states still assume that the global political arena is an international political arena within which only states have the right to bargain. This has never been true but is a powerful myth that continues to serve nationalistic interests. As noted above, CSOs have played an important role throughout the history of the UN. The history of the Bretton Woods Institutions is similarly laced with civic participation, as is the history of global trade negotiations.[2]

Imbalances within global civil society

Unfortunately, the bodies that make up a burgeoning global civil society (20,000 networks and associations in the last 30 years[3]) and that most closely follow the development of global public policy are predominantly based in the global North. In part this imbalance occurs because of the high barriers to entry to the global arena. To be an actor requires very high levels of education and mobility, proficiency in English and ideally other languages, etc. The expectations that are born from varying political backgrounds are another important factor. Citizens of democratic countries believe that they have a right to participate in governance processes while others do not assume such a right. The lack of participation of vast populations is a weakness that will threaten the legitimacy of global civil society until it is rectified.

The elitist nature of global civil society

The above three areas of concern are most often articulated by governments. In my view, two other genuine reasons for questioning civic engagement in global governance are an elitism that seems to be pervasive throughout the entire global political arena and an unwillingness to address power and process within civil society coalitions.

In addition to the imbalance in global civil society between North and South, mentioned above, there is a lack of genuine grassroots participation in transnational networks, especially from the global South. Operating globally can encourage elitist attitudes and strain or sever ties to national and local politics. Grassroots leaders may lose their links to their original constituents. NGO representatives on the global conference circuit may have no local links in the first place. Weak ties to national and local organizations, and the specialized knowledge required in the global arena, can give some groups a feeling of privilege once they have gained a seat at the negotiating table.

The second problem is that networks rarely address their own internal power relations or reflect on the way they are organized. For example, when working in a network power manifests itself in who has access to information, who is well resourced, who is in close proximity to decision-makers, who has access to communication technologies, etc. One cannot assume that global civil society is entirely democratic. The roles it plays are premised on well-developed privileges of citizenship, as defined in a national political context. While civil society has been adamant in extending the rights of citizenship into the global political arena, it has been less forthcoming in defining the responsibilities that go with them. Extending democratic principles in global governance requires that all global actors acknowledge a balance between the rights and responsibilities to multiple stakeholders, including network partners, that are inherent to participation.

How is civil society actually engaged?

In spite of resistance from many quarters, civil society is actually engaged in policy formulation, through a variety of formal and informal approaches.

Campaigns and public protest
The greatest tool in the civic arsenal is persuasion. Civil society often uses public mobilization to persuade policymakers to address an issue. The PRSP story, for example, begins with global public mobilization on the issue of debt cancellation for developing countries. Through street demonstrations, global letter-writing campaigns, the engagement of world religions and some skilful lobbying, civil society created a space for a new public policy on sovereign debt. Similarly, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines proposed a new global treaty to eliminate land mines. Periodically, governments and intergovernmental organizations need to be reminded that there is a vast public interest in their deliberations. This role is often served through protest, in the absence of any mainstream process for collecting public views on global issues. Without protest, civic organizations are often not heard, regardless of the merits of their arguments.

Multi-stakeholder dialogues
Another method employed by civic organizations is to create conditions for and then participate in multi-stakeholder dialogues. These are a good way to operate outside official channels but nevertheless affect official willingness to develop global public policy. Civic actors create conditions for such a dialogue through a variety of advocacy tactics. One of the more celebrated such efforts was the creation of the World Commission on Dams, which included members of the affected public, industry officials and global financiers of dams like the World Bank. Multi-stakeholder dialogues can help develop good practice or show governments how it can be done, but they do not have the power to establish public policy. They fall into the persuasion category along with public protest.

Formal interaction with multilateral institutions

A third method of engagement is through formal interaction with the multilateral institutions where policies are devised. While the actual deliberations of the WTO and the World Bank are closed, both have advisory panels that include civic actors. It is through these panels that they determine which issues are of concern to civil society and test policy ideas. For example, the now defunct World Bank NGO Committee had a long-standing discussion on participation in development projects which helped the World Bank develop new participatory practices. Michael Moore of the WTO established an advisory panel with a handful of NGOs to help him. These efforts may be seen as controversial by those actors in civil society that are excluded from the process. Often, critics view the engagement as an attempt by the multilateral institution to look more transparent than it actually is.

It is very rare for civil society to have real power in policy formulation and negotiation, but it does happen. The Convention on Biological Diversity has a number of negotiating committees that include NGOs. Periodically, an NGO representative will be seconded to a multilateral agency to work through the nitty-gritty of a policy. The World Bank has a programme through which CSO representatives can actually work for the Bank for two years.

Convincing national governments
One of the most effective ways to be engaged in global public policy creation is to work through governments, which still have a central role in creating global public policy. Generally, if a public policy is to succeed, it ultimately needs government champions. Canada was the government champion for the land mine treaty and the UK is widely seen as one of the first to acknowledge that the debt burden was unrealistically high and thus start us down the road to the PRSPs.

Governments often lend NGOs some of their authority by placing them at the negotiating table, as happened in the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 when the US added NGOs to its delegation. However, this privilege is more often afforded to the private sector than to civil society. When the private sector is given privileged access to documents or other negotiating instruments, civil society has been known to sue in national courts for the same privilege. However, this does not always serve the cause well as it can often place the same national constraints faced by governments on the NGO.

Starting locally
While CSOs often focus on actual policy negotiation, many grassroots organizations start in the local space and try to influence the actual intervention of a multilateral organization. Shackdwellers International, for example, concentrates specifically on the interventions of global organizations in the housing markets in urban areas. They assume that policies will derive from practice, while others assume that practice will be governed by policy. Perhaps the most effective civic alliances occur when the two different types of organization operate in tandem.

How effective is this engagement?
The actual effects of civic policy interventions are sometimes relatively easy to measure. The debt campaign, for example, led to the dismissal of $34 billion of debt. The Campaign to Ban Land Mines led to a global protocol. Most CSOs engaged in policy dialogue can point to the successes and failures of their advocacy efforts. One question for CSOs is whether the policy outcome actually reflects their interventions. Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, might be understandably upset over the way strong national interest’s coloured acceptance of the Kyoto Protocol.

For the institutions engaged, success is often measured in the culmination of a policy and its relative acceptance among the public. Sadly, whether the policy actually resolves a problem is rarely used as a measure of success. The IMF, for example, continues to champion structural adjustment even though it has failed to stimulate growth or alleviate poverty. Recent actions by the WTO and government negotiators, however, suggest that they agree that the trade related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) agreement was a policy failure because it failed to take into account the public impact of drug pricing in poor countries, and incidentally, gave too much leeway to global bullies.

It is difficult to determine whether the various other actors engaged in global public policy formulation would argue for or against civic engagement in future. Regardless, the genie is out of the bottle. As global governance grows, so will global civil society and with it demands for transparent and accountable governance processes. My ultimate yardstick for measuring success would not be the policy outcomes achieved, but the ‘thickness’ of participatory and direct democracy mechanisms that actually take hold and begin to shape the process of global governance. Ultimately, my highest aspiration is to see democracy prevail in the global political arena.

The PRSP process

Many of the articles in this issue of Alliance focus on the PRSP (see box on p00). This is thus far the most prominent policy outcome of Jubilee 2000’s campaign to alleviate debt burdens in developing countries. While many radical economists have long argued that debt burdens keep developing countries poor, most national negotiators accepted that developing countries need access to capital and that access would be threatened by any attempt to alleviate debt burdens. The World Bank and IMF worried about their own bond ratings slipping should they agree to write off portions of the debt.[4]

Jubilee 2000 changed the terms of the debate. A North-South coalition, a strong religious following and some skilful lobbying prompted a change in political will among developed country governments and provided political space for development lobbyists to present proposals for change. While Jubilee is widely credited for creating this space, it was Oxfam, Bread for the World, ActionAid, Christian Aid and other specialist development organizations that are familiar with the international financial institutions and finance ministries that negotiated the terms of the PRSP and its application to heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC).

Today, most members of what was Jubilee 2000 believe that HIPC and PRSP are an inadequate solution to the debt crisis.[5] Jubilee members either focus on developing new mechanisms – like bankruptcy procedures – or continue to drum up public support for real debt relief through protest and public campaigning. The details of this story and the role of civic engagement in the creation of this global public policy follow.

Consumers International follows the impact global health and safety standards will have on consumers and proposes policy options that will benefit consumers most.
Devesh Kapur, John P Lewis and Richard Webb (eds) (1997) The World Bank: Its first half century Washington DC: Brookings Institutions Press. Steve Charnovitz, ‘Two Centuries of Participation: NGOs and international governance’ in Michigan Journal of International Law Vol 18, No 2, Winter1997, pp183-286.

See Michael Edwards and John Gaventa (eds) (2001) Global Citizen Action Lynne Rienner.
There was also a silly argument put forth in unbelievably solemn tones about the moral hazard of allowing poor countries to abdicate from their global responsibilities.
Jubilee members have since split into two groups which mirror choices in favour of a policy engagement insider strategy or an outsider strategy of focusing on the illegal nature of the debt.

Lisa Jordan is a Program Officer within the Civil Society and Governance unit at the Ford Foundation. She was previously Director of the Bank Information Center.

PRSP, CAS, HIPC – a few facts

Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) Became a requirement for debt relief under the HIPC Initiative in September 1999 and later spread to non-HIPC countries as well. In order to receive debt relief, eligible governments had to agree to adjust some economic policies and to develop PRSPs through a participatory process that involved all ‘development partners’, bilateral, multilateral and non-governmental.

Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC)
Initiative Launched by the World Bank and the IMF in September 1996 as a comprehensive approach to debt reduction for poor countries that requires the participation of all creditors. An enhanced HIPC package was launched three years later. In theory, it aims to ensure that no poor country faces a debt burden it cannot manage.

Country Assistance Strategy (CAS) The document outlining the Bank’s overall policies and programme in a given country. From July 2002, all CASs in IDA countries will be based on a PRSP.

International Development Association (IDA) Provides very low interest loans with extended repayment periods for the poorest countries. It is replenished every three years by donors.

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) Provides near market rate loans for countries that can access private sector financing.

For more on PRSPs and other definitions, see
For more on HIPC, see

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