Do we need a global infrastructure?

Srilatha Batliwala

Civil society ‘infrastructure’ organizations have assumed great importance at the national level in recent decades. Given the enormous growth of transnational CSOs, networks, movements and campaigns, the emergence of what many term a global civil society and the increasing global engagement by national CSOs, is a global infrastructure for civil society needed?

Do we need global organizations to provide similar infrastructural services to those provided at national level? To answer this question, we need to unpack the roles infrastructure organizations play at the national level and the context in which they emerged.

In the US, for instance, organizations such as Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofit Boards and the National Council of Nonprofit Associations play important roles in connecting non-profits, building their capacity, convening them to deliberate on common issues, informing the sector as a whole and society about the sector, and, most importantly, providing a common platform from which to confront challenges. Infrastructure groups such as SANGOCO in South Africa, ADAB in Bangladesh and CODE-NGO in the Philippines play similar roles in their countries.[1]

The national context

Creating coherence and visibility

The first and most important role that civil society infrastructure organizations play at national level is in creating coherence and visibility, particularly where civil society is relatively young, small or weak, eg in Central and Eastern Europe or Japan. It is also true where civil society is older and more multitudinous, but not well recognized by government or the general public, ie it exists but is virtually invisible as a social or political force, as in Pakistan.

A key strategy used by infrastructure organizations to create visibility is building databases of all citizen organizations and their missions, activities, location, size, etc. These help put civil society on the map and create information bases that can enhance its profile in the media and with governments.

Providing a voice

Visibility is the doorway to voice, infrastructure organizations’ second role: to enable civil society actors to speak not only on their own behalf but also on issues of common concern. This is particularly critical when CSOs face threats to their autonomy or rights – a reality in democratic and non-democratic regime contexts, and in developed and developing countries. In the US, for instance, infrastructure organizations have provided space for non-profits to mobilize against government restrictions on their advocacy rights, as have infrastructure networks in countries like Slovakia, when their governments proposed serious restrictions to NGO resource flows. Voice is also needed to advocate for more enabling regulatory and fiscal conditions for non-profits. Networks like VANI[2] have helped Indian NGOs propose better tax relief systems for donations to voluntary organizations.

The global context


Are these functions relevant at the global level? At first glance, visibility does not seem to be a major issue. Transnational networks, coalitions and movements have gained enormous visibility in the past decade thanks to a multitude of successful global campaigns and a series of norm-setting UN conferences in the 1990s. These brought together thousands of NGOs from around the world, who successfully influenced official intergovernmental deliberations and hence the shape of the various platform documents that emerged. So great was the visibility and impact of these groups, in fact, that there have been some not-so-subtle attempts to limit civil society access and participation in UN processes in recent years. Similarly, some transnational social movements – such as the protest rallies staged at WTO, IMF and World Bank meetings – have gained very high visibility thanks to extensive media coverage, embedding images in the public consciousness more deeply than a deliberate PR strategy could have done. Mobilizations and movements to ban landmines, stop displacement by large dam projects, and expose sea pollution by oil companies have achieved considerable visibility, quite apart from their impact.

Yet, for every scene of riot police blocking peaceful protestors in Seattle or Cancun, the late Princess Diana visiting landmine victims or Medha Patkar fasting to stop construction of the Saradar Sarovar dam in Inda,, there are thousands of other transnational networks, coalitions and movements known only to their own members or a small circle of people involved in a given issue or sector – Social Watch, WEDO, AWID, HomeNet, StreetNet, Shack/Slum Dwellers International or GROOTS[3]. Even civil society scholars and researchers may never have heard of them.[4]

More and more citizen associations are forming transnationally. Scholars like Khagram, Sikkink, Levitt and Dobkin-Hall argue that a new ‘globalism’ is catalysing such formations, facilitated by several factors: growing diasporas; the ease and speed of international communication and information sharing; and the impact of globalization, which has propelled people from different regions and contexts to make common cause. But there is considerable unevenness in the visibility of transnational formations. It is not yet possible, for instance, to find all transnational human rights networks listed in one place.


The situation with voice is not dissimilar. Despite efforts to keep global civil society advocacy and convening spaces (eg the World Social Forum) open and accessible, in reality some transnational CSOs are far more able to make themselves heard than others. More seriously, the success and impact of some transnational actors has created a strong backlash and efforts are under way to limit their participation in international policy processes. The backlash comes from governments and the private sector, especially those irked by the success of these ‘self-appointed’ watchdogs in exposing their negative practices. There are increasing calls for transnational CSOs to demonstrate who they represent and legitimize their right to a seat at the policy table. Even sympathetic analysts like Michael Edwards believe international NGOs should have a voice, not a vote, with their legitimacy grounded in far greater accountability.[5]

‘Bad’ transnational groups

Another force to contend with is the rise of so-called ‘bad’ transnational civil society formations based on exclusionary or fascist ideologies, which may adopt or advocate violent means to achieve their ends. They exploit the same technological and communications facilities that have enabled governments, multinational businesses and ‘good’ CSOs to operate globally relatively cheaply and with ease. Transnational terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, religious fundamentalist groups and criminal networks, for example, are organized much like transnational groups that promote peace, sustainable development and human rights. Diaspora funding chains – facilitated by the globalization of money transactions – have fostered the rise of reactionary, violent, fundamentalist associations in third world countries. Since these are neither government nor business organizations and often use national charity laws to gain legitimacy, they are very much a part of civil society. At present, we have neither data on the number of such groups nor clear ways of distinguishing them from those with progressive and peaceful goals.

Clearly, global-level infrastructure organizations and services for civil society would be very useful to:

· create databases of all transnational CSOs in order to enhance visibility and voice for a broader range of actors;

· distinguish peaceful, progressive groups from those with violent agendas;
· evolve performance and accountability standards to help diminish attacks on the legitimacy of CSOs to participate in global policymaking;

· connect donors and recipients more transparently and efficiently;

· help frame and advance important debates, and provide space for mobilizing coherent responses to the various challenges that ‘good’ civil society currently faces at transnational level;

· build the capacity of national and transnational CSOs to become more effective actors in global processes.

Existing efforts

Several of these functions are already performed by existing international organizations and initiatives. The Johns Hopkins’ Comparative Nonprofit Sector Research Study was the first, a decade ago, to begin mapping the contours of the non-profit sector in a large number of countries and to offer a set of common indicators by which to assess the sector’s economic and social contribution. This approach, however, is heavily economistic and does not capture the values or intersectoral relational dimensions of civil society. More recently, the London School of Economics’ Global Civil Society Almanac has offered data and analysis of transnational and global CSOs, networks and movements, but it is still far from a comprehensive picture.

CIVICUS is the only civil society membership organization that has worked for nearly a decade to advance and protect the interests of civil society per se, beyond specific sectors or issues, but its membership cannot be described as a critical mass or necessarily representative of the broader mass. CIVICUS has initiated its own multi-country measurement project – the Civil Society Index (see p42) – which attempts to provide a more dynamic, multi-dimensional, multi-stakeholder assessment of national civil societies. But comparability problems mean it will be a long time before the majority of the world’s nations are covered or the Index is accepted as a sound measurement methodology.

Biannual CIVICUS World Assemblies have helped play a convening role, actively framing and advancing critical debate on the role and challenges of civil society worldwide. The World Social Forum is an even more significant space where a very diverse range of civil society actors can interact and challenge the dominant economic development paradigms emerging from the World Economic Forum. But these forums, no matter how open, cannot formally claim to draw a representative cross-section of ‘good’ civil society, nor to speak for all sections of it.

ACCESS has recently been launched to create universal performance standards to help link social investment resources to innovative and effective social change programmes. It aims to develop accountability and transparency standards for non-profits, and find ways of generating meaningful but contextually sensitive measures of performance, through bottom-up global dialogue. But ACCESS faces formidable challenges: gaining purchase and legitimacy among local and national CSOs; arriving at standards validated by the majority, balancing local specificity and universal norms; and, above all, avoiding charges of being funder-driven or oriented.

The Hauser Center at Harvard University has recently launched, in partnership with a number of leading international NGOs and cross-border networks, an experimental collective learning and capacity-building process that seeks to improve the effectiveness of their global advocacy work, create new strategies for tackling the legitimacy, accountability and transparency challenges facing them, and brainstorm on democratizing global governance systems.

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law provides considerable capacity-building and information resources for CSOs and governments interested in strengthening legal, fiscal and regulatory conditions for non-profits, and has created an extensive database of non-profit legislation and regulatory conditions around the world. It has even attempted to formulate guidelines or a framework for enabling non-profit law.

At another level, donor communities have created several transnational infrastructure-like initiatives, eg WINGS and the EFC.[6] Finally, many infrastructure-type organizations and networks exist to facilitate, link and strengthen global action by CSOs in specific fields and sectors, eg the environment, economic justice, human rights, and those monitoring implementation of UN agreements. But none of these initiatives, worthy as they are, provide a comprehensive global infrastructure for civil society needs assessment and capacity-building.

What’s still needed?

It is evident, therefore, that what we currently have are bits and pieces of infrastructure that have evolved in various ways, but not a picture of what the whole should be. Existing initiatives are performing useful, even necessary, tasks – building databases and capacity, linking and informing groups, moving towards universal standards – but they have not emerged from a clear, comprehensive vision. So the real challenge in answering our key question – is a global civil society infrastructure needed? – is to figure out an appropriate, feasible process by which to find the answer.

We need a global, multi-stakeholder process – even if modest in scale and participation – to grapple with the goals, role, location and governance of global infrastructure facilities and services. What kind of services do we need? At what levels and in what forms should they be established? How should they be managed and governed? Should existing nodes of infrastructure activity be built upon, modified, expanded? Or should they be dismantled and a new range of activities created? Will over-centralization or concentration of these activities within a few existing locations or organizations be a net good? If we think they are needed, how do we ensure that global infrastructure activities and standards are created in a bottom-up, democratic and contextually sensitive way? How can we avoid the hegemony of Western/Northern standards and models? Most of all, how can we create structures that will be accessible, representative and accountable?

While we do not have ready answers for these critical questions, I believe they are the ones that must now be debated by CSOs around the world. Such debate will help ensure that both existing and future infrastructure organizations and services reflect and respond to the real needs and aspirations of the sector at large.

1 South African National NGO Coalition, Association of Development Agencies
in Bangladesh, and Caucus of Development NGO Networks.

2 Voluntary Action Network India.

3 Women’s Environment & Development Organization, Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood.

4 I know this because I study these groups and am usually required to explain to both professional and lay audiences who they are and what they do.

5 The previous issue of Alliance (Vol 8, No 4) dealt with several aspects of NGO governance and accountability.

6 Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support and the European Foundation Centre.

Srilatha Batliwala is an Indian feminist activist and researcher. She is currently Civil Society Research Fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. She can be contacted at

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