‘Virtual vertical’ – the Internet and higher order civic organizing

Alan Fowler

Life operates at many levels of association and action – from local to global. However, an abiding problem for multiple tiers of organizing is how to finance them. Compared to government and business, civil society has always been at a disadvantage in organizing vertically – until the Internet arrived.

Governments solve the problem of financing organizational tiers by using the power of taxation. Taxation can occur corresponding to the tier – town, region, province, state, nation, etc – or be collected nationally and then passed back down. Businesses typically finance tiers by extracting profits from lower-level transactions with clients, accumulating and re-allocating them according to the structure they have chosen.

When it comes to multi-tiered civic organizing, finance from remittances from lower to higher levels are notoriously limited and unreliable: there is no power to tax, nor profits to distribute. However, ‘vertical’ tiers of civic organizing can now occur more easily because financial transactions between levels are not necessarily needed. Higher levels can derive their tasks, position and mandates from lower levels that ‘network’ through the Internet but mobilize their resources in a more ‘horizontal’ way from grants or other means. The overall construction is ‘virtual’ in the sense that it need not be a legally formed arrangement, but one that simply follows rules and divisions of labour agreed between separate – and often diverse – civic organizations. Moreover, such multi-level virtual set-ups – increasingly found in international advocacy work – need not be permanent: they dissolve when their task is complete.

We need to be on the look out for and learn from the innovative and dynamic ways in which the Internet is enabling ‘virtual vertical’ civic organizations to appear on the institutional landscape and track the impact they are having.

Dr Alan Fowler is a development consultant, analyst and writer resident in South Africa.  He can be contacted by email at AlanFowler@compuserve.com

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