Is there a global civil society ?


Although the term “Global Civil Society” has been used abundantly in recent years to describe the emergence of non-governmental actors on the international scene, it is not a well-defined concept.  There is not a universally accepted definition of what constitutes global civil society.

  In the broadest sense, global civil society refers to networks of citizens and non-governmental, non-profit organizations (NGOs) and associations that combine efforts to engage in social, political, and economic reform on the local, national, and international levels with the intent advancing societal interests and the quality of life through non-violent practices.  These networks undertake diverse ambitions such as eradicating poverty, promoting democracy, resolving social conflict, preventing environmental degradation, and protecting human rights. 


Examples of…


Global Civil Society Actors: International Non Governmental Organizations (Greenpeace, Advocacy International, Human Rights Watch), Private Foundations (Open Society Institute, Ford Foundation), Private Voluntary Organizations (Medcines Sans Frontiers), corporate foundations (Gates Foundation), coalitions and committees (International Committee of the Red Cross), professional associations (Psychologists for Social Responsibility), local community-based organizations, individuals, etc.


Global Civil Society Roles: to influence public policy reform, to provide social services, to increase public awareness, to support marginalized populations, to promote civic values, to serve as a conduit between governmental organizations and the public, to cultivate diversity, to aid in grassroots development, to mobilize citizens, to monitor elections and human rights violations, etc.


The theory of global civil society and its impact is based on the capacity of its actors to network, disseminate information, and mobilize support locally and internationally.  With the continued development of information and communication technologies, global civil society actors are able to exchange information, form alliances, and respond to challenges at a greater rate than ever before.  This access has yielded a rapid expansion of global civil society activity, examples of which are as follows:


1) Growth of international coalitions

Increasingly, transnational coalitions are forming in order to advocate and campaign for a specific issue:

§         International Campaign to Ban Landmines: A coalition of NGOs and individuals campaigned for a treaty, which was realized in 1997, to ban the production, stockpiling and exportation of landmines

§         NGO Coalition for an International Criminal Court (ICC): A coalition of NGOs coordinated their efforts to build support for the establishment of the ICC


2) Cooperation between NGOs and International Governmental Organizations (IGOs)

NGOs are gaining more substantive involvement in the formulation and implementation of national and international public policy

- Throughout the 1990s, NGOs actively participated in UN conferences: the 1992 Global Forum and Earth Summit in Rio, the 1993 Human Rights Conference in Vienna, the 1994 Population Conference in Cairo, the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen

- Over 1,500 NGOs have been awarded “Consultative Status” with the UN Economic and Social Council

- UNDP, USAID, the World Bank, the Commission of the European Union are just a few IGOs who are establishing civil society development funds and awarding grants to local NGOs


3) Citizen action for economic and social change

In recent years, civil society actors – individuals and organized movements – have banned together to advocate for greater social inclusion and equality of opportunity and to fight local repression

- Protests at WTO, World Bank, and IMF meetings

- Movements against apartheid and dictatorial rule: the “velvet revolutions” in South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Montenegro, Georgia, etc.


A simplified summary: As evidenced above, global civil society comprises a variety of actors who utilize diverse methods to actualize their aims.  Local organizations participate on the global scene through programmatic collaboration with other NGOs, attendance at international conferences, advisory positions to IGOs, and partnerships with INGOs.  INGOs (including international foundations, private voluntary organizations, committees, etc) impact the local level through the development and implementation of direct in-country operating programs and through local grant giving programs.  Individuals maintain an equally important role in the exercise of the global civil society through their contributions to and participation in civic action campaigns.  The compilation of these intersecting activities engenders that which is referred to as a Global Civil Society.


The Weakness of Global Civil Society


1) Western Civil Society

Many critics of global civil society argue that in reality it is driven by organizations and polities from the West who strive to instill their conception of civil society and democracy in non-western societies.  Similarly, even in western societies it is argued that INGOs often do not take into account the actual needs of the local populations in which they work.


2) Representation

INGOs advocate for the disadvantaged, yet are often staffed by individuals from privileged backgrounds.  Likewise, when INGOs are staffed by members of local communities, yet are based in western metropolitan centers, these staff may become disconnected from their grassroots’ concerns. 


2) Technical limitations

Technological advancements are still limited in many parts of the world, and thus, can exclude the participation of citizens from these areas in global civil society. 


3) Legitimacy

(Global) Civil Society is often referred to as the “third sector” because it exists as an entity separate from the state and the market.  Even though it is its own domain, it still interacts with both the governmental and corporate sectors.  While governments can hinder civil society organizations that they perceive as challenging the state power, increasingly these organizations partner with the government in providing social services.  When the government becomes a source of financial support for an organization, critics believe that the legitimacy of these organizations is compromised.   These critics also argue that this is the case in collaborations with the civil society and the corporate sectors.




-         Batliwala, Srilatha, “Acting for Change: Trends and Challenges in Citizen Movements.” Prepared for the 4th CIVICUS World Assembly.  August 2001.

-         Callahan, David, “What is Global Civil Society.”

-         CIVICUS, Civil Society at the Millennium. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1999.

-         Keane, John.  Global Civil Society?  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

-         Laxer, Gordon and Sandra Halperin, Global Civil Society and Its Limits.  Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

-         London, Scott, “Global Civil Society.”








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