All the Roles of Civil Society (Supranational Democracy Applied)

It is a little-acknowledged truth that civil society plays today a significant role in several important international organizations.

While the legitimacy of international organizations (IOs) is still based on the conferral of competences and participation by member states, their accountability is somehow  enhanced by an increasing dialogue with civil society and every year new inclusive processes are launched to involve in consultations NGOs and other non-statual actors.

Of course, not all the IOs are evolving in this direction and among the evolving ones the pace may differ, but when this happens in big organizations as the UN, the UNDP, the World Bank – and on big issues such as climate change or post 2015 development agenda – the phenomenon deserves a serious analysis.

What exactly is happening in these important  organizations? What role does civil society play? Is it up to the task?

Let’s take a closer look.

The roles that civil society can play are various. The first and typical one is a role of watchdog: they observe, evaluate and – if necessary – raise public concern about any misconduct or abuse of power. In this role, many NGOs have significantly contributed to transparency, giving voice to a need of information which is the first step in order to watch and evaluate. Several IOs have accepted the challenge of opening up, a progress which has to be credited to the efforts of civil society. In this role NGOs enhance accountability.

A more sophisticate – formal or informal- role is the one of advisors. The choices of international organizations may be legitimate ones, may even be inspired by the best intentions. Still, often, other solutions are possible, with better outcomes or a more desirable social impact. The mere fact that a solution doesn’t come from a top- down approach but  stems from a dialectical process makes it more politically acceptable. Of course, proposals and suggestions from NGOs don’t find an easy way through the complex machinery of the IOs decisional process. Often, they are nothing more than messages in a bottle, but still…

The more civil society is able to participate in decisions, the more it strengthens the democratic legitimacy of an organization, adding elements of supranationality to their decision making process.

A third role of civil society is giving voice to “those who are not in the room”: minorities, people living in extreme poverty or impaired by a lack of literacy. In this role, civil society may tell unconfortable truths and raise awareness, it is maybe the most precious role of all, serving social inclusion.

Now, the second question  naturally arises: are non-governamental organizations up to the task?

Are, themselves, legitimate, accountable, inclusive?

It is impossible to give universal or definitive answers: every NGO is an organization of its own kind. Possible answers come from the transparency of their inner decisional process, their budget (especially their financing), their tools and ways of acting. Decisional and budget autonomy is the dividing line between real and fake NGOs (the so-called GONGOs, serving the interests of some undemocratic government).

Moreover, civil society cannot, in any way, be considered as a spokesman or as an interpreter of a global population or, more precisely a global “demos”, whose very existence is extremely controversial in doctrine. NGOs represent just their members, citizens engaged and active on the global stage. We can only wish that their number will increase over time.

Let’s give some examples of this increasing role of civil society:

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) interacting with the UN Economic and Social Committee grew exponentially in the last decade both in number and participation: in 1946 member NGOs were 41; in 1992 more than 700, in 2011 more than 3400. Specific websites have been set to interact with civil society and collect their opinions on several topics.

Specific polls and meetings are dedicate to interact on important issues, such as the post-2015 sustainable development goals.

During the  IMF/World bank annual and spring meetings, a civil society policy forum gives to NGOs the opportunity to interact among them and a specific meeting – the Town hall meeting – allows them to engage directly with the president of the Bank and the managing director of the IMF. Other, more restricted, consultations and meetings happen during the year and they have contributed significantly to increase transparency in the two organizations (especially in the Bank). Moreover, development projects on the grounds may involve local civil society.

The UNDP Civil Society Advisory Committee was created in 2000 as a formal mechanism for dialogue between civil society representatives and UNDP’s senior management on key issues of policy and strategy. UNDP regularly invites civil society representatives to engage on current development issues as they are key actors in development and participatory governance.

Although these processes should not be overestimated, they cannot be dismissed as “democratic embellishments”, because they are in fact enabling the emergence of supranational polities.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the NGOs’ side, we can only welcome the increasing awareness of citizens engaged in global processes.

A good example is provided by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that trains and supports local teams of citizen volunteers to become policy advisors to their own elected legislators. The organizations is active in many countries and in all the 5 continents, it is actually building an open network aimed at monitoring and enhancing the work of governments to achieve decarbonization, so to have a say in the next United Nations Frame Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015.

The campaign name is “Pathway to Paris“. It is an interesting lab of participatory democracy and I suggest you keep an eye on it.

One comment

  1. lawandphilosophy.co.uk · May 5, 2015

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Some thoughtful questions from Professor Susanna Cafaro. Questions directed at the intersections between international organisations and civil societies. These are important questions, that, concern democratic participation and social oversight. The questions are certainly worth asking, as they have grown in number, as well as in terms of the complexity of content. Important to recognise that the answers to these questions may not be as straightforward as we’d like. A short quote from Susanna’s blog post: “The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) interacting with the UN Economic and Social Committee grew exponentially in the last decade both in number and participation: in 1946 member NGOs were 41; in 1992 more than 700, in 2011 more than 3400. Specific websites have been set to interact with civil society and collect their opinions on several topics.”

    Like

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