Rank speculation and gross generalizations about the future of transnational civil society advocacy over the next twenty five years
I was recently asked to participate in a discussion on the question of transnational advocacy by nonstate actor networks - global civil society, international NGOs, etc. As part of that, I prepared a brainstorming memo offering my crystal ball predictions about where this was going over the next twenty five years. Well. I have read very carefully Richard Posner's book on public intellectuals and the dangers of being a futurologist. Nonetheless, I put all my qualms aside and let rip. I have excerpted, below. If all this turns out to be so much silliness, when someone acccidentally finds this blog post twenty years from now, doing intellectual archaeology through the dead, long gone worlds of the net, I accept no responsibility. (Photo is cover of John Keane's provocative 2003 book.)
Speculations on the future of transnational nonstate actor advocacy networks:
Advocacy as such. Where do advocacy networks come from? Advocacy networks are actually quite old, even though laboring under historical constraints of travel and communication. Anti-slavery societies, for example, have a long history in Europe and the United States, including networking across borders to share ideas, strategies, solidarity, etc. The social dissemination of Enlightenment ideals was advanced considerably through networks of Freemasons across borders. Advocacy organizations were active from the end of the Second World War – in the founding of the United Nations, for example, and many of the especially advocating organizations had their roots in international progressive causes, especially disarmament in the inter-war period – and many, of course, were international labor organizations or socialist solidarity groups. Nonetheless, at risk of a qualified generalization, advocacy was less important prior to the 1980s than afterwards – organizations that delivered social services either within or across borders, such as health, food, educational networks were more important than pure advocacy organizations. And much of the advocacy that went on took place as a function adjunct to the organization’s main “service” function – the advocacy depended on the credibility for experience, expertise, and competence that went along with delivering services.
This changed in the 1980s, beginning with the rise of human rights as a separate moral and ideological movement. Its moral claims did not depend on the delivery of services at all. It was about the oppressed, but not about the delivery of services by the advocacy organization. It was about the obligations and sins of governments, but not in any sense that required social service action by the organization itself.
The shift can be seen by comparing the traditional mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the rise of Human Rights Watch. The ICRC sees its mission as a single one of “protection,” but it includes in that mandate both legalistic human rights issues, such as access to prisoners in war, but also the obligation to relieve suffering of populations in war. That dual mandate has caused the organization many difficulties – its mission to relieve suffering has led it to a policy of not saying publicly what it sees in its monitoring activities for fear of loss of access to the needy populations, and was of course the cause behind the break-off of newer groups such as Medecin sans frontiers and others. But HRW came on the scene in the 1980s with solely a monitoring and advocacy mandate – it had no obligations to provide services. As a practical matter, it could be louder, could focus on creating informal alliances and networks with the media and friendly governments against unfriendly ones. HRW was freed from the constraints that bound the ICRC and able to focus directly on advocacy and the special public relations alliances that shape it. But what was its special claim to expertise and competence, which had typically provided the moral basis for why anyone should listen to NGOs in the past? Not services – but instead its expertise in human rights law itself, in neutrality in reporting, and objectivity in factual reporting. Its expertise was a certain morality itself, not any physical services to suffering or needy populations.
The rise of transnational advocacy was in part a function of the rise of ideologies that allowed pure advocacy. Human rights was one; environmentalism was another. But once it was accepted that transnational NGOs did not need to “do” anything other than advocate to have credibility and that their expertise was, so to speak, their mastery of their ideology, then the door was really thrown open to advocacy as such.
From NGO to global civil society. A second, far-reaching step in the evolution of transnational advocacy occurred in the 1990s, when transnational NGOs began to think of themselves – and established an entire identity around – as “global civil society.” The concept was that NGOs in an established domestic society are what we call “civil society” – entities that lie outside either the state or the private business sector. Some of them are political and advocacy; most are simply associations of people doing what they want. The importance of civil society in domestic democratic society has been analyzed – the innovation of global civil society was to claim that transnational NGOs were the “global civil society” of a globalizing world, in which revolutions in communications, transportation, and so on were creating a global society. Why did the label matter? It mattered especially for advocacy NGOs. What it did was attach to these NGOs a claim of more than expertise, competence, or the credibility of an organization that was experienced in doing something for someone in need – it said, we are civil society, and you have to listen to us. We represent the peoples of the world – directly, and not mediated by governments or other institutions.
This claim was addressed to the “international community” – in effect, it was a claim that, if you conceived of the international arena as a “society,” then this was the demos, the people of this community. In particular, however, the claim was addressed to national governments and international organizations of all kinds – the UN, the World Bank, and so on. It was a very special claim – the claim of representativeness. It got going perhaps most strongly in the 1990s in the campaign to ban landmines – Jody Williams’ Nobel Prize speech relied explicitly on the claim that we, the people of the world, got together and forced unrepresentative (even though sometimes democratic) governments and international organizations to do something. And we, the NGOs, are the world’s civil society and the people are represented through us.
The claim always had a certain problem. International society is only very tenuously a society in the sense of domestic democratic society – by analogy, as it were. And a flawed one at that – NGOs in a domestic democratic society do not “represent” the people – the people represent themselves at the ballot box. Advocacy organizations represent only themselves. The lack of a connection, except by analogy, to the actual people of the world left advocacy NGOs, styled as civil society, open to the strong criticism that they were unaccountable. The levels of unaccountability are sometimes astonishing – Sebastian Mallaby, for example, recounts going to Africa to track down a local NGO touted as a major social movement against a hydroelectric dam; it turned out to have fewer than 25 members.
But the question of global civil society as representative of the world’s peoples found an eager audience in a particular institution – the UN. The UN has long been in search of legitimacy to take on the increasing tasks that it sometimes is given and sometimes takes on as a means to increase its own standing in the world as something more than merely a collection of member states. Forward looking UN leaders – Secretary General Kofi Annan, especially, but also other “modernizers” such as Mark Malloch Brown – seized on NGOs as global civil society as representatives of the world’s peoples as a means of legitimacy that avoided the legitimacy of the member states. It provided an independent ground of legitimacy apart from the member states, and hence an independent source of authority. This formed the centerpiece of Annan’s Millennium address in 2000 to the assembly of NGOs – and his Davos speech in January 2006 makes clear that he sees this as a central legacy. Advocacy NGOs thus gained immense traction within the “international system” even without having to show expertise, competence, or experience, merely by being styled as “representative,” and international organizations gained a constituency outside traditional nation states. At the same time, this was all subject to at least four major objections: (1) The NGOs in fact represented no one but themselves, despite their moral claims, (2) The lack of actual representation meant that they were given the privileges of access and influence without political accountability, (3) The NGOs actually had less incentive than before to show expertise, competence, or experience – why, if you were representatives of someone? (4) This is all very undemocratic, in the ballot box sense of things, and civil society is not a substitute for that.
We can add to this account, of course, the technological drivers of communications technology, the internet, and email. They have indeed transformed the landscape. Their value was first proven in the landmines ban campaign in the 1990s, and things have only gotten more sophisticated since.
Into the future. That is where matters stand now. So what does this bode for the next twenty five years? Since transnational NGOs tend to reflect the issues in global public debate, answering this question peculiarly depends in large part on what you see those issues being over the next twenty five years. Not entirely – questions such as technology changes in communications also have a large effect – but the agenda is one which is set by broader forces in international public opinion.
The advocacy issues of the past twenty years have been set largely by the progressive internationalist political agenda. What are those? Human rights, the environment, gender and sexual identity questions that cut across societies but which are particularly important to the transborder bourgeoisie. (It is striking that peace and disarmament movements have, since the Cold War ended, had less importance – partly because there is less attention to the underlying issue, but also partly because peace as a transnational value has lost ground to the value of human rights. These questions take on an international and local dimension – the local opposition to, for example, a third world dam project and the backing for the local NGO provided international civil society; as noted there are questions about how widely representative these organizations are, but the dynamic organizing model of local-international is widespread today. Then there are issues of ethnic identity, religion, and race which in some cases are tied to a particular geography but increasingly are transnational and specifically migratory issues – refugee and asylum movements, for example. And then there is international economic development and humanitarian work.
None of the above issues is going away in the next twenty five years. I would guess that global warming will increase considerably activity on both environmental and energy fronts. However, I query whether that transnational advocacy activity will look quite the same as the Greenpeace, etc., forms of mass-and-committed-activist organization we see today. If, as I think likely, even the US government accepts climate change caused by human activity as a fact, then there may be a move to forms of advocacy that are more cooperative and have more shared factual premises. Human rights seems to me a maturing industry that is already settling into a sort of comfortable middle age form of advocacy – its discourse will not go away or diminish in importance, but as an advocacy form, it has already been highly institutionalized – I hesitate to use the word “tired,” but within a couple of decades, it may have a somewhat dated quality to it – it will not be less important, but its importance will be as part of the background “buzz” of global political culture. Economic development and poverty reduction issues are also not going away as advocacy issues across borders – but I think there is much questioning today about the right substantive approach to it, in particular in the role of private capital, foreign direct investment, the lessons from China and India, and the role of NGO and government aid itself – and the dynamics of that debate are unsettled now and unclear for the future, as the development community potentially fragments around different views.
We are currently, however, at this very moment, in a period of relative retrenchment for international NGOs. The high point was the Millennium summit in 2000. Even at that time, though, two critiques were building into a backlash of sorts – the claims of democratic states, even poor ones, to represent their peoples and serve as the mechanisms for setting social and economic agendas and, closely related, the critique of the lack of accountability. September 11 then put security, and hence the traditional nation state and its prerogatives, firmly back on the table. The attention to accountability has clearly put NGOs on a bit of the defensive – witness the whole series of remarks by different NGO leaders, backing off the heady days of the late 1990s, saying in 2000 and 2001 that they are not representative of anyone but themselves. Likewise, there is a sort of intellectual backlash in favor of the value of democracy and sovereign democracy – it is not merely post 9-11 security issues that have put sovereignty back on the table, but a serious intellectual movement that argues that sovereignty is important because it provides the protected space for the values of democracy within a self-governing political community. Ideas and ideology were immense drivers in the rise of the transnational advocacy movement; ideas that challenge that movement also matter.
While the democratic sovereignty movement is currently a US intellectual movement among political conservatives opposed to liberal internationalism and its agenda to erode sovereignty, I would suggest that it is likely to gain considerable traction in Western Europe as the question of the defense of a liberal secular society in the face of demographic changes and immigration gains intellectual respectability. Perhaps demographic changes will push toward greater European integration, but I would argue that instead it will cause progressive liberals in Europe to look for intellectual bases on which to defend their progressive values and those of their societies. Multiculturalism is the official ideology and will be for a long time to come, but it would not surprise me to see the growth of networks of secular and progressive activists in Europe seeking to defend secularism across borders, but on the basis of defending a vision of their own particular societies, linked by the resurgent idea of sovereignty in the service of democratic values.
At the same time, I would anticipate seeing a much higher and more sophisticated transnational organization by Muslim groups in and entering Western Europe – using the mechanisms of transnational civil society, the intensity and group solidarity of religious and ethnic identity, with the effect of networks that facilitate religious and group solidarity and immigration.
This does not mean any lessening of the existing networks of progressive political and social causes using technology to act across borders – human rights, the environment, religious groups, and so on. But how much traction they get in international change is to a large extent a function of whether they are able to create a sort of global bourgeoisie, interlinked by values and concerns and even by lifestyle across borders. What I do not see is the gradual entry of these groups further into governance. The moment when global governance was pushed as a kind of partnership between international organizations and global civil society, in the 1990s – indeed the reason for the evolution of the term from global government to “governance” – is over. I believe it has been effectively discredited – because of the gap with accountability and democracy.
Beyond transnational NGOs. What is left instead is the new idea of networks of government-to-government officials and judges and bureaucrats. This is the New World Order championed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and it is the brightest move in the global governance debate – which is, really, what the global advocacy groups are about in the international political sphere – in a decade. When a committed liberal internationalist such as Professor Slaughter says flatly that it is not legitimate for transnational NGOs to “govern” – because they are not accountable and not democratically representative, and that only democratic governments can play that role – then it is a sign that the governance agenda for NGOs has really come to an end. Professor Slaughter’s idea is that this role will be filled by legitimate representatives of governments – but that they will somehow cross two roles, a national role and an international one. I have argued that this ultimately collapses into either a purely national role or an international one – it cannot remain poised on the edge – but I believe that this will be the trend for the next decade at least.
The question of how effectively transnational advocacy groups are able to influence those new kinds of government networks is fundamentally a social question – how much are they able to be part of and construct a transnational bourgeoisie. It is no surprise that the theorists most engaged in elaborating these scenarios are concerned less with politics than the social conditions necessary to create something like a class, with class interests, to carry out this agenda. This will sound silly perhaps, but as important as political integration of these people will be their social integration – will the members of these groups, governmental officials across borders, and NGOs, and in-between, marry each other, produce children, produce and reproduce a society and social relations, or at least a class with class interests, over the course of the next two generations? We have not, so far, confronted the intergenerational shift of the NGO movement as we know it, which as in straight advocacy is only a single generation old. What will the generational transition look like, in general sociological terms - i.e., the production and reproduction of a social group?
Speculating about technology. In addition, transnational NGO advocacy networks may be affected by technology in some surprising ways. Of course, the fundamental technological factor has been communications technology – more exactly, the astonishing fall in the price of communications around the globe. It is not far above zero at this point from the standpoint of the end user sitting in an NGO in some third world capital - Peru or Guatemala or somewhere.
But also of considerable importance, although less than communications, is the price of transportation around the world. Transnational networks are more dependent on the ability to meet face to face around the world than we ordinarily think, being used to considering only the marvels of virtual communication. But transnational networks have also benefited from the global deregulation of air travel and the resulting decline in costs and extension of networks to underserved places. One question is what will happen to communications in the next twenty five years – but I think we can safely anticipate that it will get cheaper and more efficient still. But a second, more speculative, question is what will happen to transportation. Over twenty five years, it is at least possible that it could become relatively more expensive – it might benefit from new technologies that would lower costs, but given resource restraints, etc., it might become more expensive. I speculate that if that were the case, transnational networks might find themselves less powerful than they otherwise would be, because they would be less physically connected – and they might have to make adjustments, such as greater decentralization and more virtual operation. Maybe, maybe not.
With respect to communications technology and the internet, I would add one caution. We assume that it is always barrier-removing. The chances seem quite good that China, in particular, will continue to filter the internet – and Western companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo will cooperate ever more extensively in the censorshihp but in more subtle ways facilitated by new technologies. This will cramp the development of internal civil society in the PRC and its abilities to join broader activist communities abroad. But it is also possible that, around the perfectly understandable goal of creating an internet that uses Chinese characters, a more or less alternative, vastly more Chinese government controlled and censored, and non-interconnected, internet will emerge in China – disconnected or tightly controlled in its connections from the internet of the outside world. The ramifications for transnational advocacy organizations are enormous – China barely figures in transnational advocacy networks now. But as Europe shrinks in importance and China grows, the landscape could be changed enormously by such technological changes.
India, on the other hand, seems altogether likely to join such advocacy in greater amounts, as its middle class reaches across borders in this as in every other way, and drawing on the long tradition in India of social activism and the long tradition of universalist social thought. The question is in what directions the entrance of many Indian participants in transnational advocacy moves the agenda and whether it moves it away from the issues that currently predominate – my guess is that increased Indian participation will not strongly shift the agenda.
Shifts in the agenda. The question is what will shift in the global agenda of transnational advocacy by NGOs in the next twenty five years, what will be different from the publicly visible secular progressive agenda of human rights, environmentalism, etc.
We should note, first, that although this is the agenda that occupies the nexus of public NGO discussion, media, and international governance, in fact there is a very large alternative agenda even in the West of religious organizations concerned about a range of issues from development aid to abortion – their agendas sometimes overlap with the secular progressives but sometimes, abortion especially, they do not. These organizations are simply below the radar screen of most studies of transnational civil society, although their financial and organizational impact, especially in the case of religious organizations is enormous in the global south. (Consider, for example, the statements sometimes heard from traditional Christian groups that in the next twenty five years, the Christian re-evangelization of the West will be performed by missionaries from Africa and Asia – this may well be right, and be an important shift in transnational advocacy.)
Among the new issues that may arise for transnational NGO activism, the possibilities of cross border epidemic disease suggest new areas of advocacy and activism. Activism directed toward drug companies, supply of anti-viral drugs in the developing world – many of these issues are presaged in the HIV campaigns already, but the possibility of pandemic spread of a virus raises new issues for campaigning.
The most important shifts in the agenda of transborder NGO advocacy will arise, I suspect, from the importance that demography and migration will take on globally. Economic globalization has been largely about capital up to this point, and about trade in goods. Migration of people is looming ever larger on the horizon, as a cultural and political fact, and I suspect that transnational civil society will shift to take account of it.
In what ways? Most important, I would guess, transnational advocacy groups will increasingly organize among the migrant populations themselves, from their countries of origin to their new homes. Part of this will facilitate greater immigration, and part of this will be used to organize greater political power in their destination countries. The most conflicted part of this shift will involve Muslim immigration to Europe; transnational advocacy will have religious as well as cultural dimension, and will be communally based rather than an expression of universal secular progressive values that have dominated up until now. Sharia law is already an immensely important – if invisible to Western secular eyes – part of civil society organizing especially through the internet, and because it is essentially about ideas and culture, it is well suited to propagation and organization through the internet.
(The gap in thinking about this by Western intellectuals is underscored by the fact that, for all the talk of ways in which transnational civil society has reshaped and raised the importance of international law, including the International Criminal Court, etc., etc., the most important movement in transnational law, global law, is not “international” law at all, but the spread of Sharia to govern the lives of hundreds of millions more people now than twenty years ago, the same period of time as the phenomenal rise of human rights international law. Seen neutrally – from Mars, as it were – an observer might well say that the spread of Sharia law's reach is actually much more significant than the spread of “international” law – both have spread through transnational advocacy networks, but only one of them is visible on CNN while the other is visible from the ground up. What's the most important, spreading, and dynamic part of the global law governing women and children? CEDAW, you say? The children's rights convention? Think again - maybe we should say, Sharia law in vast areas of Nigeria, and vast other areas besides.)
But I think new developments in transnational advocacy movements will also be part of Latin American, especially Mexican and Central American, migration to the United States. Transnational advocacy networks will be of great importance in tying these communities back to their home cultures – as places like Salvador or Guatemala are increasingly seen as poor ethnic suburbs of the United States – as well as forming political bases for advocacy in the United States itself.
Note that all of this involves a shift away from “universal” issues, and instead focuses on large but nonetheless particular communities. And to a large extent, I think it will go unnoticed by the existing transnational advocacy community, because that community tends to look only at universal issues. But I suspect that transnational advocacy will increasingly tend to be dominated, if only beneath the surface, by groups and issues generated by migration.
But, then, about all of the future speculation, I could be very, very wrong.
(Note on the working definition of transnational nonstate actor advocacy networks:)
The working definition of transnational nonstate actor networks offered to kick off this brainstorming exercise starts from the idea of “networks of entities that act across state borders,” and then offers a very broad list of such organizations. It includes not only the usual NGOs and civil society groups, but also the media – which are typically corporate entities or state business entities –and local or national governments. The breadth of the list raises a question as to whether the question under consideration is really about transnational nonstate actor networks, or really – since it includes governments – networks that seek transborder social transformations of one kind or another. The transformative possibilities of crossborder NGOs, even when working with governments in quasi-partnership or in tandem with global media, are significantly different from that of governments or private media businesses operating for their own aims and in their own networks. I will therefore focus on transnational NGOs, and only briefly address networks of governments or networks of media businesses.
In that sense, the definition seems too broad to be useful for discussing modes of social transformation. But it also seems too narrow in some surprising ways. The list does not specifically mention trade unions and the international labor movement. In particular, however, the list of organizations does not mention churches – and yet, for example, the Roman Catholic church is the world’s largest and historically perhaps the world’s most successful transnational nonstate network. One could look to other religious examples, such as the Mormons or the Pentacostals, or one might look to the spread of Wahabbism in Islam. I agree that it makes sense to exclude the criminal or terrorist transnational networks from this type of discussion. But if the aim is to understand the future possibilities of advocacy networks, religious networks across borders are the historically defining case.
Notes (I've kept them very light for this memo and mostly cited - me!):
 Among the voluminous literature, see, e.g., John Keane, Global Civil Society (Cambridge 2003). The indispensable sourcebook on transnational NGOs is the yearbook Global Civil Society (Sage). It is essential because it is the only serious attempt to do empirical surveys of the international NGO field.
 Sebastian Mallaby, Foreign Policy, September-October 2004. His adventures have sparked furious replies from the environmental NGOs, but I do not think he can be seriously gainsaid.
 See Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff, “Scepticism about global civil society,” Global Civil Society 2004/5, eds. Helmut Anheier, Marlies Glasius, and Mary Kaldor (Sage 2004), at 26.
 Kenneth Anderson, “Squaring the Circle: Reconciling sovereignty and global governance through global government networks,” 118 Harvard Law Review 1255 (February 2005), review of Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton 2004).