Monday, May 01, 2006

David Rieff and I offer skepticism about 'global civil society'

More in the self-promotion department, I'm afraid. The eminent writer and journalist - not to mention good friend - David Rieff and I wrote an article in 2004 expressing considerable skepticism about the claims of 'global civil society'. I have posted our article to SSRN, and you can find it here, under the title, 'Global Civil Society': A sceptical view.

The article appeared as a chapter in the leading yearbook on global civil society studies - indeed, it appeared as chapter one, which is a testament to the extraordinary intellectual generosity of co-editor Mary Kaldor (yes, the Mary Kaldor, famous for her work as an activist in the international peace movement but also one of leading academics studying transnational NGOs at the LSE). There are not many people, in any field, who, in putting out a yearbook on a subject to which one is dedicated both as a scholar and an activist, would promptly turn and offer the opening chapter to two sharp critics.

The yearbook, called Global Civil Society 20xx/x, is published by Sage, and is the most important annual empirical study of global civil society. It is absolutely required reading for anyone following transnational advocacy.

Leaving all modesty aside, this brief article is perhaps the best short skeptical attack I am aware of on the intellectual claims of the 'global civil society' movement. If you're looking either for the arguments against the conceptualization of global civil society or a quick list of the conceptual arguments you want to argue against about global civil society, this article is a good brief introduction. Another important skeptic about international NGOs you might want to consult (see? I know that the readers of this blog, such as they are, include many undergraduates looking for help with term papers!) is Jeremy Rabkin, in his writings on sovereignty, eg, here.

Here is the SSRN abstract:

Abstract: The editors of the leading yearbook of global civil society studies offered to the authors of this article an opportunity to present a skeptical account of global civil society as the opening chapter in the 2004/5 yearbook. The article examines the standard account of global civil society as the transnational equivalent, in a globalized world, of civil society in a domestic society, and further as, in Kofi Annan's oft-repeated view, international NGOs as the representatives of the peoples of the world to international organizations such as the UN. The article attacks this standard view, arguing that the analogy between transnational NGOs and civil society organizations in a domestic democratic society is fatally flawed. Civil society does not act as the representative of citizens to a domestic democratic state, because citizens also vote; their democratic claims are not intermediated exclusively or even primarily by civil society organizations, but directly at the ballot box. International organizations are undemocratic and will always be that way, and international NGOs, for their part, cannot "represent" the peoples of the world and cannot substitute for democracy. The article then asks why international NGOs and international organizations such as the UN have so aggressively adopted the ideologically-laden language of civil society. The authors argue that this ideologically elevated language of civil society offers legitimation to each party - undemocratic international organizations gain faux-democratic legitimacy from international NGOs claimed to represent the peoples of the world, while NGOs gain legitimacy, access, and status as the people's representatives in global governance. The system nonetheless remains undemocratic and, the article suggests, undermines commitment to actual democracy by substituting values of human rights for democracy. The authors conclude by calling on international NGOs to give up faux-claims of representativeness and a promised role in global governance in favor of a return to narrower missions, discrete tasks, and measurement of success based on competence and efficiency. The article is a sharp attack upon inflated claims for global civil society, international organizations, and global governance.