‘But perhaps civil society’s most important contribution has been its ability to give people hope. This achievement may not quantifiable, but it is the starting point for every concrete success listed above. Without hope, there is no action and there is no change.’ (A/HRC/35/28:89)
Unpredictable and broadly defined in form and function, civil society is the actor in global governance that fascinates me the most. The fluid nature of civil society is global governance incarnate, which James Rosenau (1995) defines as, “systems of rule at all levels of human activity—from the family to the international organisation—in which the pursuit of goals has transnational repercussions.”
The world’s got 99 problems, civil society isn’t one of them…
The Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, published a report in May 2017 documenting the contributions of civil society to global governance. This report will be presented at the 35th session of the Human Rights Council currently running until 23 June 2017.
The perils of defining civil society
Defining civil society, in political theory, is still a work in progress. Definitions of civil society characterise it by what it is – neither state or market. Others define civil society by the space it occupies – a conceptual ‘third’ space outside the confines of the state and the market force.
In the report, Kiai builds on these definitions, defining civil society as
‘a voluntary manifestation of associational life, with an existence and purpose that exists outside of and largely independent of the state and the market, that is inherently collective in nature, working in various ways towards common purposes that do not conflict with the principles of the United Nations.’ (A/HRC/35/28:12)
The point ‘do not conflict with the principles of United Nations’ is poignant because civil society is often framed as an actor that works for a normative concept of ‘good’ whether that is standing up for the rights of people living in oppression, or providing aid to people affected by crises. Without this additional clause, terrorist groups would count as civil society. Within the context of social change, it’s important to note that civil society is defined by their aims as much as the nature and characteristics of organising they use.
Kiai goes on to list the contributions made by civil society which can be grouped into three key roles; protecting the democratic space, service delivery and ensuring accountability of other actors (states, business) on behalf of individuals. He also analyses two interesting civil society activities. The first is innovation, ‘civil society’s ability to initiate, take advantage of or respond to emerging ideas, products, or methods that improve society’s well-being’ (A/HRC/35/28:56). The second activity is fostering sustainable development through, ‘mobilising public opinion, providing expert advice, awareness raising… monitoring compliance with governance decisions, participating in decision-making…and contributing to implementation’ (A/HRC/35/28:65).
Interestingly, intergenerational action is also highlighted in the Report as an important feature of a sustainable global civil society (A/HRC/35/28:71). It was also made as a recommendation made during the European Union Economic and Social Committee meeting in May 2017 on the role of civil society in advancing Agenda 2030 within the EU. Sustainable development is a novel idea but it is not *new*. It has taken 30 years of thought leadership, norms setting and activism to make legitimate. Much of the work we are currently doing in sustainable development is forward looking (implementation, monitoring), but the development community has paid little attention to the potential of intergenerational action on the issue. I’m on the lookout for initiatives actively incorporating intergenerational perspectives in their work.
Looking ahead, civil society should seek greater clarity on how to organise in ways that increase their sustainability. The solutions do not necessarily have to come from civil society actors. This article by International Women’s Health Coalition illustrates how funders can organise their funding requirements to ensure the sustainability of civil society actions.
The trade-offs between different civil society groups within global governance and they ways they interact with each other should be more closely reviewed. This article by Afef Benessaieh illustrates how power relations between local and global civil society groups can undermine the potential for real change on the ground.
In addition, organised civil society needs to develop a new currency of power other than representing citizens. Representation has lost its authority because other actors in global governance do not recognise this authority as legitimate grounds for participation. This has led to an increase in the challenges they face including restrictive rights (i.e. freedom of association, freedom to organise, funding regulations) which prevent civil society from acting, limited and unsustainable approaches to funding, competing interests with emerging actors within the formal processes.
Have a read of the factsheet summary of the report. What are your thoughts? How does it apply to your local/national contexts?