Globalisation and civic society

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The global civil society phenomenon

The emergence of civil society in its various forms, which has been seen since the early 1990s, is a fascinating component of the change the world is undergoing today, somewhat impractically called globalisation. Civic society has become an important player in global processes, their conscience, critical reflection, the voice of the excluded, and a source of alternatives. As an autonomous network of organisations and communities, it can be defined negatively by belonging neither to the sphere of the state nor to that of the market, and as such, having enforced a new type of socio-political thinking which deals with the need to incorporate it as the third pillar of the global system, alongside the market and the political system represented by national states (Perlas, 1999; Gilbert, 2000).

Over the last two decades, civil society has succeeded in putting on hold the Multilateral Agreement on Investment – MAI; blocking the annual general meeting of the World Trade Organisation – WTO – in Seattle; pushing through a ban on land mines; proposing a new form of global power and finance architecture in Port Alegre, Brazil; fighting for poverty alleviation; giving help to those who have needed it; and producing media spectacles such as Live-Aid in London’s Hyde Park. Civil society includes guerrillas in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, armed with internet access, and sharp fights with multinational corporations. The independence of civil society is indispensable in areas where official development aid encounters political barriers and is seen as an extended arm of the global superpowers’ imperial cravings. It is more flexible and acts faster than state structures and does not depend on revenue generation like the private sector does. It has become the sought-after partner and an incantation among the international organisations, which address it as a source of information and legitimacy impaired by decades of insensitive global politics.

As a power independent from both the state and the market, civic society maintains a permanent dynamic relation to them which takes on different forms, ranging from support and co-operation to open conflict. Civic society has been the opponent to governments which violate human rights or use power to protect the economic interests of their elites, as we have seen during the occupation in Iraq. Civic society has been the loud-speaking opponent of the neo-liberal economic doctrine, propagated by the international economic organisations and central banks of the rich countries as a tool for global economic reforms. It was this opposition to liberalisation and the Washington Consensus that has won many activists the ‘anti-globalist’ label (for more on neo-liberalism, see George, 2001; Williamson, 2000; Kanbur, 2003).

Civil society, i.e. social movements, churches, non-governmental organisations, unions, foundations, and loosely organised groups called ‘grassroots’, have become a global phenomenon just like McDonalds. One can hardly picture the modern globalised world without a broad range of players falling into the category of civil society. What is more, civic society can be seen as the crucial key to decoding the complex global tangle. This paper will attempt to outline the forms and roles that civic society assumes in the globalisation process.

Civil society is capable of:

  1. creating agendas and coming up with new social issues;
  1. negotiating results;
  1. reinforcing or undermining the legitimacy of other players, i.e., the state and the market; and
  1. yielding results in crises.

The network society and trans-national players

To understand the dramatic growth in civil society, it is useful to call to mind several key characteristics of globalisation processes. These will surely include the trans-nationalisation and the network character of the present-day global players, the time-space transformation of globalisation, and the virtualisation attributed to the growing information and communications technologies and to changes in the global political economy as well as in the value orientation of modern-day society.


Three general types of attitudes that civic society organisations assume toward governmental and private players are opposition, co-operation, and co-option.

Forms and types of civil society

Civil society assumes countless forms, and each attempt at categorising it is necessarily an analytical simplification. Regarding their functionality, civic society organisations can be divided into two types: service providing organisations (such as humanitarian ones, those servicing disadvantaged population segments, etc.), and organisations that try to achieve social or political changes by generating pressure on the political representation or by media publication of specific topics. It is obvious that out of the above mentioned four forms of influence of NGOs, the earlier type deals predominantly with implementing results. Development and humanitarian agencies play a unique role in giving help world-wide, and in 1992, for example, the funds distributed by these NGOs were about 8 thousand million dollars, amounting to 13% of the total development aid and more than the UN distributed.

It is clear that there are numerous overlaps between the two types, and many humanitarian and development organisations, such as the above mentioned OXFAM, are busy formulating political statements and lobbying.

Inside civil society: a dispute over the nature of globalisation

In the two recent decades, many organisations within civic society have focused on the phenomenon of globalisation and its accompanying problems. The civic society has been the background for a number of specific programmes of global reforms and the reconstruction of the global order. The proposals often differ diametrically and expose the deep discrepancies and principal controversies over the new architecture of globalisation.

Summary and discussion

If globalisation is seen, along with Roland Robertson (1992), as a process of objective interconnection of the world and a simultaneous amplification of inter-subjective reflection within a single whole, then civil society – hooked up into the communication superhighways and offering it a critical and ethical reflection – is an entirely global phenomenon.

  • Summary - civil society in a new, global context


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