Six hypotheses on the role of civil society actors in the Great Transition

Demonstration in Berlin in January 2015

The professional NGO world is unable to reverse the major global trends. It can, however, prevent projects and policies by forging powerful alliances - and build alternatives.

Answering the question as to what contribution civil society can make towards social and economic transformation should involve an analysis of the political and economic framework (external factors) and a differentiated and honest examination of the composition of civil society (internal factors). It should also delve into how external and internal factors intertwine and, in part, amplify each other – as complex as this may be.

Let us not be under any delusions: the professional NGO world (which I am largely referring to here) is unable to reverse the major global trends in the face of the strong negotiating power of political and economic interests. It can, however, prevent projects and policies (for example, nuclear and coal-fired power plants, ACTA or perhaps even TTIP) by forging powerful alliances, being a watchdog for misguided developments, organising social debates and public opposition, and developing political alternatives. Fortunately, all these do actually occur and illustrate the vital importance of democratic civil society ini¬tiatives. In light of the major crises and the need for social, ecological and cultural transformations, civil society must, however, take a more strategic approach, coordinate more effectively, be more self-reflective, overcome its self-inflicted fragmentation and resist instrumentalising and co-opting tendencies.

Hypotheses on external and internal factors

1. Globalisation is on the advance – and social, economic and political crises with it

Climate change, the financial and global food crises, fragile states, and global poverty are highly prominent global challenges. Both globalisation as such and the announced social transformation processes are riddled with crises – with winners and losers. Both are complex social, economic, ecological and cultural (adjustment) processes. Competition for economic and consequently also geo-political spheres of influence is in full swing. There is no sign of a world that will stick to its planetary boundaries and remain within the two-degree climate goal. The green economy continues to be a niche economy that, in turn, needs to be more closely tied to human-rights-based and social criteria.

Crises and negative trends are closely linked in terms of their causes and effects. Isolated and sectoral political management of crises has therefore long since reached its limit. Networking activities that extend beyond individual policy fields and national borders are in greater need than ever before. These involve having a new understanding of interdependency, global reconciliation of interests and global prosperity. Curbing global warming, sustainably shaping the »Great Transition« for a post-fossil-fuel economy in a socially just manner, curtailing the consumption of resources, effectively combating poverty and hunger, preventing and peacefully resolving wars and conflicts are core objectives to which political and social negotiation processes should be geared at global, regional and national level.

2. Concentration of power

Structural blockades exist that hinder or slow down the required transfor¬mation of the fossil-fuel economy, the financial market, agro-industrial production and global mobility. Economic power concentrated among an ever-decreasing circle (a handful of multinational companies control the global value-added food chain) and the linkage between governmental and economic power (for example, numerous state-owned enterprises in the fossil fuel and mining sector) increasingly hamper democratic regulations geared towards the common good. This approach undermines the state’s responsibility to protect as well as the accountability of business actors. Democratically elected parliaments are losing their policy-making capacity, especially in managing crises (euro crisis), or are not consulted in good time or to a sufficient degree (financial market regulation through supranational organiza¬tions, free trade agreements such as CETA or TTIP). Transition countries and authoritarian states have few or no parliamentary controls whatsoever and very few free media that could act as public opposition.

3. Global power shifts resulting from the rise of emerging countries are massively changing post-war governance structures and making multilateral regulations more complex

The normative and, even more so, the operative role of the United Nations is on the decline. Whilst the level of influence of international organisations in the post-war order remains high, it is also on a downward trend. Where emerging countries are translating their economic growth into political power (for example, the distribution of voting rights at the World Bank: China now ranks second; G20), this does not bode well for social and ecologically sustainable development. Through a closing of ranks between industrial and emerging countries, we are regrettably experiencing a decline in acquired social and environmental standards as well as participation rights and accountability (for example, in the case of multilateral banks, first and foremost the World Bank).

Moreover, numerous new regional and global clubs now exist that deal with economic and security policy issues. This modern-day »club governance« equally hampers political control; transparency, participation or accountability mechanisms are few and far between. This governance is giving rise to a new obscurity, since no formalised means of participative access have been developed (G20, BRICS). Civil society has a hard time dealing with the new actors. The old North-South pattern no longer fits the bill and is increasingly being replaced by ever-more complex configurations of governmental and economic actors. Here, it is becoming increasingly difficult to respond to courses set by civil society interventions. South-South cooperation between civil society organisations is still very underdeveloped (for example, among the BRICS countries). Knowledge and capacities on macroeconomic issues are not very pronounced in the North or the global South. Successful contributions towards transformation must start here and drive South-South networking forward. Rights of participation and representation within the new clubs, such as BRICS or G20, still need to be fought for.

4. The discrimination and criminalisation of NGOs and CSOs are on the rise

State attacks on critical, democratically oriented actors as well as NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs) are on the rise across the globe. Discrimination and criminalisation are the result. The murdering of activists (especially those engaged in local resistance) is becoming a more frequent occurrence. Worldwide, over 40 so-called NGO laws massively impair the ability of NGOs and civil society to act. Legal restrictions as well as financial and administrative constraints are increasingly successful at impeding the political intervention of national and international actors. This is further compounded by politically and media-staged smear campaigns (foreign agents, terrorists) that intimidate and, at times, compel to self-censorship. So far, de facto, northern NGOs, foundations and think tanks have come up with very few answers to this trend. Collective political action is urgently required here. The requisite sharing of views and options should be organised, because, without democratic leeway, the levels of intervention in the transformation and adaptation processes in the South, East and West cannot be any more than inadequate.

5. The (self-)disenchantment of the NGO world

As described above, attempts have been undertaken to assert hard political and economic interests – usually without (broad-based) democratic participation and transparency. Any appreciable active participation on the part of civil society is perceived to be disruptive by powerful representatives of economic and political interests. In contrast to financially strong interest groups, the political and financial resources of civil society actors have always been limited. The institutional influence and bargaining power of professional NGOs presumably peaked in the 1990s and the early 2000s and their political impact was formidable; these days, they are on a worldwide decline, however. The disenchantment became very apparent during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference at the latest. However, it would be remiss of any honest analysis not to note that civil society actors across the globe have established an exceptionally strong footing in the aforementioned areas. Many NGOs (fully) substitute public social, humanitarian and environmental services and are on the drip feed of external public or private funders. Where the state does not take any action, it is good for civil society actors to alleviate the hardship (without Doctors without Borders, the number of Ebola deaths would be far higher) and contribute towards the social infrastructure. On many an occasion, however, they provide relief for too long or endlessly disencumber the state instead of holding it responsible. A prime example of this is Afghanistan, as is the Philippines with over 30,000 NGOs. Whilst this is by no means a new trend and it has been well documented in literature, it has increased. Many NGOs are following the global shift towards a privatisation of public authority tasks. This is very apparent in the health sector: the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation has more money than the WHO and consciously sees its own mandate as being outside that of the WHO.

In many instances, professional NGOs are viewed as co-elites and are instrumentalised as such by governments. This leads to the NGOs working hand in hand with government institutions – acting within similar political and economic constraints – and losing their watchdog function as well as their role as public opposition. Major NGOs are especially included if states have inadequate regulating capacity and/or take on the role of the moderator.

Voluntary rules are usually negotiated with (BIG) NGOs in so-called multi-stakeholder rounds. This format sometimes legitimises policies that are rather opposed to the required transformation and that happen without any accountability or democratic feedback involving those affected by them and their democratically legitimate stakeholders. Numerous examples exist of how such processes debilitate local resistance (for example, against deforestation).

In many countries, the emancipatory role, the role of countervailing power or as a watchdog of government policy and of international organisations has been eroded. Governmental and – increasingly – private funding structures that lack coordination in their distribution of funds to recipient countries further bolster depoliticisation. This can also be observed in transformation societies such as Tunisia: far too many private and official donors overfund a weak, institutional civil society. In doing so, they overwhelm the NGOs, which have difficulties finding their way in a world of applications, indicators and monitoring.

New social movements make a conscious effort to distance themselves from this type of professional NGO, see themselves as an alternative to such organisations, and criticize the political instruments and organisational forms that have been prevalent among NGOs over the past few decades. As a result, exceptionally few cooperations ensue between the new social and political actors and the »old« NGO world, whether in our corner of the world or in the global South.

It is impossible to ignore the growing hierarchisation within the professional NGO world. The big »juggernauts« are approached by the government and can afford even bigger campaigns and extensive lobbying. This drives a wedge between civil society actors. Among the development and environmental NGOs, it is the »big juggernauts« that open offices worldwide but do not adequately reflect on their impact on local civil society and its demands for participation. The »multinationals« among the NGOs and major foundations are the ones granted greater access to the UN, World Economic Forum or national ministries.

6. Dilemma: professionalisation, specialisation and transformation

On the one hand, the increasing complexity of shaping political processes is extending the list of requirements for civil society participation that has long since been reliant on professional expertise and thus a professionalisation of institutionalised civil society actors. On the other, fragmentation and hierarchisation within civil society hamper civil society involvement. »Civil society« is not even standardised at national level (and most certainly not at global level) but rather characterised by structural contradictions and disavowals. Such contradictions can be observed, for example, during transformation debates between trade unions and environmental associations (e.g. in their assessment of the need for economic growth). Differing appraisals – in terms of policy and organisational form – are rarely discussed, however.

With the compulsion to be professional comes a growing need for funding. In turn, the growing need for funding that results from civil society actors becoming more professional tends to raise the dependency of professional civil society actors on funders. The consequences of this are a threat to their political independence, a shift towards greater specialisation and leanings towards less complex fundraising. Fundraising campaigns frequently imply simplified solutions: some environmental associations will have us believe that a gorilla can be saved by donating just three US dollars, or a tiger for five US dollars. Development organisations reinforce this »illusion of aid«.

Funding is frequently only available for specific fields of action and for those in which states or economic actors have a specific interest – or as a result of political events (such as UN conferences). Accordingly, gaps occur in the issues on the transformation a¬genda and/or there is »issue hopping«. Civil society produces »blind« spots, sub-publics and partial lobbying for specific issues. It loses sight of the overall picture. Cross-cutting debates not directly related to sponsored »assignments« commonly lack financial and human resources. Holistic views of the system get lost in highly professional expert discourses, which, in turn, are difficult to convey to the wider public.

A further outcome of the increased need for funding is growing competition. The race to secure funding and the frequently related race for media attention thwart any systematic, strategic cooperation, among other things. Coordination is not only a problem of government funding but also one that exists within civil society. However, effective contributions to social and ecological trans¬formation more than ever demand arrangements, a focus on course-setting issues as well as a meaningful division of tasks.

What can be done?

Who is best at doing what? This needs to be made the guiding and strategic question more often. What is and what is not relevant? Where are the key tools for leveraging the future? Regrettably, this is not always a core factor on the agenda.

Time and time again, knowledge of the present state that the world is in devolves into calls for radical action. Here, critical academics are sometimes more radical than certain NGOs. Rightfully so, the political virtues are: openness for dialogue, solution orientation and capacity for compromise. For civil society, however, the following also applies: confrontation and saying “no”, even to certain multi-stakeholder dialogues, above all when these merely suck up time and resources without advancing the political agenda for the announced social and ecological transformation.

Being more strategic for the benefit of the Great Transition requires space and room within and among civil society organisations. What internal organisational changes need to be made in order to alter the specialisation and sectoralisation of policy fields in favour of cooperation and political synergies?

One starting point could be to organise an annual council where key actors from the environmental, development and human rights fields convene with social associations and trade unions to discuss political priorities. Where are the key policy windows that could be ground-breaking in nature (for example, the EU’s GAP reform) and therefore require a significant amount of civil society resources? What is and what is not worthwhile?

Such councils or conventions are also useful for sub-issues. Here, a meaningful division of tasks along the respective lines of expertise could be discussed and ad-hoc alliances forged. What can collectively be brought about? What do we need to prevent?

Some of the above has already been done successfully or is in the throes of emerging (for example, the »Wir haben es satt« campaign, the »Anti-Kohle-Allianz« or the »AK Rohstoffe«). This is a good thing, but there is room for improvement, especially in terms of constantly reflecting on where we are at present and where we want to go in the future.


This article first appeared in VENRO Discussion Paper 1/2015 (PDF).