[E]ach one of us could probably mix-and-match our own favourite normative flavour of global civil society. Nonetheless, it is possible to simplify and abstract a few ideal typical normative definitions of global civil society. I distinguish the following four.
The neoliberal version: global civil society as the sphere, or the collection of actors, that provides social services more flexibly, effectively and efficiently than states can do.
The liberal version: global civil society as the sphere, or the collection of actors, furthering progressive change, or in other words renegotiating the global social contract, by holding global power-holders accountable to human rights and environmental values.
The radical version: global civil society as the arena, or the collection of actors, resisting global capitalism and/or neo-imperial hegemony through collective action.
The post-modern version: if we accept the western, neo-colonial concept of global civil society at all, it is the arena or collection of actors in (uneven) contestation from a plurality of normative perspectives, not engaged in any one single master project.
While we still all hold to our own normative version, I think a new consensus is emerging with respect to what might be called ‘actually existing global civil society’. Western actors in global civil society, donors, and academics studying the phenomenon are all increasingly coming to the recognition that, whatever normative preference they may have, the post-modern version is an empirical reality. Transnational societal actors include those whose ideology is exclusivist on an ethnic or religious basis, those who do not reject violence, and those who are covertly profit-oriented. Trying to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ or civil society from uncivil society on the basis of any moral frame may not do justice to the subtlety and complexity of social reality.
Next, after identifying specific types of NGOs and old trends (apparently the geographical distribution of NGOs by continent has remained stable since the mid-1990s) with new (Internet-mediated networks) Glassus considers results.
Research by Jordan and Van Tuijl (2001), Taschereau and Bolger (2006) and Carpenter (2007) suggests that transnational activist networks sometimes obscure rather than resolve tensions. These include differences of opinion over strategy, different points of departure in terms of norms and values, uneven information flows, and of course power differentials. Neither a demand for ‘representation’ nor the concept of ‘accountability’ quite captures the nature of these tensions. Most successful networks regularly adapt their structure in order to try and manage, if not necessarily resolve, them.
Charli Carpenter has discovered another important problem with networks. Intuitively, we assume that a problem, when felt in different locations and requiring policy change at different levels, may lead to the emergence of a transnational activist network. However, Carpenter has shown that powerful nodes in existing networks play a key role in brokering which issues become global campaigns and which do not. Organisations and individuals within the networks play roles as ‘issue entrepreneurs’, but also as gatekeepers. Her important example is that of children born of rape. She has documented that the vulnerability of these children is actually a considerable problem in many post-conflict situations, but it has not become framed as a ‘global issue’. She postulates that this is because the issue did not fit with the concerns of existing women’s and child rights networks, and goes so far as to suggest that instead of issues creating networks, it is networks that create the issues!
What we see in global civil society depends on what value lens we use to define global civil society. The lens used by participants, donors, and academics again shapes social reality, but not always in the way we expect.
It's made me think. It'll make you think, too, but only if you read it. Please?