The reorganization of international relations after the end of the Cold War and the debate over a world economic order for sustainable development are aspects of a long-term, worldwide process that is transforming national public functions into global ones. This process reflects capitalism’s inherent tendency toward globalization, and is occurring in a lopsided and contradictory form.
For the English sociologist Anhony Giddens, globalization has caused a decentralization of power on the international level – it rests ever less in a unified territorial scenario, or in a single privileged group (such as the international bourgeoisie), or in a primary determinant (for example, the military/strategic realm), or at a primary level (for example, the nation-state).
The world order can no longer be understood as merely the subject of relations among States or hegemonic blocks. One must have a vision that considers the complexities of relations between time and place and the ambiguities of space as a place.
Different authors, such as Giddens, David Harvey and Otavio Ianni, among others, coincide in affirming that the theory of globalization requires a multi-dimensional theory of space, of a simultaneous process with space-time scope and intensity.
Social relationships in each specific locale suffer, albeit in diverse form, the impact of distant processes and events, while at the same time the former influence the latter (from this comes the groups and sexes. The recognition of the growing reach and intensity of relationships of space and time, of an increasingly interdependent global socialization, make traditional notions archaic. A good example is the idea that globalization means standardization, which overlooks the fact it is compatible with heterogeneity and diversity. Economic, technological and class determinism, political insurrectionalism and apocalyptic approaches appear today to have been eclipsed by new social movements that are starting to offer more complex responses to global concerns.
I have analyzed elsewhere (principally in my book Cidadania e Globalização. (Editora Record, 1997) the paradigm of civil society and the kaleidoscopic phenomenon of globalization. Here I focus only on some points pertaining to the action of civil society and its organizations on the global scene.
1. With the end of the Cold War, the UN organized a series of conferences to discuss global problems. After Eco-92 in Rio de Janeiro there were the conferences on Human Rights in Vienna, Population in Cairo. Social Development in Copenhagen, Women in Beijing, and Habitat in Istanbul. Despite their questionable effectiveness, these conferences have contributed to the creation of a global public space dedicated to the consideration of planetary questions.
The constitution of this globalization: civil society. I am referring here to the multiplicity of organizations that, whether in name of the rights of certain social groups or of the common social good, submit themselves neither to the interests of a particular State nor to the mechanisms of the market. These are Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)* and the social movements they have been articulating on a worldwide basis. This transnational articulation of civil society today constitutes one of the few forms of resistance to the imbalances created by globalization, for its ethical principles imply the recognition of universal rights that should be institutes.
The State and the market by themselves cannot confront the economic, social and environmental crises that are overwhelming us. Society is increasingly being called upon to formulate alternatives. The same crises that weaken the State strengthen the CSOs.
What is meant by a global civil society? Globalization implies the growing importance of the supra-territorial, or aterritorial, level, and thus crates the possibility, the necessity, of developing a global civil society. This means a sphere for democratic forces that is not wedded to capitalism/the State, and is anti-competitive/anti-hierarchical. From this come debates about reforming the UN and other inter-governmental organizations, about new standards, and about the interrelationships among inter-governmental organizations and global social movements, all of which go beyond territorial boundaries.
Last but not least, the building of a transnational public sphere will be determined by two principles: the international public interest and the common patrimony of all mankind. Human rights and the international public interest place limits on the claims of sovereign entities and the voracity of transnational sovereignty, transforming it into a Global Law of Humanity.
2. One of the main characteristics of the contemporary world is, therefore, economic globalization and the development of new forms of solidarity among citizens, configuring a new trend toward the formation of a global civil society as a counterpoint to the tendency for the weakening of the nation-state. According to Roland Robertson, among the elements that characterize the current phase of globalization – which he calls the “phase of uncertainty” that began in the 1960’s – are a global civil society and world citizenship.
On the other hand, Boaventura de Sousa Santos points out over the past 20 years new forms of action for social change have emerged in the world: popular movements or new social movements with fresh political agendas – ecology, peace, opposition to racism and sexism – alongside the traditional ones for improved quality of life – economic survival, housing, land, social welfare, education.
These movements, centered on the themes of democratization, citizenship, liberties, cultural identity, besides those that constitute the “common heritage of mankind” (sustainability of human life on earth, the global environment, nuclear disarmament) have favored those CSOs with worldwide scope.
For Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University, in addition to “top-down globalization,” led by the dominant nations and world market forces, there has been “bottom-up globalization,” carried out by transnational democratic forces serving as vehicles for the “law of humanity.” This latter phenomenon seeks the creation of a global civil society as an alternative to the global economy designed by the forces of transnational markets. The hopes of humanity depend on the ability of this “bottom-up globalization” in a series of key arenas, such as the UN (and other international organizations), the media and the orientation of States.
This assumes that the development of the public function starting from the top (international institutions and regimes controlled by the dominant industrial nations) will face, starting from the bottom, an ever-stronger countervailing world civil society (working through, among others, greater expansion and coordination of the work of international CSOs), which will operate from the base levels for the development of a democratic public function on a worldwide scale.
The global crisis and the belief that the State and the market alone are not going to resolve it tend to strengthen the position of geographically dispersed CESOs in the construction of alternatives and of mechanisms for international cooperation.
3. The explosion of non-governmental activities in general, and of the CSOs in particular, reflects the growing permeability of national borders, as well as the advances in modern communications. Geographically dispersed CSOs and based community organizations can today develop cmmon objectives and agendas in the international level.
According to estimates by the United Nations Developmente Program – UNDP, the activities of CSOs benifit some 250 milion people in the developing countries. Nongovernmental and voluntary organizations have become important keys in helping development programs in the past few decades. In 1992, official development aid to underdeveloped countries reached 58.7 billion dollars. That year, CSOs distributed 5.5 billion in grants, representing 10% of governmental assistance and making up the fifth-largest donor group (OCDE – “Report of the Commission on Development Assistance”; Paris, 1994).
The Non-Governmental Liaison Service of the United Nations published in August 1996 a dossier entitled The United Nations, NGOs and Global Governance, which states, “the NGOs are no longer marginal, they have become mature. Their financial resources for development probably surpass those of the UN. The NGOs contribute to setting agendas of the United Nations, influence its decisions and mobilize public opinion. The agenda for human development elaborated during the UN conferences represents, in large measure, the agenda of the NGOs.”
In many countries CSOs help to formulate public policies. In others they have an important oversight role for projects, denouncing arbitrariness such as human rigths violations and pushing for compliance with public commitments, both domestic and international.
CSOs in many countries have developed a policy of forming alliances with a dual nature. On the one hand they have joined with the State to demand regulation of the Market in the name of sustainable development; on the other, they have allied themselves with the Market to demand democratization and modernization of the State to increase its administrative efficiency and transparency.
But the current responsibility of these organizations goes beyond this. In face of the impasses caused by the world’s predominant economic model, ecologically predatory and socially unjust, these entities are being called on to play a crucially important role: to seek alternatives, from the viewpoint of civil society, to the ecological and social crisis that threaten the planet with environmental degradation and sentence humanity to suffer globalized poverty.
4. Those countries with more authoritarian traditions are more hermetic and immune to the influence of CSOs. The process of UN conferences, however has forced many countries, including Brazil, to open themselves to dialogue. Wally N’Dow, Secretary General of the Habitat II Conference (Istanbul, 1996) stated there had been a revolution in the way the UN works, because for first time local authorities and NGOs had a seat and voice at the plenary session, although without a direct vote. For him, the principal advance obtained was the presence of new players at the negotiating table.
Today the leaders of CSOs have more strength than do the majority of the governments of small countries. As far as human rigths and environment are concerned, the general secretaries of Amnesty International or Greenpeace, for example, have more power and influence in the international scene than do the maiority of countries.
There are many proposals for reforms, from the Right of Petition for non-governmental agents to a People’s Parliament to act alongside the UN. The objective is to ensure the effective participation of civil society in global decisions. The debate over UN reform brings to the fore the crisis of the legitimacy of national States, whether authoritarian or democratic.
Pushing for the primacy of civil society requires the articulation of universal human values that go beyond the domination of the State and the forces of the market. Everything points to CSOs as having an important role to play in this process. Themes such as women, population, employment, the economy, environment, migration, etc. are global in nature and demand global forums to examine the choices and decisions.
In summary, there are strong indications that CSOs will tend to play an increasing role in international negoiations, as catalysts for changes destined to include civil society in the decision-making process and as an instrument of an emerging planetary citizenship rooted in universal human values. the organizations that are active on the international level can thus contribute decisively to the constitution of a new political framework based on an emergent transnational public sphere.