The Rise of Civil Society

In Brief: 

At the root of civil society's expansion is a transformation in the way that great numbers of ordinary people are coming to see themselves - a change that is dramatically abrupt in the history of civilization. Increasingly, people are coming to understand that the human race is one.

PERSPECTIVE -- It is perhaps the most significant social phenomenon of our time: the sudden efflorescence of countless movements and organizations of social change at local, regional, and international levels.

This blossoming of civil society, as represented by non-governmental organizations, community-based groups, academic institutions, and others, is significantly reshaping the international agenda. The expansion and activism of these groups have changed the way global issues are understood, considered and dealt with, in the process changing and sometimes challenging the role of governments.

As Jessica T. Mathews noted in the January/February 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs: "The end of the Cold War has brought no mere adjustment among states but a novel redistribution of power among states, markets and civil society. National governments are not simply losing autonomy in a globalizing economy. They are sharing powers - including political, social, and security roles at the core of sovereignty - with businesses, with international organizations, and with a multitude of citizens' groups, known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The steady concentration of power in the hands of states that began in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia is over, at least for a while."

This issue of ONE COUNTRY has two stories that reflect the degree to which NGOs are increasingly important international actors. Our story on the Microcredit Summit tells how NGOs organized a meeting that was in some ways reminiscent of a major United Nations Summit, bringing together representatives from all levels of international society to discuss a major global issue. Our story on the Rio + 5 meeting and the benchmark draft Earth Charter reflects the growing ability of civil society to organize itself globally to promote new values and norms.

The expansion of civil society's influence at the international level can largely be traced back to the first Earth Summit, held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. There, NGOs moved from the hallways to positions on government delegations and played a key role in advancing the negotiations for Agenda 21, the global action plan on environment and development that governments adopted. NGOs also proposed much of Agenda 21's actual structure and have been instrumental in mobilizing support for it since.

The influence of civil society has continued to grow throughout the entire series of global UN meetings this decade, from Vienna to Cairo to Copenhagen to Beijing to Istanbul. At each of these meetings, whether on human rights or population or social development or women or human settlements, NGOs contributed greatly to the discussions and, ultimately, to the final agreements.

The reasons for civil society's rise are numerous and varied. The end of the Cold War, which dominated the international agenda with an overarching concern for military security, allowed a shift in focus to social issues and created a climate where peoples' organizations could participate more directly in international fora. As well, the computer and telecommunications revolution has ended the monopoly on information that was formerly held by governments and large institutions, opening the door to new modes of organization and expression in every sphere.

At the root of these developments is a transformation in the way that great numbers of ordinary people are coming to see themselves - a change that is dramatically abrupt in the history of civilization. The heart of this change is our perception of community. Increasingly, people are coming to understand that the human race is one. This has dramatically expanded our notion of who are our neighbors and what are our obligations towards them. And this new idea carries with it a concomitant concept: that each of us has tremendous capacities that can be developed, especially if we work together.

Today, NGOs take on many tasks that were formerly the province of governments. They deliver social services. They do legal, scientific, technical and policy analysis. They shape, monitor and implement international commitments. They breed new ideas. And they are often more effective and efficient than governments at these tasks - again, largely because they are able to tap into the capacities of people from all backgrounds and walks of life.

These successes have led some NGO representatives to ask for an even greater share of the "power" currently held by nation-states. Some NGO representatives, for example, have suggested that they should be given a greater role in negotiations at UN meetings. Others have urged the creation of a Forum of Civil Society or a directly elected People's Assembly within the United Nations, parallel in structure to the General Assembly.

Some of these ideas deserve careful consideration. As the world moves to a greater recognition of its interdependence, the diversity of voices represented by civil society must be considered in global decision-making.

At the same time, however, any move to give more "power" to civil society - or even to formalize the recognition of its influence - places a heavy responsibility on the leaders and representatives of civil society itself.

For example, NGOs have been at the forefront in calling for more democracy within and among governments. Yet some NGOs themselves fail to live up to such standards, whether in the manner in which their own leaders are selected, in the processes by which their policies are determined, or in the degree to which financial contributors understand how their money is actually spent.

Moreover, many NGOs pursue only a narrow agenda, have limited expertise, or represent a tiny constituency. The strength of many NGOs as activist organizations often stems from the fact that they are founded by just a handful of high-minded but intensely focused individuals. This strength, however, becomes a weakness if such individuals claim to speak for all.

These issues become especially important as NGOs work together in coalitions or alliances - as they have to an increasing extent. If NGOs expect to assume a role at the negotiating table, their actions should be consistent with the high-minded principles they promote for others and they should be ready to demonstrate that they are indeed the properly empowered representatives of diverse groups of people and their interests include the well-being of all humanity.

Bahá'u'lláh wrote a century ago: "Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men."

As one of the principal groupings of civil society, religious organizations have a special role, one that has so far been largely unrecognized - and untapped. To the degree that they are true to their principles, religious groups as NGOs represent the aspirations and moral values of the vast majority of the world's inhabitants - who by and large have no doubt about the spiritual nature of human reality and its importance in their daily lives.

To restate: the real engine behind the rise of civil society is the new perspective in which ordinary people everywhere are coming to see themselves as members of one human race. It is a perspective that is more encompassing, more embracing and more empowering than the nationalistic, racial, or other categorizations that have shaped our collective identities in the past. At its core, this new perspective is a spiritual one, and recognition of its reality is the key to fully unlocking the potential inherent in every individual - a potential that civil society has only begun to tap.