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<nettime> Notes on the Civil Society/NGO Nexus on the Eve of the WSIS
Soenke Zehle on Sun, 7 Sep 2003 13:59:37 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Notes on the Civil Society/NGO Nexus on the Eve of the WSIS

Notes on the Civil Society/NGO Nexus on the Eve of the WSIS

To approach the dynamic of so-called civil society organization in the
context of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), it might make
sense to attempt to identify some of the trends occuring across what is
often referred to as the 'NGO community' or 'international civil society'
more generally.

Obviously, reference to a quasi-instutional dynamic of self-organization
that remains, cooperations notwithstanding, distinct from a broader
transnational social movement grassroots by way of such blanket terms can
never do justice to its internal heterogeneity. On the contrary, the
popularity of terms like NGO and civil society might create a false sense of
communicability and comparability, glossing over incommensurabilities that
originate in differences in agenda as well as access to the very arenas
through which this dynamic reproduces itself.

And yet, whatever their conceptual utility, terms like 'non-state',
'non-governmental', and 'civil' at least suggest that it is a mistake to
approach this dynamic nexus without attention to the role of the state, the
(violent) transformation of its institutional makeup (neoliberalism,
supranationalism), and a corresponding transformation of its conceptual
articulation (de- and reterritorialization of sovereignty) - not least
because there would be no 'information society' without it.

While not altogether arbitrary, the following is by no means comprehensive:

Non-State Does Not Mean Non-Market

Beyond the difficulty of assessing the consequences of a reliance on
corporate support by NGOs of all stripes, an autonomous corporate grassroots
(astroturf) has emerged [1] whose complexity is little understood and
requires, among other things, a meticulous detailing of 'revolving doors'
between corporations, government, and the 'non-profit' sector [2].

NGOs Often Serve as Geopolitical Instruments

Humanitarianism is often a harbinger of things to come for civil society
actors in general, which is why I think that developments there deserve
close attention. The dependence on support from development agencies and
governments is not new, contemporary international civil society has its
roots in post-WWII relief organization and remained, for better or worse,
closely connected to shifting foreign policy agendas throughout the cold
war. After the cold war, the quasi-subsumption of humanitarian civil society
organizations to states-at-war has been actively encouraged by activists in
support of the paradoxical politics of 'humanitarian intervention' [3].

In Afghanistan and Iraq, this state-non-state nexus has both achieved a new
quality and aggravated the constitutive crisis of legitimacy that (also)
defines humanitarianism. The attack on the UN in Iraq has already been
interpreted as a threshold event, as evidence that humanitarianism as such,
less and less able to strike a credible balance between neutrality and
security, is becoming the target of terrorism [4], and suggests that civil
society organization will either have to ally its work even more with the
geopolitics of security or, less likely, extricate itself from this nexus
altogether. These developments are likely to be relevant to info-rights
NGOs, for example, whose work on communication, transparency, etc. ties
their efforts to the implementation of 'good governance' agendas.

NGOs Contribute to the (Visual) Economy of Conflict

The famous media events associated with major international NGOs, often
considered the hallmark of a media-savvy professionalism at the
info-societal grassroots, also serve to sustain a general process of
self-mediatization. Evidence of (short-term) NGO presence at sites of
conflict and intervention, for example, is central to the political economy
of fundraising and the costly maintenance of institutional infrastructures
threatened by the vagaries of public commitment and empathy [5].

NGOs Thrive in the Media-Ecology of the Info-Society

Some suggest that the strength of NGO networks can best be understood in
terms of a co-evolution of communications technologies and new
organizational structures [6]. Off-the-grid areas are often considered in
terms of a techno-utopian not-yet of future incorporation into transnational
ICT networks ('digital divide') rather than explored as possibly
constitutive outsides they may also be.

Civil Society is Becoming the Master Idiom

Related to the false sense of communicability fostered by a shared ICT
infrastructure, the growing adoption of 'civil society organization' as a
means of self-identification signals a convergence of organizational idioms
whose implications have yet to be fully understood [7]. In what I simply
think is a sad example of this homogenization, an information-rights
campaign called 'speaking for ourselves' employs a completely formulaic
idiom. While it is one thing to employ such terms in project applications as
a consequence of a next-to-inevitable standardardization of donor criteria,
it is another entirely to use them in the articulation of one's agenda in
general [8]. The turn to a liberal interventionism suggested by the adoption
of this idiom is facilitated, of course, by the focus on lobbying,
expertism, and legal activism already inherent in the NGO approach.

Whatever Their Ethico-Political Capital, NGOs Must Answer Questions of

Contrary to popular assumption, the call for accountability and transparency
is not (just) a ruse of corporate capitalism to divide and conquer an
autonomous 'third sector' [9] but comes from within the ngo community as
well [10,11]. Some consultants even interpret the accountability controversy
in terms of a 'paradigm shift' central to the future of ngo work in general
[12]. The glorification of NGOs as champions of a politics of human rights -
a role many of them undoubtedly play - homogenizes a contradictory dynamic
of institutional self-organization and shields its image even from criticism
from within. Often organized as dues- and donations-based membership
organizations, many NGOs are nonetheless marked by a constitutive lack of
accountability, slow to create their own mechanisms of accountability
[13,14] and therefore still vulnerable to criticism, however dubious the
source of such 'criticism' may be [15,16].

Conservative challenges to 'leftist' civil society organization seem to
seize the controversial issue of accountability to call into question the
legitimacy of 'civil society' agendas in general. But questions of
accountability and legitimacy are indeed intertwined. The chair of a new UN
Panel on 'Civil Society and UN Relationships', ex-president of Brazil
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, suggests that "[t]he legitimacy of civil society
organizations derives from what they do and not from whom they represent or
from any kind of external mandate" [17]. Given the tremendous influence of
many (northern) NGOs as de facto instruments of extended states, it strikes
me as problematic to suggest that the question of 'in whose name' they work
should not be a matter of concern. Somewhat paradoxically, Cardoso also
notes that "contrary to an often idealized self-image, civil society is not
the realm of 'good values and intentions' in contrast to the logic of power
and interests ascribed to national states. Civic and community groups may
also advocate for causes that are deeply controversial and, in some
instances, incompatible with universally-accepted norms and principles"
(ibid.). But beyond the generic idiom of human rights, what is a
universally-accepted norm, and who is to decide?

In addition to legitimation from below, be it through an often mythologized
'grassroots membership' or support from the communities where the work
actually occurs,  the UN accreditation of NGOs constitutes an additional
means of legitimation, complicating the economy and politics of recognition
on which any 'legitimation' ultimately depends. The accreditation of
corporate lobbying groups like the International Chamber of Commerce or
subsidiaries of sects like the Moon-funded so-called World Association of
NGOs (WANGO) raises complex questions about the standards of accreditation,
but also indicates the limits of any call for accountability as well as the
corresponding model of a politics of recognition: some of these
organizations may have a perfect record of internal accountability and
transparency, and it is perhaps no accident that the World Trade
Organization (WTO) received rather high scores in a Global Accountability
Report [15].

At summits, NGOs are given much more than the occasional seat at the table.
They are also given an opportunity to share whatever legitimacy they have -
and many of them enjoy greater credibility than the 'official' institutions
of liberal democracy, a phenomenon that should be interpreted less as
evidence of faith in a somehow inherently democratic 'third sector' than as
a dimension of the 'state failure' occurring even in liberal democracies -
as a symbolic resource to compensate for crises of legitimacy elsewhere:
quite often, 'stakeholder dialogues' organized by corporations and
intergovernmental organizations, who often think of NGOs as de facto proxies
for 'civil society' in general, also serve to substantiate whatever claims
to legitimacy these actors make themselves. Part of a complex politics of
recognition, summits redistribute symbolic resources, and it will be quite
instructive to try and track these flows in the context of the WSIS as well.

These are some of the elements that provide the context for new rounds of
'civil society' and 'stakeholder' participation in inter-governmental events
in general. The dynamic nexus of 'international civil society' is
inextricably intertwined with geopolitics and a new politics of war that is
simultaneously a political economy and a visual economy. Like almost
everything else that can be said on the topic of ngoism, this is a banality,
but rather than constituting the point of departure, it often comes as an
afterthought, if at all. Contrary to the self-celebration of the growing
autonomy of an expanding international civil society, these concerns can
neither be easily dismissed nor answered, as they go to the heart of the
institutional logic of what 'NGOism' and civil society organization are all
about. The very autonomy of 'civil society' may, for example, come at the
price of a neoliberal transformation of the state whose agenda is perfectly
compatible with a 'deterritorialization' and 'devolution' of elements of its
sovereignty. Similarly, the growing support for NGOs from the UN may well be
a sign of its own crisis of legitimacy and lack of funding, deliberately
cash-starved by some of its member organizations [18, 19].

In a commentary on the accountability controversy, Simon Burall, director of
the UK One World Trust that supports the Global Accountability Project,
writes: "There are no direct channels for democratic representation to
global decision-making forums such as the UN General Assembly and associated
conferences, the Security Council, the World Bank, the WTO or any of the 300
other intergovernmental organisations affecting the lives of individuals and
communities the world. Without direct channels, there is no way for
competing interests to be balanced nor for a global political consensus
around issues as pressing as poverty, the environment and global security to
be built. For better or worse, NGOs are the only organisations currently
able to bring the views of interest groups to the global level and hence
start the process of building consensus" [11]. I doubt that it is a great
idea to grant 'NGO' and 'civil society organization' such a central role in
whatever conceptual and organization idioms we might create. But even if we
do, it sems all the more important to reflect on their constitutive
limitations as well as the way they may impoverish our ethico-political


[1] <http://www.sicminc.com/grassroots.htm>

[2] <http://www.prwatch.org>

[3] <http://www.jha.ac/>, background: ICISS. The Responsibility to Protect:
Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State
Sovereignty. Ottawa: ICISS, 2001.

[4] Cullen, Michelle. "Making the World Safe for Humanitarianism." New York
Times (26 Aug 2003). via <http://politicaltheory.info/>

[5] Muekke, Lutz. "Der inszenierte Hunger: Wie Saat-Konzerne,
Hilfsorganisationen und "christliche" Regierungen von einer aufgebauschten
Tragödie profitieren." Zeit 17 (2003).

[6] Bach, Jonathan, and David Stark. "Link, Search, Interact: The
Co-Evolution of NGOs and Interactive Technology." Workshop on Information
Technology and Global Security, Social Science Research Council, New York
City (28 Feb 2002).<http://www.coi.columbia.edu/pdf/bach_stark_lsi.pdf>

[7] Mato, Daniel. "The Transnational Making of Ideas of 'Civil Society' in
the Age of Globalization." Lecture at at the New York University King Juan
Carlos Center (19 Nov 2002). via <http://www.globalcult.org.ve/Daniel.htm>
[8] Naughton, Tracey. "Speaking for Ourselves: Southern Africa and the
WSIS." Our Media III Barranquilla, Colombia (May 2003)

[9] Klein, Naomi. "Bush to NGOs: Watch Your Mouths." Globe and Mail (20 June
2003). <http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0620-06.htm>

[10] Slim, Hugo. "By What Authority? The Legitimacy and Accountability of
Non-governmental Organisations." Journal of Humanitarian Assistance (10 Jan
2002). <http://www.jha.ac/articles/a082.htm>

[11] Burall, Simon. "NGO Accountability - Yes, But Not on These Terms." One
World Guest Editorial (11 Aug 2003).

[12] SustainAbility. The 21st Century NGO: In the Market for Change. (June
2003). <http://www.sustainability.com/publications/latest/21C-ngo.asp>

[13] GPF. "Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs." Global Policy Forum.

[14] GAP. Global Accountability Report 2003. Global Accountability Project
of the Oneworld Trust: Charter 99.

[15] <http://www.ngowatch.org/>

[16] Huberty, Robert M., and David Riggs."NGO Accountability: What the US
Can Teach the UN: Applying U.S. Nonprofit Disclosure Laws to the UN."
Capital Research Center (July 2003)

[17] Cardoso, Fernando Henrique. "Civil Society and Global Governance." UN
Secretary-General's Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN
Relationships (June 2003).

[18] The Global Compact <http://www.unglobalcompact.org>

[19] Alliance for a Corporate-Free UN via <http://www.corpwatch.org>

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