While social forum sessions have all the advantages and drawbacks of embedding economic and social rights activism in a much wider movement, a specific network on economic and social rights has also recently been founded. The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) was officially inaugurated in June 2003, after years of deliberation, with a founding conference attended by 250 activists from over 50 countries. ESCR-Net is primarily a facilitating platform rather than a campaigning coalition (ESCR-Net URL).
In preparation for the 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, a coalition of disparate, especially Southern, groups, again funded by Novib, collaborated in a bid to get states to make concrete commitments on economic and social issues. After much discussion, especially virtual discussion via the nascent Alliance for Progressive Communications (APC) network, the coalition came to employ a ‘merger between a “rights-based” approach and a macro-economic approach’, out of which the Social Watch network was born (Van Reisen 2000). This network, as the name suggests, takes the human rights tradition of monitoring state performance according to specific benchmarks into the social development realm (Social Watch URL).
Environmental groups have also sought to mobilise counterparts in other movements such as groups working with indigenous peoples and development NGOs, where there is an increasing coalescence of interests. The development community, in particular, has been relatively silent on the climate-change issue until recently. Moves are now afoot to engage donors in a conversation about the need to mainstream climate change objectives in aid programming in order to avoid exposing the poor to enhanced vulnerability as a result of climate change. The challenge is to urge international development actors to ‘recognise climate change as one of the greatest risks to poor people – a force capable of literally “undoing” decades of development’ (Pettit 2004: 102). Despite the ongoing reluctance of donors to seriously engage with the issue to date, one indication of change has been a recent report by donors on Poverty and Climate Change, which calls for ‘steps towards mainstreaming climate issues into all national, sub-national and sectoral planning processes such as Poverty Reduction Strategies or national strategies for sustainable development’ (World Bank Group 2003: xi). Groups have been more successful in raising awareness amongst development NGOs that have become more involved as evidence mounts of the impacts of climate change on the poor in the form of floods, droughts and other ‘natural’ disasters. Groups such as the UK-based Christian Aid and Tear Fund have made their voices heard, issuing reports and statements at the climate meetings (Tear Fund 2004).
Michel Foucault, speaking in 1981, heralded the emergence of an ‘international citizenry’ (quoted in Keenan 1987: 22), exemplified by Amnesty International and others, which had created a new right, that of private individuals to intervene in the order of international politics and strategies, to uproot the monopoly over reality previously held by governments.
Concern over small arms as a global issue first emerged in the early 1990s, as conventional disarmament organisations, domestic gun control groups, UN officials, foundations, and scholars held conferences, began research, and published books on the role of small arms in conflicts and crime worldwide. The NRA and other national gun groups quickly took notice. In 1997, they established a transnational network, the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA) – two years before pro–control forces formally created the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). WFSA now comprises 38 NGOs from around the world, primarily domestic sporting associations, firearms organisations, and gun manufacturers’ groups (WFSA URL). (IANSA claims over 700 member organisations in more than 100 countries, including domestic gun control groups and international development and human rights NGOs [URL]). Just like IANSA, WFSA’s most important function is facilitating communication and exchanging ideas through conferences, publications, and a website. As its website declares, WFSA has a ‘noble purpose: to further the study, preservation, promotion and protection of sport shooting activities on every continent.’ Its ‘Project on Myths’ refutes ‘statistical myths and pseudo–scientific facts’ about firearms. Pro–gun groups then use this information to combat control measures. Meanwhile, WFSA’s image committee promotes ‘a true and accurate portrayal of the time–honored traditions and heritage of sport shooting.’ As one part of this, it presents an annual ‘Ambassador Award’ for a public figure interested in sport shooting who has made the greatest ‘social contribution.’ The 2006 winner: Italian gun-maker Ugo Gussalli Beretta (WFSA URL).
Some of the most significant actors in global civil society have been active on the climate change issue, particularly from the 1980s onwards, coinciding with growing interest in global threats such as ozone depletion and climate change and rising appreciation of the global sources and impacts of threats facing the human race. World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been among the most active groups on this issue. By the time of the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in the Hague November 2000, however, participants from 323 intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations were present (Yamin 2001). In order to bring about a measure of coordination of their activities, pooling of resources and expertise, civil society groups have organised themselves into coalitions such as the Climate Action Network (CAN).
Nothing of the sort existed on the social movements’ side. Of course, through their international structures, innumerable campaign activists, as well as religious, academic, humanitarian, NGO and trade-union networks did meet periodically. Nonetheless, experience has shown that these single-issue meetings rarely resulted in concrete global action, precisely because of their very specificity. What was missing was a space where the greatest number of social players, geographically isolated and usually lacking funds, could meet to articulate and exchange their views and their experience of political struggles
Then, after the third World Social Forum, the Charter leveraged another strikingly effective episode in worldwide mobilisation, based on the same logic of networked organisation that had proved so successful at Seattle. On 15 February 2003 protests brought 15 million people onto the streets, in a great number of countries, to demonstrate for peace and against the invasion of Iraq. The proposal to hold these demonstrations was presented and discussed during the Forums in November 2002 (in Florence, the first European Social Forum) and January 2003 (the WSF in Porto Alegre). Under its Charter of Principles, however, the Forum is not an organisation but a ‘space’; it has no leaders and cannot call for demonstrations from the top down. The 15 February protests were thus convened by the multiple networks that participated in the Forum or that then started working together, drawing freely – as had happened at Seattle – on an extremely powerful tool for horizontal communication, namely, the internet. The calls that went out for the 2003 demonstrations far exceeded whatever ability the Forum itself may have had to mobilise for action. However, it probably was decisive to the process that the Forum made an open meeting space available, under the terms of its Charter, for proposals to be presented and discussed, and for the planning and coordination necessary to carry them out.
Social Forums and interconnectedness
Two chapters in this yearbook discuss directly the matter of global civil society’s infrastructure: how global it is in terms of actual on-the-ground presence and connectedness rather than rhetoric. The conclusions of Katz and Anheier’s chapter on international NGOs give a bleak response to this question. While international NGOs are nearly all connected to each other in one huge inclusive network, there is a ‘pronounced centre-periphery structure’. Moreover, the biggest clusters of INGOs mirror the centres of corporate and governmental power: New York, London, Washington, DC and Brussels. Hence, the network reproduces rather than counteracts the amplification of Northern over Southern voices.
But the ideal has not only inspired cyberspace. The opening phrases of the World Social Forum Charter, now adopted by hundreds of regional, national and local social forums, could have been written by Habermas or Benhabib themselves. According to the Charter, a social forum ‘is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences’ etc. As the social forums chapter in Global Civil Society 2005/6 put it, they ‘give rise to uneven attempts to practise politics in horizontal, network-based ways that are meant to be more participatory and democratic than conventional structures’ (Glasius and Timms, 2006: 190). Six years on from the first World Social Forum, our data suggest that the majority of social forums tend to survive, and new ones continue to be founded. Deliberative democracy has flown off the pages of the theorists’ scholarly works and become a real-life aspiration for civil society activists.
The new social movements of the 1970s already showed some affinity with this ideal, causing Habermas to revise his view of the public sphere from something once briefly glimpsed in the Enlightenment that could never return, to a ‘less pessimistic assessment’ of an ideal for which one could strive in practice (1992: 457). Since then, the newer global movements that have emerged have even more explicitly sought their salvation in an alternative politics of communication. The ‘hacker ethic’ of the first generation of computer geeks launched a wholesale attack on the foundations of modernity: the work ethic, the notion of private property, and command-and-control structures of governance (Himanen 2001). But the most enduring characteristic of that ethic has been the emphasis on ‘open access’ and free flows of information and communication, which has to date determined the architecture of the Internet. Beside this paramount achievement, the broad movement has spawned numerous other civil society initiatives built on the same norms, including the early email networks, the free software and open source movements, the Indymedia centres, Wikipedia. These are all expressions of, and contributions to, ‘an emerging techno-political ethos’ (Juris 2005) in global civil society. This ethos has now spread far beyond the original western left-wing hacktivists: Box I.2 describes how the resistance of a single couple of Chinese home-owners to the property developers became a cause celebre by moving from the blogosphere into the Chinese and Western mainstream media.