Thus, in the context of globalisation, accountability is a persistent and growing problem in search of a solution rather than a solution in response to a problem, in part because it relates to questions of legitimacy. Accountability becomes part of the global political economy: some stakeholders have more voice than others and are the preferred audience of accountability for legitimacy reasons; some jurisdictions are more ‘hands off’ and others are more controlling, even restrictive; some audits in some countries are demanding, others are easy. Accountability becomes a political issue that reflects power differentials among stakeholders, and an economic issue that reflects transaction and compliance costs.
Many proposals for UN reform go in the direction of some kind of global civil society assembly, sometimes alongside an assembly of parliamentarians, to supplement or replace the existing General Assembly (Falk, Chapter 5; Van Rooy 2004: 134). But the fundamental flaw of all these proposals is that they try to push civil society into the straitjacket of representative democracy. As we and others have argued before, representation in the elective sense is not what global civil society does (Edwards 2003; Van Rooy 2004: 62–76; Anderson and Rieff 2004: 29–31). We believe the claims, and hence also the structures, for democratising the United Nations through global civil society should be more imaginative.
Impunity and insecurity, combined with persistent poverty and inequality, account for much of the profound sense of disconnection between people’s aspirations and the capacity of the political system to respond to the demands of society. The democratic transition in Latin America created the rules and institutions of democracy, but in most countries respect for due process and rule of law is in danger, at best. Mistrust of politicians, political parties, parliaments and the judiciary system is paving the way for the resurgence in several countries of forms of authoritarian populism that were thought to be relegated to the past. Nothing is more expressive of this all-encompassing rejection of the political establishment than the call – que se vayan todos (they all must go) – that punctuated the street demonstrations in Argentina, leading to the overthrow of three successive presidents in a few days. In some countries, such as Venezuela, the traditional political system literally fell apart. In others, the crisis of legitimacy gave rise to new actors and demands for radical change.
Yet despite the spread of democratic institutions, there remains a big gap between formal and substantive democracy. Many of the countries classified as democracies perform poorly on Freedom House’s freedom scores, which are made up of a combination of political rights and civil liberties. In many countries, democratic procedures that have been specified in laws and constitutions are only partially implemented. Thus newly emerging democracies may be characterised, in varying combinations, by a weak rule of law, the lack of an independent judiciary, limitations on freedom of speech and association, ethnic or religious exclusion, election fraud, and presidential domination. These procedural weaknesses are often associated with substantive weaknesses, including the tendency for political parties to extend control over different spheres of social life in ways that limit political participation, especially in former communist countries; a tendency for the government to control the electronic media and restrict registration of NGOs; a politicised and clientilistic administration; various forms of racist or xenophobic sectarianism which may provide a basis for populism; and a widespread sense of personal insecurity that undermines the ability and readiness to debate public issues owing to inadequate law enforcement and an undeveloped judiciary. Participation is also often limited, as evidenced by low voter turn-outs, low membership of political parties, and widespread apathy, disillusion and cynicism. Indeed, the introduction of democratic procedures, especially elections, may lead to conflict, state failure and/or elective dictatorship, and only a very few countries in Central and Southern Europe or South America have escaped this fate.
Ishkanian describes potently in this volume how such integration has taken place at the civil society level. Western governments in the last 15 years have sought to reinforce democratic legitimacy in nation-states by co-opting organised civil society. Based on a particular reading of de Tocqueville (ignoring his concern for social equality), influential scholars like Putnam, Fukuyama and Larry Diamond asserted a direct connection between the existence of numerous associations and the vibrancy of democracy. Applying such theories to transition countries, where they might not find the ‘right’ type of associations for promoting Western-style democracy, donor agencies would in Ishkanian’s term ‘genetically-engineer’ NGOs through training and project funding. Under these conditions of global communication, the types of aid projects Ishkanian describes have provoked a backlash against the twin projects of ‘building civil society’ and ‘democratisation’, often and justly perceived as a form of neo-imperialism.