Three different workshops at the 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre, all attended by the author, illustrate this mixed record of convergence. Just prior to the forum, a thematic World Social Forum on Health took place, attended by 800 people, which adopted the ‘right to health’ as its lead theme (World Social Forum on Health URL). A follow-up session to this during the WSF, entitled ‘Right to Health: Neoliberalism or Social Movement’, saw participants from Argentina, India, Colombia and Burundi describing the consequences of privatisation, austerity measures and military conflict for the right to health in their respective countries, and describing the social movement action being undertaken against this. Other participants from Argentina and Mexico stressed the need to give medical students a more ‘people-oriented education’ and to protect the use of alternative medicine by indigenous groups from state repression and corporate interests. The principal terms in the discourse of this workshop were ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘struggle’. Participants used their own, self-defined concept of the right to health, and no reference was made to the Covenant or to any national lawsuits or legal provisions concerning the right to health.
It is rather early to tell to what extent these commitments are transforming the practices of the organisations. Various pitfalls can be identified. The first is that, having incorporated human rights, development organisations, ever in pursuit (as Uvin, 2002: 4, points out) of the moral high ground, move on to the next fashionable concept. Certainly in the latest Oxfam publications, there seems to be a shift towards ‘economic and social justice’. The second danger is a facile relabelling of existing projects to fit with the new objectives. In ActionAid’s right to education, or in Oxfam’s right to basic social services, old service-delivery mandates are easily recognised, while the right ‘to be heard’ reflects more recent preoccupations with participation and accountability. The third and most pervasive problem is a very limited understanding of the obligations that flow from human rights. Time and again, documents on rights-based development assert either that rights-based projects can help developing country governments meet basic human rights or, more confrontationally, that they help the citizens of developing countries hold their governments accountable. Some have viewed this cynically, as reintroducing conditionality through the back door, via the beneficiaries (Cornwall and Nyamu-Musembi 2005: 14). Others look upon it more benignly as a tool to empower the poor and marginalised. Even so, the state, and in particular the developmental state, cannot be the be-all and end-all for the fulfilment of economic and social rights. Other states, international financial institutions and transnational corporations may have to assume obligations in order to guarantee effective fulfilment. But the buck does not stop there. Development organisations, whether non-governmental, bilateral or intergovernmental, often have a bigger presence in the health or education sector of developing countries than the state itself. The rhetoric of rights-based development has gone hand in hand with the rhetoric of accountability, but no donor agency has yet spelled out that, in the name of rights-based development, it can henceforth be held accountable by beneficiaries or non-beneficiaries on a specific, self-defined or – better still – legally documented set of human rights obligations. In rights-based development, the rights are for the poor, but the obligations are born by the poor state alone. Development agencies do not recognise themselves as power-holders with possible obligations, and let themselves off the hook.
Thus, for more than 40 years after the announcement of a world ‘free from want’ by the president of the United States, economic and social rights remained a dead letter. With the exception of labour rights, they failed to inspire global civil society activity. Steering a course that transcended the bitter cold war dispute on human rights was, as an organisation like Amnesty International found, difficult enough. The language of economic and social human rights fitted so badly with any of the major ideologies of the day that it appears to have been beyond the political imagination of the actors and thinkers in civil society. Nor did the ‘right to development’ capture the imagination. Such rights were therefore easily hijacked by a variety of state agendas, which were in reality directed against civil and political rights, or against economic inequality between states.
However, we cannot take the relative autonomy that global civil society has achieved for granted. On the one hand, wooed by states, its goals can be subverted to reinforce the tendencies it aims to resist. On the other hand, its independence from the nation-state can make it a scapegoat for failures in times of war. Courted by groups opposed to governments it can find itself in very non-civil company. Asserting civil liberties against authoritarian regimes it can find itself allied with resistance movements that see violence as a legitimate last resort. Therefore, engagement with issues of conflict and violence is not marginal to civil society but defining for its future. There are two main reasons for this. First, if civil liberty is no longer simply a concession granted in peacetime by the sovereign state, global civil society has to come to a fuller realisation of the values and principles on which it is based and to develop its own solutions to conflicts that will prevent them escalating into violence that destroys victims and perpetrators alike.
5. Limits are imposed by the problem-structure of climate change. A recurring theme throughout the chapter has been the ways in which the problem-structure of climate change creates unique challenges for NGOs seeking to influence the policy debate. The close association of the issue with contemporary forms of energy production and consumption, and the ties that exist to issues of security of supply and the geopolitical implications this entails, make climate change an intrinsically more politically sensitive issue than many other global environmental issues. This stronger sense of high politics also means that climate change touches more directly the interests of powerful and well-organised sectors of the global economy, such as oil, the energy sector in general, and the chemical and automotive industries.
Just as in the international negotiations themselves, so too within civil society there is significant debate and friction regarding the role of developing countries and, more specifically, the issue of whether and at what point they should assume emission reduction commitments. Conflict over this issue of commitments transgresses the North-South divide, with the G8 Climate Action Group opposing developing country commitments at this stage, while more conservative environmental groups are pushing for commitments from developing countries on the basis that this is increasingly a pre-requisite for US (re)-engagement with the Kyoto regime.
Within civil society: alliances, fissures and the politics of consensus building
In the North, civil society has concentrated on climate change more exclusively as an environmental issue by environmental NGOs and researchers and has focussed on scientific and technical solutions such as emissions controls and carbon credits. In the South, however, climate change emerged primarily as a sustainable development issue, whose solutions are seen as inseparable from larger issues of poverty, trade and globalisation. (Pettit 2004: 102)
The ways in which civil society groups have sought to engage and work with one another have changed over the course of the international community’s response to the threat of climate change. Early episodes of conflict and misunderstanding, often resulting from insensitivities borne of inequities between groups, partly though not exclusively along North-South lines, have given way to more inclusive decision-making and organisational arrangements characterised by the CAN network. As noted above, structural inequalities such as the under-representation of Southern groups at international meetings, which means that their voices are effectively screened out of global debates by resource barriers, as well as institutional structures which privilege organised inputs from civil society, continue to be important (see Box 3.5). Many of the conflicts over policy agendas and preferences transgress these divides, however, and are explored in more detail below.
Yet even well-informed research-oriented NGOs may not be welcome partners to governments unaccustomed to, suspicious of, or downright hostile towards collaboration with NGOs. Many groups from business and the NGO community complain about the lack of opportunities made available to them for consultation and discussion by the Chinese government, for example. Clearly, then, different state attitudes towards participation condition opportunities for influence, as do the broader dynamics of degrees and forms of democratisation, shaping possibilities of media work and the degree of respect for fundamental political freedoms. As noted above, however, participation does not equate with influence. If access is confined to weaker parts of government, is it less likely that groups will be able to influence the overall direction of policy. For example, good ties with environment ministries come to nothing if trade and finance ministries get to exercise a final veto over policy initiatives.
Various models have been employed to account for the influence of these groups (Arts 1998; Betsill and Correll 2001; Newell 2000). Though malleable and shifting, the distinction between groups that might be considered ‘insiders’ and those that are characterised more by their exclusion from the centres of decision-making as ‘outsiders’ does help to highlight important divisions among those groups engaged in the climate change debate. Groups move between these categories over time depending on which strategies they adopt; and the insider-outsider distinction describes in reality a spectrum of access and influence rather than a hard-and-fast dichotomy. It is, nevertheless, the case that some groups, by virtue of their resources, expertise and connections to key government officials, are in a position to exert a much greater direct influence upon the decision-making process than groups whose campaigning agendas, lack of resources and choice of strategy serve to exclude them from the centres of decision-making power.
Mobile Communication Without Social Mobilisation: Japan and China
There are other cases where wireless communication was not used for social mobilisation, such as in Japan, or where initial political developments were crushed by the state, such as in China. While our discussion of these two additional cases is less detailed, due to the lack of studies of them, they do demonstrate that, in line with our earlier claim, the particular usage of wireless technologies is shaped by the social context and political structures of a given society.
The pre-conference hype about protest activities was to some extent accurate, but also exaggerated the potential for wireless communication to cause any major upsets at the conference. For the most part, the protests were widespread but not revolutionary. This happened for a number of reasons. First, the use of wireless communication as a protest tool had been so widely anticipated that it was incorporated into the strategies of the security forces. For one thing, security detail used wireless monitoring techniques themselves, such as head-mounted miniature video cameras that transmitted footage from the security personnel’s location to a mobile command centre (Reardon 2004). Security personnel also allegedly infiltrated protesters planning meetings and monitored text messaging and other communication services used by activists (Gibbs 2004; Gibson 2004). For example, during the convention protesters using indymedia’s web site to transmit messages soon realised that the ‘police were on to them’. Thereafter, ‘calls for “direct action” stayed posted only for a couple of minutes and used code words for location’ (Becker and Port 2004).
The Mobilisation around the Republican National Convention in New York
The Republican Party held its 2004 National Convention (RNC) from 30 August to 2 September amid heightened expectations of disturbances caused by anti-Bush activists. The run-up to the New York convention was characterised by reports and rumours of planned and potentially spontaneous protests and of how the police and security agencies were preparing to deal with these incidents (Carpenter 2004; Gibbs 2004; Shachtman 2004; Terdiman 2004). Comparisons were made to the battle of Seattle in 1999, when over 40,000 protesters descended on the city from all over the world to protest against the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), leading to scenes of violence and contributing to the breakdown of the WTO talks. What was particularly interesting about these reports was that the central role of wireless communication was taken for granted, not just in the protests but in all aspects of the convention. In the event, several (mostly non-violent) protests were indeed coordinated primarily via wireless communication and the internet, leading to over 17,000 arrests. The convention itself was hardly affected by the protests apart from a few minor disruptions. In fact, President Bush experienced a bounce of two percentage points in the polls (among likely voters) after the convention (The Economist 2004; Jones 2004). These events occurred too recently for any judgements to be made about their immediate or long-term impact. Preliminary examination, however, indicates that this was a case where the use of wireless communication technologies served to enhance efficiency but not to effect change.
The Role of Civil Society: UN reform or human development?
In the background is the question of whether civil society actors should devote their limited energies and even more limited resources to this debate on UN reform or concentrate most of their efforts on grass-roots contributions to human betterment. This is an old debate that revives the view that civil society undertaking to shape a consensus on UN reform via the report of an independent international commission had led nowhere, and were largely ignored within the United Nations itself (Commission on Global Governance 1995). In contrast, the report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, essentially a civil society initiative although with ties to states, adopted an approach to humanitarian intervention that has now been taken over by the official bodies developing reform initiatives within the United Nations (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). The issue of UN reform overlaps with and is intimately related to discourses on ‘global governance’ (examples include Falk 1995; Anne-Marie Slaughter 2004; Amitai Etzioni 2004; David Held 1995). It is notable and appropriate that Global Civil Society 2004/5 features as its lead chapter a contribution by Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff that counsels international NGOs to give up the pretensions associated with claiming the existence of ‘global civil society’ and stop trying to play a role in the construction of global governance. In their words:
. . . international NGOs should give up their claims to represent global civil society, give up their dreams of representing the peoples of the world—indeed, devote fewer of their resources to advocacy and more time and care to the actual needs of their actual constituencies, and re-establish their claims of expertise and competence. (Anderson and Rieff 2005: 36)
The utopia of the WSF is a radically democratic utopia. This utopian design, grounded on the denial of the present rather than the definition of the future, focused on the processes of intercourse among the movements rather than providing an assessment of the movements’ political content, is the major cohesive force of the WSF. It helps to maximize what unites and to minimize what divides, to celebrate intercourse rather than to dispute power, to be a strong presence rather than an agenda. This utopian design, which is also an ethical design, privileges the ethical discourse, quite evident in the WSF’s Charter of Principles, aimed at gathering consensus beyond the ideological and political cleavages among the movements and organisations that compose it. The movements and organisations put between brackets the cleavages that divide them, as much as is necessary to affirm the possibility of a counter-hegemonic globalisation.
The argument is that such horizontal relations, with actors organised into networks, are actually much more efficient than vertical and pyramidal relations, as they make it possible to build a collective power, sharing responsibility and therefore becoming stronger. Networks function on the logic that action is taken not because someone issues an order or directive but because people believe it is necessary and take it upon themselves as active subjects. In any case, in pyramidal organisations directives do not always filter down, and managers do not always know what is happening among those they manage, which tends to set up a barrier between them. In addition, as power is concentrated at different levels within the pyramid, struggles emerge for control of that power which, instead of uniting those involved, divide and so weaken them.
Some thoughts on the World Social Forum itself
A collective effort to think about the role and the nature of the Forum began in October 2002, when an e-mail discussion list titled ‘WSFitself’ was formed. This was proposed by Brazilian and French participants who, after the success of the second Forum, foresaw the likelihood of growth and felt the need to clarify the meaning of the whole endeavour. At the 2003 Forum that discussion list gave rise to a workshop on proposed innovations in the form and principles underlying its organisation. In 2004, at the Mumbai WSF two significant events took place: a seminar on the subject ‘Forum: open space?’ and a plenary on the future of the WSF. Mumbai also saw the release of an anthology of essays on the World Social Forum as a challenge to the Empires (Sen et al. 2004). Also in 2005, a number of activities addressed this issue from various perspectives and at least two books discussing the Forum were published (Santos 2004; Whitaker 2005).
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.
First, there is a huge gap in the literature concerning the gendered composition of civil society, the gendered norms and practices prevailing among civil society organisations, and the barriers to the participation of not only women in civil society but also some men. There is no systematic, comprehensive disaggregated data available on the gendered make-up of civil society. How many male-dominated or female-dominated associations are there, and what kinds of issues, sectors or activities are these associated with? What do we mean by a gender-based organisation? What is the gender distribution of different kinds of formal and informal organisation? What percentage of volunteers and employees are women, and how does this vary across time, country context and sector? How do we explain the predominance of men or women in particular types of groups? What proportion of directors, trustees and managers of civil society organisations are male, and why are women under- or over-represented in different country contexts or at the global level? How has this changed over time? What legal or regulatory mechanisms facilitate the exclusion or inclusion of many women and some men from participating in civil society? Through what gendered norms and practices, such as the lack of childcare facilities or the times of meetings, are women effectively excluded from taking part in different civil society groups? How do gender relations within the household affect the way women participate and organise, be it in women’s organisations or other kinds of civil society groups? Although some of these questions have been broached in relation to state institutions and formal politics, their application to the realm of civil society requires systematic attention and research.
Third, the advent of highly flexible, multi-channel media systems, which in principle allow for greater circulation of public affairs information, may conceivably have the effect of reducing rather than expanding the broad distribution of news and information. Recent research by Prior (2002) and others suggests that increasing consumer choice, at least in the US media market, has come largely at the expense of news, the audience for which has been dwindling as entertainment-oriented outlets draw readers, viewers and listeners away in significant numbers. Tewksbury (forthcoming) finds a similar pattern in studies tracking users of news websites. With their newfound freedom to navigate media sites, users tend to seek entertainment and celebrity-related information in place of national or international news and public affairs. At the same time, the remaining audience for public affairs programming has fractured, as people look for news and opinions that match their own ideological commitments and judge the credibility of the press from their own ideological viewpoints (Pew Research Center 2004). Such findings fuel concerns about the centrifugal forces at work in new media systems, which may produce a pattern of one-sided information consumption and a widening gulf between the politically engaged and unengaged and thereby reduce the deliberative character of public opinion.
Third, civil society is a double-edged sword for feminists. It can provide a site for organising around feminist issues, for articulating counter-hegemonic discourses, for experimenting with alternative lifestyles and for envisioning other less sexist and more just worlds. With its organisations of self-support, community action, and voluntary care, it can foster solidarity, promote mutual support and prioritise values of care, respect and equality. Yet it can also be an arena where gendered behaviours, norms and practices are acted out and reproduced. As Anne Phillips (2002: 80) warns, the associations of civil society are relatively unregulated when compared with the state and therefore vulnerable to sexist and other discriminatory practices. Civil society can be the terrain of conservative ideologies that foster women’s dependency in the constricted space of the family as well as of emancipatory ideologies that aspire to gender equality. It offers fertile soil not only to liberal, socialist and radical feminists, gay and lesbian movements, and progressive men’s groups, but also to conservative women activists, anti-gay lobbies and patriarchal and misogynistic male groups.
It does seems likely that there are multiple global public spheres when it comes to climate change, partly determined by political boundaries and partly by political predilection, but they do stand in connection with each other. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, may be presumed to penetrate into the different spheres. The subject has in all likelihood gone beyond the level of the attentive public, and begun to impinge on the awareness of what Price calls ‘mass audiences’. While the debate on ‘whether’ is polarised into two camps, the debate on remedies is far more varied, lively, and indeed deliberative. However, participation is very uneven, causing actors in global civil society to do much perilous speaking ‘on behalf of’ potentially threatened populations in parts of Africa or the Pacific islands. It is clear that, probably due to a combination of influential reports and unusual weather, the climate change debate has experienced a sudden elevation to the higher regions of political agendas. To what extent policy and citizen behaviour will be affected remains open.
It is in the practices of activists themselves where we find responses adequate to the challenge posed by that the unprecedented levels of the power of capital. For instance, as Victor Pickard describes in Chapter 10, Indymedia is committed to radical democratic practices in its networks both locally and globally, yet whether this is adequate to the task of democratising global governance is open to question when, as Clifford Bob shows, the same technologies are open to the National Rifle Association and, as Thomas Keenan describes, are central to the idea of global Jihad. Deane shows that activists are now going beyond attempts to practice deliberative democracy within their own spaces, to address global governance structures with the new norm of a ‘right to communicate.’ Yet that right has to be guaranteed in some way and the dilemmas around which the debate between Lippman and Dewey revolved, between management of information, individual participation and democratic decision making are ever more acute in a world confronted with global issues that require collective responses. Global civil society is forced to engage with state structures if it is to secure their democratisation. It has to take communicative democracy to the centre of state power if it is to build global governance and redress the inequalities that stand in the way of adequate action on a global scale.
Inequalities in status based on gender, race, class, education or income are to ‘bracketed’, i.e. for the purposes of the dialogue they are to be treated as if they did not exist.
These constraints are of course multiplied at the global level. Discussions of inequality of access to public debates often focus rather crudely on geographical representation. The ‘North’ is over-represented, the ‘South’ muted. But many more subtle exclusions also operate. Almost without exception, the ‘voices of global civil society’ belong to an English-speaking, university-educated, computer-literate middle class. Within that class access to information is limited again by the commercial logic of websites and search engines. As Vincent Price points out in Chapter 1, Google channels the bulk of users to a set of sites produced mainly by the big media corporations. James Deane in Chapter 8 provides an extensive review of the tendencies towards the appropriation of communicative power and the consequent contraction of the public sphere. He highlights the use of the ‘war on terror’ to restrict freedom of expression, the concentration of media ownership, dependency on advertising, and a growth in number of outlets that actually stifle genuine diversity of opinion.
Not only is participation limited, it is typically limited in ways that confirm existing power imbalances: ‘under conditions of structural inequality, normal processes of deliberation often in practice restrict access to agents with greater resources, knowledge, or connections to those with greater control over the forum’ (Young 2001: 680). Even at the very local level, Young sums up a number of barriers to participation by ‘anyone with an interest’:
Even when a series of public hearings are announced for an issue, people who might wish to speak at them need to know about them, be able to arrange their work and child care schedule to be able to attend, be able to get to them, and have enough understanding of the hearing process to participate. Each of these abilities is unevenly present among members of a society. (Young 2001: 680).
The UN Panel on UN-Civil Society Relations follows in this tradition. It describes participatory democracy as a process in which ‘anyone can enter the debates that most interest them, through advocacy, protest, and in other ways’ (UN 2004: paragraph 13). But a few pages later it acknowledges that there are practical constraints: ‘if the United Nations brought everyone relevant into each debate, it would have endless meetings without conclusion’ (2004: paragraph 23).
In Habermas’ ideal public sphere, ‘access is guaranteed to all citizens’ (1989: 136). But access is in fact limited in many ways. First there are those who explicitly exclude themselves from deliberative fora they deem illegitimate. As Iris Marion Young puts it, they typically ‘make public noise outside while deliberation is supposedly taking place on the inside’, although sometimes they ‘invade the houses of deliberation and disrupt their business’ (Young 2001: 673). These disrupters, well-known figures in global civil society, can still be considered as part of the public sphere. They do after all ‘aim to communicate specific ideas to a wide public’ (2001: 676). They do, however, test the limits of the public sphere-related conception of civil society, particularly when the method of disruption is violent (see Albrow and Anheier 2006). Much more numerous are those who cannot participate. First, access to global public spheres is still restricted by governments (see Chapter 5). Beyond deliberate obstruction by states, there is a wider problem with participation. As Ricardo Blaug puts it wryly:
Whether due to there being simply too many of us, to the excessive complexity and interdependence of the problems we face, to a perceived inefficiency of deliberation, or to a perceived lack of ability and motivation on the part of the demos, democratic theorists since Plato have taught us that the people, while being sovereign, require structures that limit their participation (Blaug 1999: 132).