What does ‘global civil society’ mean to you? This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, particularly due to my involvement with Roots and Wings International and its growing presence in the area of International Development. Whilst it’s something we’re probably all aware of, and probably participate in to some extent, we don’t necessarily use the term ‘global civil society’ to refer to it. As I think recent posts of mine have highlighted, many terms used in the field of International Development are highly debated, yet this week I’d rather avoid this debate and use Kofi Annan’s definition of global civil society as a point of reference (Secretary General, addressing participants at Millennium Forum, calls for intensified “NGO revolution”’, M2 Presswire, 23 May, 2000). Annan states that global civil society aspires to both ‘representativeness’ and to ‘intermediation’, and with this in mind I will take a look at what global civil society might mean for Guatemala.
What might representativeness mean for Guatemala? As anyone familiar with the work of Roots and Wings International will well know, indigenous communities and rural areas are often neglected by the Guatemalan state demonstrating a real urban-bias. Global civil society here presents an arena to fill this void with voices of those in need of support, thus representing their desires and needs. Under-represented people and groups can support one another and gain external support, pool resources, and draw strength and power from this arena. Global civil society thus highlights areas in which groups at varying levels of formality (from organisations such as Roots and Wings International with its provision of education in state-neglected rural areas, to street artists creating murals like in the image above in Cuba) can fill the gap between the people and the state.
Once these demands have been aired and recognised in the arena of global civil society, there is potential for this new-found strength and power to approach and demand that the Guatemalan state respond to the unfulfilled needs and desires of its people. This ‘intermediation’ can have striking results in what is referred to as the ‘boomerang effect’. Whether global civil society will have an eventual impact on policy outcomes will vary greatly with the validity of each claim and the capacity of the Guatemalan government, but a quick glimpse across at the Arab Spring suggests that great things can be achieved. Growing access to communication technology has allowed global civil society to flourish across borders, and it is exciting to watch as Guatemala and other developing countries make increasing use of such tools.
I must admit that I object slightly to the use of the terms ‘representativeness’ and ‘intermediation’ as I don’t feel like they fully capture the bottom-up nature of global civil society, yet in the ‘global’ sense of civil society they do express the additional power of global collectivity in relation to just ‘civil’ society. I’d be tempted to suggest key words such as ‘accountability’ and ‘adaptation’ in any discussion of the means and ends of global civil society (both being inseparable).
Personally, I’d like to think that global civil society has the potential to be whatever people require of it, when there is no other channel to pursue whatever the objective might be – a definition echoing that diffused by many of the leading academics in this field. Of course, this requires acknowledgement of the potential for the arena of global civil society to be used negatively and as the sphere of global civil society grows and evolves this negative aspect and the way in which it is managed will have to evolve accordingly. After all, every good thing comes at a price, right? In response to this question, please comment below and share your own views and experiences – I’m still learning and would love for you to get involved, surely that’s what global civil society’s all about!