The power of civilityBy: Jai Sen, March 2007 on: Mon 11 of Jun, 2007 14:56 IST (10547 Reads)
The role of NGOs : Globalisation from below ?
Certain further points come out of this, for the purposes of this paper. One, it is in these terms that we therefore need to take a deeper look at the roles of NGOs, or civil organisations – the vast majority of which belong to civil society and are led by middle and upper caste and class males – and at the critical roles that are today attributed to them not only by private foundations, which is more understandable, but also by so many analysts. Taking only as an example the work of Muto Ichiyo, while it is clear from the writings of this visionary thinker and political strategist that he is by no means unqualifiedly celebrating them, as some authors do, and to the contrary he is challenging them to review their role in society, on the other hand we need, I believe, to look far more critically at the proposition that he and others put forward that NGOs can and will play the role of helping “the people” come forward, towards a “steady but systematic replacement of NGOs with people’s organisations as the representation in the global arena”.
While I would like to share this hope, my experience and research into transnational civil politics suggest that in practice, the reverse of this has been happening and will continue to happen. While one result of NGO mobilisation is greater participation by ‘the people’, another is that such organisations, and their leadership, tend also to move to constantly more powerful positions, often behind the scenes, at national and global levels. We therefore need to be more aware of the structural dynamics involved in such situations – and to be sceptical about the possibilities of this happening without much greater mobilisation on the ground, among ‘the people’ – and by the people themselves, such that they are capable of challenging civil tendencies.
In particular, and flowing out of the arguments I have placed above about their roles, we need to recognise that civil organisations – as a sector or category; there are always exceptions - are not disinterested actors but agency in history for the introduction and installation of civil values. This is, and will necessarily remain, their agenda.
Second, and perhaps most fundamentally, I believe we need to stand back and look at civil organisations in perspective, at a time of dramatic social change – and to assess their role and contributions in this perspective.
We today live at a time when the incivil – and the uncivil – are, more than ever before in history, themselves independently and insurgently building their own organisations and their own transnational coalitions and alliances within and beyond ‘national’ societies (but where in many cases, they also reject the concept and project of the dominant ‘nation’ within which they find themselves located and which they seek now to transcend). In some cases these initiatives are emancipatory and progressive, and in others, regressive - just as in the case of civil society. But in relation to the much celebrated phenomenon and thesis of ‘globalisation from below’ therefore, in which civil organisations have been projected a playing the key role, I believe we need to recognise that this is not globalisation from below (GfB) but globalisation from the middle; but more importantly, and beyond this, that the real globalisation from below is taking place in very different ways and largely quite independently from the celebrated version.
I am speaking here not of a single parallel world, or a simple or single parallel process of building other worlds. I believe that we need to shift our gaze and bring into focus the reality that the world is changing (and has always changed) in myriad ways, and not only through and as a result of (and in reaction to) neoliberal globalisation (which GfB is largely focussed on). We need, I suggest, to recognise that myriad globalisations have taken place in history and are today taking place - and crucially, that both incivil and uncivil societies all over the world are taking part in this drama, both independently and also interdependently with yet other actors such as institutions of faith. The world-changing role of former African slaves over the past two centuries, in so many arenas, is just one example.
In making this assertion, I openly acknowledge my admiration for the idea of a globalisation from below, as first put forward by Richard Falk and then developed and elaborated very substantially by Jeremy Brecher and his colleagues in their landmark book on the subject. But I asked precisely these questions to Jeremy and his colleagues back in 2000, while commenting on the manuscript for their book.
Their reaction was while accepting my point, it would take another book to achieve this. In my understanding, this work remains urgently to be done, and it is only by engaging with and relating to this issue, and with the other issues I have tried raising here, and in the terms proposed by Childs as mentioned above, that civil organisations can begin to authentically take part in the larger, wider processes of democratisation that are now opening up. But that unless they do this, they will in effect compete with them, and thereby – and precisely on account of the power of civility – undermine them, and however valid their own concerns and articulations might otherwise be.
Equally possible is the well-established practice of civil organisations co-opting (and thereby civilising) incivil movements and tendencies. As just one example of stark differences of praxis, there is a world of difference in the manner in which many Dalit organisations perceive neoliberal globalisation – of potentially being one more force to blow open the caste structure that has imprisoned them for a thousand years, and which they regard as their primary issue – versus the formal ideology of the WSF and the alter-globalisation movement; but where the WSF never objects to their presence, despite the contradiction, and to the opposite celebrates it. This can be compared to the difference that arose in the independence movement in India, where the founder of the Dalit movement, Dr B R Ambedkar, refused to accept that colonialism was the only enemy of the Indian people and insisted that the movement – led by the Gandhi, Nehru, and other civil actors - accept the dismantling of caste as an equal task; but it came to a head only when he insisted on this.
Third, we need equally to recognise, in this context of competing alter-globalisms, the degree to which the leadership of international NGOS, private foundations, and also of many social movements promoted by such organisations is today coagulating into what has many of the characteristics of a powerful transnational class. Just as in the case of corporations, these characteristics include key individuals (mostly males) across the world being on the boards of each other’s organisations, thereby building every-larger webs of interlinked control. For the good of both civil and incivil societies, it is essential that we read, comprehend, and spell out this phenomenon in political terms.
And fourth, we need also to recognise that the recent phenomenal growth and expansion of transnational civil organisations (“NGOs”) is not only a result of spontaneous association but also as a function of more flexible strategies by the US government in securing global hegemony through the dominance of the Washington Consensus.
In conclusion, and as I see it, emerging global cooperation among civil social and political actors – collectively referred to as ‘global civil society’ - is at one and the same time a crucial vehicle for transnational civil solidarity and therefore, in this more limited sense, for the democratisation of world politics; but seen through the lens of the historic larger and wider democratisation that is today beginning to unfold, of incivil societies coming into their own, and of the power of civility, it is arguably also - because of the dynamics of civility and its internal tendencies of corporatisation - an instrument for the consolidation, strengthening, and imposition of historically unequal social and political relations and of entrenched interests. In the terms of the question asked at the outset of this paper therefore, I suggest that it is - in a larger historical perspective, and unless challenged to make major shifts in its politics – arguably contributing today to less democracy, not more.