“NGO’s are not the Same as Civil Society But Some NGOs Can Play the Role of Facilitators”
Mary Kaldor has a long-standing involvement with civil society in the UK and beyond. She is currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics (LSE) where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit. She has been a key figure in the development of cosmopolitan democracy. She writes on globalisation, international relations and humanitarian intervention, global civil society and global governance.
In an interview with Conectas Human Rights, Kaldor reveals a persistent confidence in the potential of the human rights language and its use by civil society. She notes that “using the language of human rights in relation to social justice is a huge step forward, because it means that you no longer think in statist terms. You talk in terms of individual rights, replacing the collective approach that is often rather repressive”.
Nevertheless, Kaldor acknowledges the current challenges that civil society organizations face. She recalls being “particularly struck that, when there were all the demonstrations in the Middle East and elsewhere in 2011, nobody used the term civil society. For them civil society was to do with NGOs and money, and so my question really was: is it still a useful term?” Yet, even in light of those challenges, Kaldor prudently highlights that “recent street protests are much more a sign that people do not feel represented by their members of parliament, who they actually voted for.”
So, what is the role of civil society in this scenario? For Kaldor, as she noted elsewhere, “by civil society I mean the medium through which people participate in public affairs outside formal institutions. In a global era, where force and diplomacy are less important in relations between states, the role of civil society in bringing about political change is much more salient.” This, combined with digital technology, makes Kaldor think that “we are now in an era of incredible revolutionary change.” Read the interview below to understand more about the current role of civil society, the potential of human rights language and who civil society represents.
Conectas Human Rights • For the past ten years you’ve been publishing the Yearbook on Global Civil Society and you have explored different meanings of global civil society. In a 2012 piece for OpenDemocracy you stated that one way in which you chose to interpret civil society is as “the medium through which individuals participate in public affairs”. From a historical perspective, we see the human rights movement as having achieved some very interesting steps toward the promotion of justice and especially in standard setting in the international arena. Do you think human rights are still an effective language for civil society organizations to employ in the quest for social transformation and for social justice?
Mary Kaldor • My initial answer is yes. Human rights are very important and I think that there are several aspects to this. One is that human rights take the debate to a global level, just because of the very term human rights. People struggled for rights in individual countries but those rights were for the citizens of a particular country. So the very term human rights implies that the struggle goes beyond borders. That is the first point to make.
The second point is that human rights struggles have tended to focus on political and civil rights. When it comes to social justice, it’s rather interesting that social justice always tends to be discussed much more in collective terms. So the language of the left and of social justice tends not to be the language of human rights, it tends to be the language of class and collectivity. Very often that is linked to statism because people who struggle for social justice see the state as providing welfare. These people generally approach the state, whereas human rights activists tend to see the state as being oppressive.. So there is usually quite a contradiction between those who struggle for social justice and those who struggle for human rights, and certainly during the Cold War period that was rather institutionalized. People in Eastern Europe, and in places like China and the Soviet Union, would say that they have social and economic rights, while in the West there were civil and political rights. I don’t think they [those people under Communism] had rights at all because you can’t have social and economic rights without human rights.
Using the language of human rights in relation to social justice is a huge step forward, because it means that you no longer think in statist terms. You talk in terms of individual rights, replacing the collective approach that is often rather repressive.
In addition, a lot of human rights activities do not do enough on social justice and likewise people who campaign for social justice do not do enough on political and civil rights. There’s much more to be done. The Chinese may say they have economic and social rights but they don’t. When economic and social rights are fought for, as they have been in countries like Britain, France or in Western Europe, then it becomes very difficult to overturn or change them.
Conectas • In the Global Civil Society Yearbook 2009, you explored the role of global society in relation to poverty eradication, asking whether “global civil society [is] in practice dominated by the ideas and values of rich countries purveyed by international NGOs and other institutions organised and funded in the Global North?” In this sense, what do you think might be or is already the impact of the greater diversity of voices within the international human rights movement?
M.K. • When we wrote that yearbook on poverty, we kept saying – and this was certainly my idea when we started the project in 2001 – that global civil society is a platform that offers opportunities to previously unheard voices because it’s somehow meant to be respectable.
Civil society was the word that East European and Brazilian activists used, and it became a respectable term. So if you said I am a peace activist you were nowhere, but if you said I am a member of civil society you suddenly became an important person. And so I thought civil society was a really good platform, but in reality it has become increasingly associated with international NGOs, and in that sense a term which the Global North has dominated.
Yet, I was particularly struck that, when there were all the demonstrations in the Middle East and elsewhere in 2011, nobody used the term civil society. For them civil society was to do with NGOs and money, and so my question really was: is it still a useful term? I like to use it partly because of its association with my work, but also because it has a long conceptual history which we can engage with.
For all those reasons, I think it is a useful term. But on the other hand, if one wants to reach a broader set of people – we certainly try to do that within the Global Civil Society programme – and if one thinks about something like the World Social Forum, then it becomes very much South-led. The World Social Forum, or transnational peasant movements, or the Zapatistas are really interesting. But would they have called themselves global civil society? I am not sure that they would’ve done.
This has a double side to it. On the one hand, because civil society is a term that everybody accepts, it gives you an opportunity to talk. For example, does the IMF talk to civil society? Shouldn’t they talk to us? I am civil society. On the other hand, and that of course is the contradiction that Gramsci pointed out, civil society is an expression of power relations. Gramsci’s point is that civil society was about hegemony rather than domination. So, yes it’s about the hegemony of the North, but it is not about the domination of the North, and precisely because it’s about hegemony rather than domination it gives people an opportunity to participate.
Conectas • Considering the definition of civil society as the realm and a space for different voices to rise, who do human rights organizations represent? Most organizations – unlike representative governments – are not subject to periodic elections.
M.K. • There is a rather nice piece from 2003 by a writer called Michael Edwards who says “civil society is a voice, not a vote.” I don’t think civil society organizations represent anybody but themselves, unless they have members, in which case they can say they represent their members. Human rights organizations might campaign on behalf of the Rakhine people in Burma, or other oppressed peoples, in which case the organizations can say they represent the peoples’ voice, but not their vote.
Conectas • Do you think it is possible or recommendable that such organizations create mechanisms of participation to define their agendas? Should organizations create channels of dialogue with society to discuss their priorities and strategies?
M.K. • I think that is incredibly important, but it is very difficult to think how to do it. Human rights organizations are typically funded by rich donors from the North and their beneficiaries are oppressed people that don’t get to participate in discussing how the money should be spent. When I was on the board of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is a British government foundation for supporting democracy, I kept suggesting that we should hold meetings with the people who are affected, to discuss how we should spend the money. But it’s quite difficult to do that, especially if it’s voluntary. It’s really difficult, I think, unless it is a state, where people pay taxes and expect to get services back. I think the more you can do both through establishing these kinds of mechanisms and through the media and publicity, the better.
Conectas • In relation to that, do you think the recent street protests all over the world are a sign that people do not feel represented by NGOs?
M.K. • I think recent street protests are much more a sign that people do not feel represented by their members of parliament, who they actually voted for. And I think there is a huge crisis of political representation at the moment. I think it has to do with several things, one of them concerns the technology of elections. While all the focus of accountability is on the actual moment when you cast your vote in a ballot, in elections nowadays there is such a technology of focus groups, of going for the middle floating vote. In this sense, parties don’t express what people want them to express, they express what they think that a small narrow margin of people in the middle want them to say. And the result is that there isn’t a serious public debate and people feel there is no one in parliament who actually represents what they think. And, in addition, it’s partially the problem that in the era of globalization some of the key decisions like neoliberal decisions or policies about debt are not taken by the government, anyway. Yet, I still think there is certainly a huge crisis of representation at the moment. But, in general, I would say people tend to trust NGOs more than they trust the governments.
Conectas • And how do you see the role of different NGOs in relation to the street protests? How do you see their contribution to the protests worldwide?
M.K. • I think it depends on the NGO. NGOs are not the same as civil society. Civil society is about participation. One way to understand NGOs is as ‘tamed’ social movements. They have often evolved from social movements but they have become professionalized and bureaucratized and they compete with each other for funds so their behavior both reflects their past history and their present logic. There are a lot of different NGOs, but I do think some NGOs really play the role of facilitators. I am going to a meeting in Sarajevo in June, and there, the World Social Forum and another NGO, Helsinki Citizens Assembly, are providing a place where many of the protesters can participate.
Conectas • So the mediator role is still very present?
M.K. • Yes, and it is interesting that NGOs do that now. When I was young and participating in protests, labour movements did that, and they still do actually.
Conectas • In the Global Civil Society 2012 report you also argue that civil society means a place where manifestations occur, where people can talk, discuss and act freely – and that the concrete manifestations of civil society – from meetings at coffee shops to Facebook – vary according to time and place. In your opinion, how has new information and communication technologies influenced activism?
M.K. • There are lots of different answers. First of all, it facilitates activism. It is just much easier to mobilize and to organize using social media and twitter. Secondly, I think it has enormously accelerated our awareness of what goes on in other parts of the world, which I think is really important. There is no question that social media, mobile phones and twitter and so on have all been tremendously important.
On the other hand, you can also point to very negative aspects. I think it fosters extremism. It’s much easier to be extremist on Facebook than it is face to face. I think it also encourages clicktivism, the idea that you just sign an online petition and you feel that you’ve done something.
But having said those pros and cons, this is an enormous revolution, as important as printing was. The history of the world should probably be told through the history of communication technologies, from talking to writing. I read something about St. Augustine of Hippo, and somebody comments that he was reading a book sitting by himself and not opening his mouth. It was always assumed before that time, that you were reading aloud. With printing you get vernacular languages, you get the rise of nationalism; with novels, newspapers, you get the rise of secularism. And I think we are now in an era of incredible revolutionary change! And I just don’t think we have begun to think, to understand what it’s leading us to.