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The role of civil society organisations in promoting corporate

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					               The role of civil society organisations in promoting corporate citizenship

    By Cardinal Uwishaka, Assistant Secretary General Programmes (CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen


The existence of civil society organisations stems from the exercise of individual human rights; notably,
the freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. One of the important roles
of civil society organisations is to contribute to holding accountable the other two main components of
society: the government and businesses (market). With today’s globalised world, characterised by an
increased power and influence of corporate companies (transnational corporations), the eroding capacity
of individual nation states’ governments to regulate the market, the challenge to civil society organisations
in the exercise of this fundamental role is a daunting task and new and creative ways must be found for

In the recent past there have been notable efforts by civil society organisations across the world to
address this challenge through transnational civil society movements. There are however serious
challenges to civil society organisations as they stand up to live up to the challenge of their own
legitimacy, transparency and accountability, let alone address inherent challenge of new ways of
organising to act at he global scene.

Globalisation and civil society organisations

Globalisation - defined here as a “set of processes that re-order the spatial organisation and flow of
economic, political, and social activities within and across regions and nation-states - exerts political
impacts that affect nation-states; economic impacts that affect the markets, profits and wages of global
nations and peoples; and social/cultural impacts that affect the human rights and human security of the
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vast majority of the people on the planet” . According to Michael Edwards and John Gaventa, global
problems will need global solutions, … yet global governance in its current state with changes introduced
in the form of a patchwork quilt of agreements negotiated between governments, corporations and
citizen’s groups is at the same time celebrated as the birth of a true global democracy and a source of
worry for many who view those changes as democracy’s subversion by ever-more powerful special
interest groups.

With globalisation, decisions that affect virtually all human beings everywhere and for many generations
in their lifetime are increasingly being taken by a few and there is an ever increasing democratic deficit at
both domestic and international levels, efforts to mitigate this negative trend and the important role of civil
society organisations in this effort cannot be overemphasized.

 Marsha J. Tyson Darling, Who Really Rules the World? In Srilatha Batliwala and L. David Brown
Transnational Civil Society An introduction, 2006, Kumarian Press Inc.
    Michael Edwards and John Gaventa, Global Citizens: Perspectives and challenges
However, as civil society engages in this exercise and becomes increasingly prominent not only at the
national level but also globally, there are increasing calls by governments and critics of civil society that
question the legitimacy, transparency and accountability of civil society. There are many efforts
underway to address this challenge such as the efforts of a diverse group of international NGOs that have
agreed an International NGO Accountability Charter in 2006. The charter illustrates civil society’s
commitment to ensure that it maintains the highest ethical standards possible and that it never takes the
high level of public trust that it enjoys for granted. There are several other efforts of civil society to
develop self-regulation mechanisms at the local, national and global levels. Some of these are more
generic in nature and others are more specific to specific sectors of civil society.

Globalisation and the increasing power of transnational corporations

Arguably, “…world capitalism and its vehicle for building a universal infrastructure, economic
globalisation, are dominant forces at the planetary level today. A world economic system has been
developing over the course of the last centuries. At the same time, other dominant forces in pursuit of the
exercise of human rights have also developed, such as the modern secular state, democratisation,
decolonisation, collective bargaining, and civil society institutions. … These social developments have not
been a part of capitalism’s plan, or an inevitable by-product, or indeed a natural outgrowth of its reach;
rather, they represent the other side of emergent capital interest – namely the concerns, work, and
achievements of everyday people who organised mass social change movements”.

Starting from the period over the last two centuries in the so called “first world” the formation of the
modern state and participatory democracy ushered in a period of broader representation and
transformation of social relations that were previously based on inequality. At the same time, accelerating
economic development inevitably led to the creation and an unprecedented growth in the size and power
of corporations, transforming into sizeable multinational and transnational entities. While a minority elite
push for further regressive neoliberal and monetarist policies, others including mainstream civil society
organisations have been working to summon the collective will to restore global rules for transparency
and accountability that promote human security for the many, protect biodiversity and the survival of
natural evolution, and promote sustainable development and an environmentally sound economic growth.

The global community is today at a critical juncture. Many of the ideas that have compelled domination,
utilitarianism and exploitation toward people and the earth’s resources must now be seriously challenged
and start to be addressed. “As stakeholders in planetary matters, we are all investors in the present and
the future of humanity and human kind. Markets must not be allowed to function without effective
regulatory apparatus, and modern, representative systems, which have so far served to protect and
advance global citizen rights and human security ”.

Democratic deficit: a challenge to civil society organisations

Civil society organisations have sought to check the growth in power of the corporate world associated
with globalisation. Traditional forms of government regulations have been reduced and civil society
organisations have actively worked to develop international behavioural norms which companies find it
difficult to escape and it is in this context that several initiatives to promote good practice, self-regulation
and promote accountability initiatives by progressive corporate companies have been developed. These
include for instance the corporate accountability reporting initiative and civil society has a critical role to
play to ensure that such initiatives become more and more popularised and yield desired results of
promoting corporate citizenship and responsibility.

In the context of globalisation, democratic deficit and an increasing power of transnational corporations in
the market, there have been efforts by civil society organisations to craft new ways of organising to

  For an elaborate discussion of this trend, please see Marsha J Tyson Darling, Who Really Rules the
World? in Srilatha Batliwala and L. David Brown Transnational Civil Society An introduction, 2006,
Kumarian Press Inc.
  Marsha J Tyson Darling, op cit
address negative effects of the democratic deficit both at home and internationally. We have all observed
that decisions that affect the lives and well being of people around the world increasingly lie with supra
national institutions which are not directly accountable to those people nor easily accessible to citizen
voices. This happens at the time when there is increasing acceptance that we need to move from
considering participation as just a mean for better development to considering participation as a
fundamental human right.

National governments continue to be key political players but they are no longer the primary locus of
power. The present system of global governance lacks representative legitimacy; at the same time,
democracy at the local and national levels is also in trouble, even in many established democracies.
According t Kumi, “…in many democratic systems, form has largely overtaken the substance of
democracy: elections may be held, but fewer and fewer people are choosing to vote, and the meaningful
interaction between citizens and their elected representatives is minimal between election periods” .
Given the deficiencies in the democratic process and the inadequacy of State mechanisms to resolve
them, it is understandable that increasing numbers of citizens have considered civil movements as a way
to enhance public participation, consultation, transparency and accountability in governance.

Transnational civil society movements

Since the early 1990s, transnational civil society movements have come into their own as a powerful
political force as the number, capacity, scope, reach, and public profile of citizen groups has grown. The
rise of transnational movements has clearly emerged as part of a broad based effort to democratise
political space and to overcome the democratic deficit exacerbated by the processes of globalisation. In
response to globalisation challenges, civil society organisations have internationalised their work through
the expansion of their operations across the world, hiring of local and international staff, and working side
by side with foreign governments and civil society groups. In other cases, civil society activists continue to
work in their own countries, but have constructed loose networks of like-minded individuals and
organisations in other parts of the world in order to share information and coordinate activities around a
particular area of concern.

We witness today an emergence of loosely organised cross-border relationships between civil society
organisations and actors who are interested in similar issues and who, to a greater or lesser extent
coordinate their activities in more than one country to publicly influence social change. However
transnational movements are often difficult to grasp conceptually because it is not always evident how
they are organised or led. This characterisation is particularly true in the case of broad movements for
global justice (often referred to as the anti-globalisation movement), which are amorphous in shape,
encompass a great diversity of actors and are not always guided by a clear leader or leaders. Movements
such as these are perhaps best understood as networks of loose, non hierarchical structures that unite
like-minded groups, while allowing room for a great variety of tactics approaches and goals. These
characteristics are simultaneously the greatest strengths and greatest weakness of the transnational civil
society phenomenon; while transnational movements are powerful because of their diversity, flexibility
and dynamic creativity, they can also be accused of incoherence, fragmentation and intellectual
confusion .

Challenges and opportunities to civil society organisations

Civil society has challenges of legitimacy and accountability stemming increasingly from its increased
status and involvement in global matters. For civil society to become effective there is absolute need to
show its effectiveness in bringing about a more just world. Civil society actions will have to be judged
sooner or later by how effective they have contributed to this cause. Kumi has argued that: “…this entails

  Kumi Naidoo, Claiming Global Power: Transnational Civil Society and Global Governance, in Marsha J
Tyson Darling, Who Really Rules the World? In Srilatha Batliwala and L. David Brown Transnational Civil
Society An introduction, 2006, Kumarian Press Inc.
  For an elaborate discussion of transnational civil society, please refer to Kumi Naidoo (2006), op cit.
finding a greater common ground for dialogue and action. Additionally, it is important for civil society to
focus on the considerable number of areas where there is agreement and common ground for
involvement and to agree to respectfully disagree on the smaller number of areas of difference. Civil
society needs to reflect deeply, from the local to the global levels, how it can enhance and improve its
effectiveness. Civil society across the world is called upon to recognise that one of its strengths stems
from its diversity. The danger is that diversity can sometimes be used as an excuse for parochialism, a
lack of willingness to explore collaborative ways of working and sometimes individualistic approaches to
social change for the greater public good” .

In an effort to address the challenge of legitimacy, transparency and accountability of international
advocacy NGOs, CIVICUS has been involved together with other organisations in developing an
accountability charter. The charter expresses its signatories’ commitment to uphold the highest standards
of moral and professional conduct in all their policies, activities and operations. The charter merely
represents a starting point of an ongoing process to establish and implement a system that not only sets
common standards of conduct for INGOs but also creates mechanisms to report, monitor and evaluate
compliance as well as provide redress. The concerned civil society organisations believe that by leading
by example, they will demonstrate to others societal actors that power comes with responsibility and that
recognition of this fact and working to address it should be a normal of good business practice and a true
recognition and acceptance of global citizenship responsibility.

    Kumi Naidoo, e-CIVICUS No. 322, February 2007

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