Civil Society, Democracy and Power

1 October 2004

Chapter in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2004/5, The Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics, and Center for Civil Society at University of California, Los Angeles, Sage Publications, October 2004. Reprinted with permission.

When commentators with very different political views
converge in their dismissal of civil society as of little
value for democracy, it is worth looking at what lies
behind their consensus. Thomas Carothers of the
Carnegie Endowment Trust sees the US government as
the main hope for democracy, although he is critical of
some of its policies (Carothers, 2004). Tariq Ali of New
Left Review and a leader of the 1960s movement against
the US war in Vietnam sees the US presence in Iraq as a
disaster for democracy (Ali, 2002). Both writers question
the common presumption that support for civil society
makes a significant contribution to democracy; indeed,
both maintain that such support often defuses opposition
and falsely legitimises undemocratic regimes.

The arguments of Carothers and Ali share the premise
that support for civil society rarely steps on the toes of
those in power, and so at best leads to liberalisation in
terms of cultural and social rights but not necessarily
to the democratisation of a political regime. In fact,
argues Carothers:

Support for civil society might help strengthen
semi-authoritarian regimes by giving frustrated
citizens the impression that important reforms are
taking place, thereby bleeding off a certain amount
of accumulated internal pressure for change...

He puts it bluntly:

It is very possible that outside democracy promoters
can work for years helping to . . . nourish civic
advocacy, foster greater women's rights, and promote
more democratic civic education without contributing
to a basic change of regime type.
(Carothers, 2003: 11)

His own proposals for supporting democracy are
concentrated on direct aid for a plurality of political
parties, elections, rights of political association and
other aspects of representative democracy. Tariq Ali's
conclusions are similar, though without particular

NGOs will descend on Iraq like a swarm of locusts . . .
Intellectuals and activists of every stripe will be
bought off and put to work producing bad
pamphlets on subjects of purely academic interest.
This has the effect of neutering potential opposition,
or to be more precise, of confiscating dissent in order
to channel it in a safe direction. Some NGOs do buck
the trend and are involved in serious projects, but
these are an exception.
(Ali, 2003: 03)

For Ali, the main problem is that civil society is
separated from politics (except among religious groups
that move in to fill the political vacuum, with
undemocratic results). But this weakness in the ability
of civil society to influence political power is not
inherent in the character of organisations in civil society,
as Ali and Carothers tend to imply. I will argue that they
are probably right about many of the organisations
receiving international funds, mainly American, as do
civil society organisations in Iraq. There are good reasons
for questioning assumptions of an automatic flow
between civil society organisations that are (or claim to
be) democratic, and the process of democratising state
power. This chapter will explore several of them. I will
also contrast the situations where civil society organisations
fail to make an impact on political power with
contexts in which civil society has been a unique source
of power, exercised autonomously from the state, for
democratic change. I will ask what conditions make this
possible and what role global organisations and networks
of civil society have played in the process. Finally,
I will return to Iraq and illustrate my argument with
references to organisations struggling for democracy
that have emerged in civil society independent of,
indeed out of resistance to, the occupying powers.

My purpose is not to defend some abstract or
universal connection between civil society and
democracy. Rather, I start from an analysis of democracy
which points to civil society as a potential source of
power for democracy. I then try to understand through
several examples - some positive, some negative - the
conditions under which, and the ways in which, this
potential is realised.

Defining democracy

In this discussion of civil society and democracy, I am
assuming the root definition of democracy: the people in
power; 'demos' meaning 'people' and 'kratos' meaning
'power'. Democracy cannot be equated with particular
institutions - free elections, a plurality of parties, for
example - important though these institutions might be
as a means of achieving the fundamental goal of democracy.
There must be a definition of democracy based on
principles against which it can be judged how far
institutions are meeting the goals for which they were
created. Rule by the people rather than an elite, a
monarch or an aristocracy implies control of the decisions
of the polity by all the people in that polity. Access to
decision-making has to be on the basis of equality -
anything less would produce rule by an elite. I therefore
take popular control and political equality to be the
fundamental principles of democracy (Beetham, 1999).

Control will, of course, often be mediated rather than
direct but the means of mediation and representation
must be assessed in terms of the extent of popular control
they afford, along with equality of access to them: how
far do nominally democratic institutions enable people
to control the decision-making process? The institutions
of democracy vary historically and culturally, although
clearly some almost have the status of a universal
principle: the universal franchise, for instance. There has,
however, to be a process of ongoing testing and experiment
to discover improved mechanisms for popular
control and political equality, which build on the foundation
of the franchise. Decades of the vote have taught us
that even the most transparent and direct forms of
representation can be undermined by undemocratic
institutions that flourish beyond the reach of elected
representatives: within the state, bureaucracy and vested
interests; outside it, pressure from private business and
unaccountable international institutions. These principles
keep democracy vigilant, since they make it clear that
institutions are more or less democratic; they are never
perfectly democratic. The democratic power of civil
society becomes relevant at both these points of vigilance:
first as a means of resisting tyranny within the state and
laying the foundations of political equality and popular
control, and second as a means of building democratic
counter-power to the anti-democratic sources of power
outside the state, which have long been eroding the
power of the franchise.

Recent highs and lows of civil
society and democracy

The history of civil society's ability to play these roles has
been varied. Indeed, in western and eastern Europe, the
last 30 years have seen both the high point of this
connection and, more recently, its almost complete
severance. The high point of connection between civil
society and democracy included the emergence in the
1970s in western Europe of sustained social movements
rooted in civil society, and in the 1980s in the east the
dissident networks building up to the 'Velvet Revolution'
of Wenceslas Square in Prague and the fall of the Berlin
Wall. A common feature of both these contexts was a
conception of civil society not simply as a 'sphere' but as
a source of power for democratic change. There are signs
that we are seeing a revival - in new, more international
forms - of this awareness of civil society as a source of
power, including power to bring about political change.
The victory in March 2004 of the Socialist Party in Spain,
for example, against the pro-Iraq war People's Party of
Aznar cannot be explained in terms primarily of party
activity or psephological trends. The change of government
was also the result of the anti-war movement's
ability to mobilise a popular and, at least at that moment,
hegemonic countervailing power far beyond the
capacities of a traditional political party.

Sources of optimism and their

As for civil society strengthening democracy, the
distinctive feature of the movements of the 1970s is
that they saw sites for social change beyond the state,
for example in family and personal relationships, in
culture, at work, with neighbours - wherever there were
relationships between people, including internationally,
and even spanning relations between humans and the
physical environment. The feminist movement is perhaps
the classic example, but the same methodology -
'change starts at where you are' - permeated most of
the movements, including the peace movement of that
period. People refused to reproduce consciously the
relationships of injustice or oppression in which they
were complicit, including, in the case of women,
relations which caused them to suffer, but in which they
acquiesced. The actions taken to break out of daily
acquiescence, whether by organising collective childcare,
or by marching off to surround a missile base, or by
refusing to work in unsafe conditions, became an
independent base from which they tried to change
government or municipal policies: to get public funding
for childcare, to force a withdrawal of missiles, or to win
legislation to give workers the power to veto unsafe
conditions. Civil society at this point had the power to
transform the state. In many situations, it used this
power to ensure that elected governments implemented
their election promises. In these historical examples, civil
society directly strengthened democracy in the sense of
its core meaning: 'government by the people'. They made
the link between the people and their representatives
more direct, more actively accountable.

In central and eastern Europe, too, the thinking and
the activity of the 1980s networks of dissent went beyond
classical understandings (Tocqueville, 1835/1988; Kaldor
and Vejvoda, 2002) of the relation between civil society
and democracy. In the classic Tocquevillean view, the very
existence of civil society - understood basically as social
associations and relationships of all kinds independent of
the state - was a protection against abuses of state power.
In the thinking and language of the 1980s, central and
eastern European dissident networks composing 'civil
society' moved from this defensive role to something
more proactive. Increasingly, the term was used to refer
to a diffuse agency for change with an emphasis on selforganisation,
mutual support and autonomy, which, not
necessarily intentionally, increasingly became a de facto
challenge to authority. Under almost total state domination,
as Solidarity founder Lech Walensa put it, 'to
laugh is to become political'. Jazz clubs in the beer cellars
of Prague, informal gatherings in the baths of Budapest
and 'networks of sympathy' across central Europe all
nurtured political revolt. Such civil society initiatives
formed, partly through the repressive reaction of the
state, partly through their own persistence and moral
integrity, the foundations of a struggle for democracy in
eastern Europe. It was an experience which, like the social
movements in the West, reinforced the idea of a natural
spillover from democratic initiatives in civil society to the
democratisation of political power.

Both these experiences of connection between civil
society and democracy depended on conditions that were
taken for granted at the time and even treated with
contempt in the West, but which now have been all but
devastated by unregulated market economics. In western
Europe, the pressure civil society could apply to bring
about democratisation of the state depended on already
existing social democratic institutions at national and
local levels, and a powerful mainstream party publicly
committed to social justice and dependent in part on the
support of civil society networks, including trade unions.
These social democratic institutions provided connections
and wiring - sometimes tangled and blocked - through
which currents of democratic energy could flow, from
civil society through to political power. In eastern Europe,
the idea of civil society as a source of democratic agency
depended on loose forms of solidarity, values of mutual
support and a subculture of social relationships that
rejected both the bureaucratic collectivism of official
Communism and the commercial, uncaring individualism
encouraged by corporate capitalism.

In western Europe, privatisation, deregulation and a
generalised onslaught on state provision has weakened the
leverage of civil society on political institutions. In contexts
of thoroughgoing privatisation, the absence or weakness
of a partner or means of dialogue within the state has led
to a separation, locally, of civil society from political power.
This has led to the marginalisation of civil society as a
source of power, sometimes paralleled by its elevation as
a source of legitimacy for an increasingly undemocratic
state. In central and eastern Europe, the rampant character
of the market has made it difficult for the velvet revolution
networks to sustain themselves as lasting pressures for
democracy. Autonomous civil society activity continues,
but with little purchase on political power.

New connections, local and global

There are exceptions, often local, that prove the rule.
One that is explored in this chapter is the experience of
certain Brazilian cities where neo-liberalism has not yet
wreaked its havoc. In several cities, a powerful alliance
between civil society and a political party elected to
municipal office (the Workers' Party or Partido Trabhalidores,
PT), with a commitment to sharing power with
civil society, was able to develop an impressive and now
infectious process of popular participation in the
decisions about the city's budget.

Such local initiatives have a new significance now,
as a new relationship between civil society and democracy
is being forged at the international level. One
aspect of this is the rapid learning and creative imitation
of local initiatives across the world. We therefore face
a contradictory situation, which will be reflected in this
chapter. In countries most acutely at the receiving end
of the unregulated market - whether by legislation or
by military force - the local connections between civil
society and democracy have been weakened or have
hardly emerged. At the international level, however,
there is a new impetus to build organisations of civil
society as a force for achieving and deepening democracy
or rebuilding it in a radically new context.

The changing international
relations of civil society

There has long been a tradition of international action
by civil society to win or to defend democracy. Several
factors in the past 20 years or so have enhanced and
qualitatively changed the power of democratic civil
society in this process. First, the global interdependence
of nation states is now both far greater than ever and
matched by an awareness of this interdependence: to
adapt John Donne, 'no regime is an island, sufficient
unto itself'. Even the most determinedly autarchic regime
now depends on international institutions and relations,
especially economic relations, with other countries.
North Korea's Kim Il Sung has had to acknowledge this
when faced with a major disaster. Sometimes, it is
financial markets which provide life-support systems to
dictatorial regimes - Iraq's Saddam Hussein and his elite
benefited to the end from international financial flows.
Sometimes, international investment facilitates oppression
of minority peoples like the Ogoni: the Nigerian
regime depended on international oil corporations.
Sometimes, it is aid and trade: Israel's government would
find it difficult to persist with its denial of Palestinian
rights if the US refused to provide finance, and if the
Europeans used Israel's dependence on their markets to
back up their weak opposition to its policies. China too
gets away with flagrant abuse of human rights because
its Western trading partners turn a blind eye to it.
Boycott is not necessarily the most effective tactic; its
relevance depends to a significant degree on whether
movements for democracy in these countries ask for it,
as they did, for example, in South Africa. The intensifying
global integration of international markets has
increased immeasurably the scope for the kind of
international civic action that helped to bring down
apartheid in South Africa.

The second related reason for the new impetus
towards creating civil society organisations across
national boundaries is that many of the main threats to
humanity are international in character, leading people
to think and act beyond their national borders. The
threat of nuclear war, coming from East and West, was
one factor that stimulated the birth of an East-West
citizens' movement against nuclear war and the institutions
of the cold war in the 1980s. The international
character of this movement changed the political
imagination of a generation across Europe, making
international organising and networking as natural as
making a banner or writing a leaflet. By the late 1990s,
it was issues of economic authoritarianism - the
outlawing, for example, of social, environmental or
cultural regulation of trade, investment or subsidy - that
posed the need for international action. The World Trade
Organisation (WTO) provided an international focal
point for the struggle for democratic control over these
'economic' machinations.

Third, the threatened damage to the ozone layer and
the disastrous consequences of climate change make
the world not only a more precarious place but also
politically a smaller one - or at least a more cohesive
place across which people feel they have no option but
to get organised. Finally, new technology has provided
not only tools of communication with which civil
society can organise itself increasingly easily at a global
level, but also tools which can be used - it is not an
automatic technical fix - to extend openness,
transparency, and the spread of information and debate
across national borders and through many cultural and
political barriers.

There is one consequence of these changing global
circumstances, whose character is now only is now coming
into view. My perception of it is probably little more
than a tentative hypothesis, namely, that in the past ten
years or so, the relations between civil society organisations
and movements North and South have become
more egalitarian, based more on a sense of a common
struggle and a common search for democratic and
economically just alternatives. In the past, sympathetic
people in the North have related to movements for justice
and democracy in the South through solidarity: raising
political and financial support, explaining the movements'
case to the public, putting pressure on Northern
governments, perhaps volunteering to help the Southern
struggle directly. Now, for a start, solidarity is increasingly
about finding the common points of leverage in the
international system through which together we can
focus our power: for example, the WTO negotiations over
the agreement to open up public services to international
corporations. Second, movements in the North are finding
themselves increasingly needing to go beyond solidarity
and to learn from social and political innovations coming
from the South for the development of alternatives.

As we shall see later in this chapter, this creates new
possibilities for democratic civil society to realise its
potential as a source of power to democratise political
power. Despite good motives, however, the support of
international groups - notably civil society groups in
the North for civil society organisations in the South -
can sometimes weaken the power of local civil society.
This chapter will consider the case of Guatemala
immediately after the end of the dictatorship, where the
consequences of (mainly) financial support from
European organisations for democracy were, to say the
least, ambiguous. One reason for the problems was an
unequal power relationship between international
sources of funds and other supports and local groups.
Northern civil society funders insisted on their own
criteria and objectives at the expense of precarious local
needs and dynamics.

My suggestion is that, although the Guatemalan
experience is still common, there is a greater alertness
to inequalities of power on the part of organisations in
the South (and the East) at the receiving end of
Northern and Western support. Second, the connection
between international civil society and local democracy
is now less one of patronage (from a powerful Northern
funding body to a local initiative, as in Guatemala) and
more one of local initiatives spreading innovations,
building campaigning networks that join together
groups from many different countries. Towards the end
of this chapter, I assess the significance of the
emergence of the World Social Forum (WSF), a selforganised
space that aims to nurture this process. The
WSF, held for the first time in Pôrto Alegre in 2001, is
an extraordinary, perhaps precarious, development in
global civil society. It emerged out of movements that
challenged (and began to fill) the democratic vacuum
surrounding global economic institutions such as the
WTO, the IMF and the Round Tables of global corporations.
Its fourth 'edition' in 2004 in Mumbai brought
together over 130,000 civil society activists. The WSF
and the regional, national and local social forums that
it has generated aim to create space for global civil
society debate and networking, around the conviction
that 'another world is possible'. Is it fulfilling its promise?
Can it create a means of global self-help in the struggle
for democracy everywhere? What is its role in the
interconnected struggle against not only political
repression but also the authoritarianism of the economic
institutions that now dominate the world market?

The democratic force of civil
society: a local example

A useful case study to start with is one that shows civil
society strengthening popular control and achieving
greater political equality, and in so doing reinvigorating
corrupt representative institutions. The increasingly
well-known, almost emblematic, experience of the
participatory budget in Pôrto Alegre, the site of the first
three WSFs, though local in origin, has become
influential internationally, spreading the principles of
civil society as a means of deepening democracy.

While the movements for democracy in central and
eastern Europe emphasised the democratic power of civil
society through autonomy from the state, the Brazilian
initiatives illustrate the democratic impact of civil
society as a source of power, based on this autonomy,
over the state. From the late 1980s and early 1990s,
when the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT) won electoral
victories in significant cities like Pôrto Alegre, the capital
of the southern region of Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazilian
civic movements and NGOs working closely with the PT
pioneered participatory budgeting (PB), a form of
municipal government through which democratically
organised civil society strengthened popular control over
local state institutions. Through a process of direct
popular participation in determining the priorities of
the city council's budget, and then in monitoring how
these priorities were carried out, direct and delegated
forms of democracy provided a means of democratic
control over the state apparatus, and also corporate
investors, which complemented the relatively weak
control of elected representatives. An open process of
negotiation replaced a more hidden decision-making
process, which, though accountable to the mayor, had
involved public officials exclusively.

The historical origins of PT are distinctive to Brazil,
though international experiences of exile and continentwide
influences, such as liberation theology, have been
important. Formative influences on the PT lie in the
popular movements: militant trade unions from the
industrial hinterland of São Paolo; radical Catholic cells,
rural and urban; the landless movement; committed
intellectuals and students. The end product, the Partido
Trabhalidores, has been uniquely influenced by and
dependent on grassroots civil society organisations. In
resisting the dictatorship, these organisations created
their own kinds of participatory democracy at the same
time as they campaigned for liberal democratic rights
and the democratic rule of law. These two kinds of
democracy have been fundamental to the PT ever since.
They are glued together by, among other influences, the
cultural egalitarianism of Paulo Freire.

Freire's approach illustrates what has been distinctive
about the PT. Known in the West primarily as a theorist
of education, he was also a theorist of power, observing
the way we imitate traditional patterns of power and
reproduce them when we ourselves gain any power.
The goal of his approach to education was to break
these patterns and so obstruct the reproduction of
established power relations. The PT's participatory
methods of government carry through to politics Freire's
emphasis on cultural as well as political and economic

This leads to an unusual modesty for a political party,
which could account for the longevity and selfcorrecting
mechanisms of the experiment. Celso Daniel,
a founder of the PT and former mayor of Santo Andre,
expressed this awareness of the limitations of political
office. 'We believed in taking with us into office the
principles of democracy from the movements from
which we came', he said. 'That meant sharing political
power, the management of the city, with the community.'
'Finance is power', declared Daniel. So the first
test of sharing power was to open up the process of
setting the budget (Wainwright, 2003: 31).

The invention in Pôrto Alegre of what has since
become an elaborate, law-governed, transparent process
of popular negotiation across neighbourhoods and
between participatory and municipal representatives
began with a practical problem. When the newly elected
PT mayor in 1989 looked at Pôrto Alegre's finances, he
Found the city virtually bankrupt, with evidence of
rampant corruption. Instead of presuming to sort the
problem out within the town hall, the PT called a meeting
of residents and community organisations in the city.
Together, they worked out a system not only for direct
popular involvement in setting priorities but also for
democratic monitoring of spending. The consequences in
terms of democracy were not consciously planned, but
what began as a precarious experiment produced a new
kind of public institution. In practice, if not yet in theory,
elements of a new paradigm of relations between civil
society and political democracy came into being. There is
a tendency to make an icon of Pôrto Alegre whereas, like
any experiment with democracy, it is a messy, uncertain
process, now with 15 years' hindsight to learn from its
mistakes. Some achievements, however, can be
summarised for their wider relevance.

First, over time, it led to the creation of an autonomous,
transparent and generally accountable public
sphere, which acted as a permanent watchdog over state
institutions, supplementing the weaker but formally
more legitimate role of elected politicians. This
watchdog ensured the effective delivery of the mayoral
mandate, in particular the reduction of inequalities of
income and access to services (Wainwright, 2003: 66) (1).
Second, it established transparency and accountability
over municipal state departments that had become a
law, and a little empire, unto themselves, moving into
orbit beyond the effective control of elected politicians,
who were often preoccupied with their careers. Finally,
the combination of a participatory process honed by
years of experiment and self-correction, and a
representative system shaken into vigilance by this new
citizens' watchdog, increased the overall legitimacy of
local democracy. This, in turn, increased the city's
bargaining power with international organisations such
as multinational corporations, the World Bank and the
Inter-American Development Bank.

The case of Pôrto Alegre - and of the other Brazilian
cities that have followed it, including parts of São Paulo
- does not prove the democratic impact of civil society.
Possibly, this cannot ever be proved in a general way. It
does, however, illustrate the strengthening of democracy
through the sharing of important decisions, often the
outcome of tough negotiation between elected politicians
and democratic civil society. The mayor, whose
power derives from votes, has the final say, but without
the effective participation of civil society, the mayor will
not be able to carry through the policies for which he
or she was elected. Hence the quality of life in the city
will suffer and the mayor might well lose his or her
position. Mutual dependence, therefore, underpins the
process of negotiation, which needs two preconditions:
first, that civil society mobilises sources of popular
power (including knowledge) unavailable to the state
and lets them speak, and second, that the political
representatives of the state listen and act.

The local and global flows of civil

The Brazilian practice has generated much thinking. A
constant stream of would-be participatory municipal
representatives, students, journalists and others contact
the mayor's office in Pôrto Alegre to arrange a visit or
gather information; the city council has set aside cheap
apartments especially to house them. There is regular
contact with other Latin American movements and
parties already experimenting or intending to experiment
with similar ideas. In Montevideo, for example,
local movements and the radical political coalition,
Frente Amplio, have been working on a slightly different
model. There is an interesting reversal here of the usual
flow of knowledge within international civil society. All
too often, technical and intellectual support flows North
to South. This time it is South to North. Similarly, the
chain of influence is not from global civil society to a
local struggle for democracy but from a local innovation
- the product of unique historical circumstances - to
an increasingly international web of innovative political
actors, who then spread different interpretations of the
local experiment.

Some of the greatest interest in PB comes from
countries in the North struggling to control their public
sectors, keep them public, or stop corruption. A Frenchbased
network, Democratiser radicalement la démocratie
(DRD), was set up in 1998 to spread the practice of
participatory budgeting and administration through a
process of mutual learning and exchange. Experiments
in participatory administration have since spread to 18
countries, partly through the organisation of seminars
at the WSF, each attended by several hundred people.
Another group, Association of the New Municipality,
was set up in 2002 in Italy following a visit by several
Italian mayors to Pôrto Alegre. It brings together mayors,
NGOs, unions and local social forums to work on the
issue of participatory budgets and administration. There
is growing interest in central and eastern Europe even
as far as Nirilsk, a rich isolated Russian town near the
Arctic circle, where a recently elected radical mayor
plans to learn from the Pôrto Alegre model.

The most developed application of the idea is in Italy,
where municipalities large and small have not only
applied similar principles of administration but also
passed the ideas on to towns and cities with which they
have international connections.

The seaside town of Grottamare illustrates this combination
of the local and the ambitiously international.
In the mid-1980s, it saw popular resistance to an
attempt, driven by a group of international financiers,
to turn its harbour into a marina and complex of
swimming pools and large hotels, creating a centre for
'global tourism' and relegating the medieval town centre
to a residual curiosity. This followed years of neglect by
the local Christian Democrat and Socialist political elite.
The 'No' campaign was successful and its leadership - a
coalition named Participation and Democracy, made up
of people from within parties and outside them - won
the municipal elections. After the election, the coalition
convened public meetings for every citizen, leading to
the creation of self-organised neighbourhood committees
that became an independent monitor of, and
pressure on, the municipality's ability to enact its
promises. Thus began a process of shared decisionmaking
about the content of a new urban plan, whose
aim, as far as the tourism of the town was concerned
was, in the words of the first radical mayor, Massimo
Rossi, 'a tranquil tourism that was about nature, culture
and human relationships - not consumerism'. The new
administration soon made international contacts. It has
been engaged for many years in work with Itiuba, a
village in northeast Brazil, with a village in Guinea Bissau
and a town in the Ukraine, sending skilled staff from
Grottamare both to train local people in hard engineering
and other mechanical skills, and to disseminate
participatory principles of public administration. Rossi
explained how these participatory envoys work not just
with the municipalities in these towns but also with
grassroots organisations. His account revealed the
usually invisible capillaries through which the democratising
currents of international civil society can flow
(Alegretti, 2004; Wainwright, 2004a).

The ambiguous consequences of
support from global civil society:
the case of Guatemala

How should groups in other countries relate to local civil
society in order to increase democracy? The welldocumented
case of Guatemala in the 1990s, following
the end of 33 years' war between an insurgent army and
a dictatorial government, provides an interesting
example of the ambiguous impact of international
support for local civil society organisations, including
the practical consequences of different definitions of
democracy (Howell and Pearce, 2001).The idea of civil
society was quickly grasped and applied to local
circumstances, especially by the urban movements of
Guatemala. Political parties had lost credibility during
the dictatorship, and activists wanted focal points other
than the guerrilla army for their continuing campaigns
for democracy, human rights and social justice. The
peace negotiations were only a beginning for achieving
these goals. The economic and political elite behind the
dictatorship remained virtually intact. The guerrilla army
was disbanding and turning itself into a political
organisation but without any clear vision of its role. The
idea of civil society became a vessel into which people
poured a mixture of their utopian hopes and pragmatic
needs in response to the political moves of the new
government. The Indian groups took a particularly
functional attitude: 'If the concept is useful and achieves
things, they will adopt it superficially, convincing
outsiders that their perspectives are more shared than
is the case in reality' (Howell and Pearce, 2001: 15).

Outside support first took the form of solidarity
organisations during the years of repression and later
funding through both private donation and pressure on
international agencies. After decades of war and
devastation, local resources were minimal; international
funders of local organisations therefore had huge
strategic leverage, whether or not they used it consciously.
One analyst wrote:

Virtually all the organisations participating in the
Civil Society Assembly [Asambla de al Sociedad Civil,
set up 1994 to bring together all the NGO, social
movements and other civil society organisations]
were dependent on support from private aid
agencies. Without this support many alliances
(including indigenous, Indian and Mayan
organisations) would not have been able to meet,
travel and elaborate proposals.
(Biekart, 1999: 271)

International financial and also political support was
undoubtedly of huge benefit in providing the space for
civil society to grow. There were problems, however.
These revolved around tension between donor assumptions
and objectives, and the realities of the social and
political problems faced by Guatemalan NGOs, social
movements and other organisations. Donor priorities
(targets, monitoring requirements, timetables) often
conflicted with the needs of Guatemalan organisations
to develop their agendas, think through their own
strategies and debate their differences while cooperating
on common causes and reaching out to vulnerable
and excluded groups. Civil society groups in the North
and the governmental or intergovernmental donors
that they influenced thus contributed to a situation in
which organisations in Guatemala City moved away
from the grassroots contacts with rural society that
they had built during the resistance to the dictatorship.
As a result, these urban organisations lost an understanding
of the social needs and political dynamics of
the rural areas (2).

Limitations to the democratic usefulness of outside
support existed at several interconnected levels in
Guatemala. This has been revealed by extensive interviews
with civil society organisations carried out for the United
Nations Development Program by Creative Associates
International in 1998. It seems the civil society and
governmental donors (both multilateral and bilateral) had
timetables and methods insensitive to the working
methods of many local groups. Local organisations tended
to be engaged in multiple activities rather than single
projects. Their priorities were changes they could help to
bring about. This didn't mesh comfortably with project
cycles. Their multiple engagement, whose rhythm was
strongly influenced by local developments and understandings,
was often more appropriate to the problems
they were facing than to a 'project' approach. Because
they needed to ensure that the local organisations they
funded were accountable for funds, donors imposed their
own particular forms of accountability in a way that took
little account of the continuing struggle for democracy
and development. There was a strong political debate
about the appropriate role of donors and civil society
organisations. In this debate, donor and civil society
organisations, rather than accepting, and working within,
local contours of discussion (thus enabling groups to
clarify their strategies and build political cohesiveness),
influenced debate to accommodate 'projects'. There was
also selective funding, which was divisive in circumstances
where cooperation was at a premium. Such funding also
created pressure for depoliticisation at a moment when
people needed the space collectively to rethink their
politics in the aftermath of the civil war. Creative
Associates International also found significant differences
in motivation and understanding between donors and
popular organisations. Interestingly, this was particularly
true on issues of democracy. The donors tended to stress
work that would make existing political institutions more
representative with the highly pragmatic idea of 'making
democracy work'. For many Guatemalans, however, the
problem went deeper: the existing institutions of
democracy were seen as reproducing the inequalities (of
wealth, social power and political representation) that
they had been resisting. They had a deep distrust of these
institutions, feeling that the 'advocacy' that the donors
were urging them to engage in would have no serious
effect or concerned no issues that really mattered.
'Relatively few advocacy efforts', Creative Associates
International concluded, 'are related to the most felt
needs of the sectors whose interests Civil Society
Organisations claim to represent, such as socio-economic
demands, access to land, work and basic services such as
health, education, housing etc.' (quoted in Howell and
Pearce, 2001: 170).

The experience of Guatemala, a country facing
extreme inequalities, illustrates the importance of how
democracy is defined. The problem was partly the way
that international funders implicitly imposed their
definition of democracy on local groups in the
conditions of their funding. It was also the narrowness
of their understanding of democracy. In such conditions
of extreme inequality, defining democracy in terms of
the real substance of popular control and political
equality - rather than just the formal institutional
arrangements of a multiparty political system based on
free elections and so forth - becomes vital. Genuine
popular control and political equality require more than
free elections and the rule of law, more even than basic
human rights against the authoritarian tendencies that
can lurk behind apparently pristine democratic structures.
Real democracy demands a political mechanism
that can address the poverty that excludes so many from
effective participation. The exclusion of the poor
majority empties formal structures of any real content,
leading to disillusion, disaffection and conditions that
favour a return to authoritarian rule.

The dialectic of international
contact and the strengthening of
local autonomy: women's
organisation in China

China is a one-party state struggling to keep control of
a country where the day-to-day control mechanisms are
no longer functioning as they used to. The rapid
introduction of market reforms has created too great a
range of social and economic actors for a single
organisation, however octopoid its reach, to oversee. The
party, however, through the state, retains its ultimate
coercive power. Since the economic reforms began
in 1978, people have initiated local civil society organisations,
planting them in the cracks opened up through
the contradictions facing the state. This process was
brutally interrupted by the repression of 1989, when
these contradictions burst into the open and the state
made efforts to regain control. Local organisations are
constantly pushing to expand the openings that were
then revealed. International financial support has been
important in some contexts, for women's organisations
for example, but other organisations - like independent
unions - have grown independently of Western support.
So, in some areas, there is a degree of dependency
comparable to Guatemala. Unlike Guatemala, however,
China has a strong tradition of, and self-confidence in,
getting the best out of the West for local benefits and
according to locally determined agendas. Selfdefinitions
are strong: there is explicit concern not to
become 'lackies' of outside donors; concern about
who is in control - the donors or local organisations -
is explicitly debated. This tradition goes back to the
modernisation of the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, when China's approach was to get
what it could from Western technology but use it for
local ends.

The communist Party's attitude to civil society is
contradictory, as is the ambivalence of civil society
towards political power. On the one hand, the party
encourages a certain contained growth of civil society as
a political vent for discontent and also as a source of
mediation between itself and society. 'Small government,
big society' is its latest slogan. Increasingly, too, the party
looks to parts of civil society for welfare provision,
especially in areas where private markets will not venture.
On the other hand, the party is watchful and repressive
of any signs of independence and autonomy, such as local
groups making wider connections across the country, or
taking up issues beyond their own spheres, especially
issues of political reform.

A further twist to the relationship between China and
the West, and the repercussions for civil society and
democracy, is the Chinese government's need to restore its
legitimacy - ultimately for trading purposes - with the
West, after the brutal suppression of the democracy
movements 15 years ago. It was this cynical imperative
that led the Chinese government to agree to host the
United Nations Fourth International Conference on
Women in Beijing in 1995. The process of preparing this
event and the event itself were extremely tense, as could
be expected from holding a conference about the rights
of half the human race in a country where all democratic
(including reproductive) rights of women were being
suppressed or were seriously under threat. But the end
result has been a significant and lasting growth in
independent women's organisations in China and more
confidence on the part of the All China Women's Federation
(ACWF), the organisation that historically has had a
monopoly over the organisation of women, to push for
greater autonomy from the Communist Party and the state.

State feminism and women's desire for

State-derived feminism, of which China is a clear case,
has both advanced and constrained the position of
women (Howell, 2003a). With women accounting for 21
per cent of all deputies in the National People's Congress,
China is near the top of the league of female
representation in national legislatures. Conversely, there
is not a single woman in the Politburo; and when
women do make it to leadership positions, it is almost
invariably as deputies and with portfolios with a low
political status. The driving force behind women's
participation in the public world has been the need to
mobilise their energies and their labour for the national
tasks of reconstruction, land reform, agricultural collectivisation
and industrialisation. This has meant
challenging many of the traditions and prejudices that
lie behind the long historical subordination of women
in China. To help achieve this task, when it gained power
in 1949, the Communist Party created the ACWF to
mediate between women, the party and state.

The public role of Chinese women has waxed and
waned according to the policies and needs of the party.
There have been moments when the ACWF played a
genuinely emancipatory mobilising role, for example in
the 1950s, tackling child marriage, polygamy and other
patriarchal traditions, and encouraging women to
achieve economic independence and also play a more
active public role. In the 1960s, however, the ACWF bent
to the will of the party and acquiesced in economic
policies that reinforced deep-seated prejudices emphasising
women's domestic role and the importance of the
family. The same swing from responsiveness to the needs
and demands of women to responsiveness to the
dictates of the party is evident in recent years. In the
late 1980s, the ACWF responded to the economic
reforms by setting up new departments addressing the
changing needs of women, while demanding greater
autonomy from the party and more of a role for women
to influence government policy (rather than being a
transmission belt solely for the traffic of impulses in the
other direction, that is, for the party to convey its
message to the female population). A delegate at the
1988 ACWF Congress said: 'The ACWF should be to
manage its own affairs, both according to the constitution
and in law' (Howell, 1996: 133). One of the
Federation's journals, Zhongguo Funu, followed up the
congress with debates and imaginative proposals. Then
came the 1989 clampdown on dissent and democracy
and with it the ACWF's demands for autonomy.

By 1993, new profit-conscious economic reforms
presented women with a whole new range of problems,
especially at work. Managers began to see women as a
burden, with their need for maternity leave, their right
to equal pay and so on. There were pressures to take away
their statutory rights. They began to face higher
unemployment. Health and safety standards collapsed.
At the same time, the commercialisation of the economy
permeated the sphere of sexuality: prostitution became
commonplace in the Special Economic Zones, and sexual
harassment at work became an increasing problem. This
new and more precarious situation for women gave new
life, and presented new dilemmas, to the ACWF, which
now came under increasing pressure from its members to
prioritise the representation to the party of the interests
of women in gender-related policy-making. This led to
all sorts of initiatives to represent the different interests
of women more effectively, to research their new
situations, and to support special measures for women
facing discrimination in the workplace. From the
standpoint of our concern with civil society and
democracy, it led some cadres in the women's federation
to express openly the desire for greater autonomy from
the party. This began soul-searching essentially about
whether the ACWF could wrench itself away from the
party state - which paid and appointed its officials - and
become a part of civil society's efforts to gain democratic
control over the state. It was at this moment that the
Chinese government agreed to host the UN Fourth
International Conference on Women in 1995.

More than the other organisations set up by the party
in 1949 to mediate between the state and society, the
ACWF appears torn between the needs of its constituency
(it is a huge organisation with branches right down
to the village level) and loyalty to the party. Contradictions
in official Communist Party policy are perhaps
most acute in relation to women. In particular, there is
an obvious contradiction between the much-vaunted and
occasionally practised principle of gender equality and
the suppressed, but no doubt subjectively desired
corollary, of personal self-determination and autonomy
for women. One reason why the Beijing Women's
Conference, and in particular the encounter of Chinese
women activists with the new 1970s and 1980s wave of
feminism, was so significant is that it gave Chinese
women access to a language and a stream of thinking
that theorised and valued the subjective dimension of
women's liberation.

The Beijing Women's Conference made ACWF's
contradictory roles particularly acute. Officially, the
ACWF was involved in organising the conference to
show the world that China cared about women's rights.
The ACWF would, and did, gain from the conference in
terms of both prestige and resources, but the most
dynamic part of the conference was the NGO Forum also
hosted by the ACWF, and the drive and creativity for this
came from independent women's organisations and
NGOs. Their intentions included lobbying and protesting
around the governmental meeting, and presenting their
arguments about women, including within China.

Beijing and feminist cross-fertilisation

As usual, the ACWF spanned its contradictions. On crunch
issues, loyalty to the party prevailed, the most important
example being the location of the NGO Forum 50
kilometres outside Beijing, but some ACWF cadres were
undoubtedly contaminated by a highly infectious
international feminism. One aspect of this, as already
mentioned, was the language - though severely restricted
by translation - of the subjective dimensions of feminist
experience. Another was the subsequent spread of
independent women's grassroots organisations and NGOs.
The idea of both was strange in China. From the first years
of the reform period, the late 1970s, numerous professional
organisations, chambers of commerce and learned
associations had proliferated, but the idea of bottom-up,
grassroots organisations was almost unheard of. Since
1989, moreover, all non-state organisations had had to
register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which forbade
associations to be formed on a gender basis.

In the process of organising the NGOs, the ACWF
began to realise what it meant to be an NGO. In a sense,
NGO status gave coherence to its bridging position
between the state and the mass of women, but it moved
it towards a lobbying role on behalf of women rather
than a transmission belt for the party. This enhanced its
legitimacy as a representative of Chinese women's
interests in the international arena. But the ACWF's
adoption of this term was more to ease international
cooperation with other NGOs than to make a statement
about ACWF autonomy from the party. However, it is
difficult, by definition, for an organisation to be both a
responsive NGO and obedient to a party.

After Beijing, the future of women's organisations no
longer depended on the swaying loyalties of the ACWF.
Perhaps the most important consequence of the conference
was the way that it supported and accelerated the
emergence of new, more autonomous women's organisations
(Howell, 2003b); Chinese women learned lasting
lessons and created ongoing networks. The conference also
stimulated research into women's policy issues. In many
contexts, this would not be seen as particularly political,
but, in a modest way, the plethora of research projects that
developed in the wake of the Beijing Women's Conference
provided the beginning of a significant challenge to the
Communist Party's monopoly on policy. These
developments have a significance of their own but they
also make it difficult for the ACWF to swing back to the
party when under pressure. The ACWF has a cooperative
but sometimes tense relationship with independent
women's organisations within China that need the ACWF's
support to exist in the face of hostile regulations.
Interestingly, the feminist cross-fertilisation that occurred
both in preparation for Beijing and at the conference also
stimulated movements for democracy in other countries.
For example, women from Sierra Leone created a network
to prepare for Beijing and then played a leading role in the
successful campaign to end to military rule.

Stronger women's organisations:
what relevance for democracy?

What these developments within civil society - the
wrenching of a quasi-state organisation towards
greater accountability to civil society - mean for
democracy is uncertain. A pessimistic view is that the
Chinese government has learned how to play the
position of Chinese women as a political card in its
international relations, especially with the US. And
with the cooperation of ACWF it puts the debate about
women into a nationalist perspective, comparing the
position of Chinese women with US women, rather
than seeking to understand and address gender oppression
in China. This would amount to a corporatist
relationship between state and civil society, in which
a civil society elite (mainly the ACWF and groups they
managed to co-opt) influence government policy; but
there is no wider participation and no strongly independent
public sphere.

Another scenario would be the growth of women's
groups at a local level but isolated from each other (there
is a prohibition on regional and national organisation
across associations) with negligible wider political impact.
Certain factors favour this, especially when the position of
women's groups is compared with more radical sections of
the labour movement, which have been forced to go
underground. The party tends to consider women's issues
less important than labour issues and the development of
autonomous women's initiatives is therefore seen as less
threatening. This means that women's organisations can
grow stronger unnoticed but that reaction to women's
initiatives is less political, even though these initiatives
have long-term implications for the power of the party.
Perhaps, as a result, women's groups are less conscious of
the wider repercussions of their activities. Women's
organisations tend not to link their concerns with wider
issues of democratic reform, something which labour
organisations invariably tend to do. Independent labour
organisations appear anti-governmental, women's organisations
appear non-governmental. Some feminists,
however, do recognise the link between their work and
political reform; as one put it, 'The future of women's
organisations is linked to the political democratic process.
It depends on political reform. Only then can women's
organisations develop. If political reform is limited, then
women's organisations cannot develop more' (Howell,
2000: 374).

This leads to a third possible outcome of the process
begun in Beijing, in which women's organisations pursue
not only their particular campaigns and projects but
also, away from the contemptuous eye of the party,
develop informal links with each other across issues and
regions, and where possible with other social networks,
challenging from below the party's 'overview'. This would
lead to direct challenges over issues of democracy, but
women's organisations, precisely because of the party's
male chauvinism, could develop a popular base for
democratic rights before the point of confrontation
arrives. The international networks of these women's
organisations will help protect this process through
China's present sensitivity about its international image.
Campaigns for democracy that flow from the struggles
of women are on particularly high moral ground in such
circumstances, so women's organisations are likely to be
in a position to develop programmes for political reform
flowing directly from their needs as women. This could
prepare the path for other movements whose demands
are seen by the Chinese government as so threatening
that they are denied the opportunity to make the wider
connections that would give them some protection.

The World Social Forum: a catalyst
for democratic change?

The World Social Forum (WSF) and the social forums
born from it - across continents, nations and cities and
around a variety of themes - is in one sense no more
than a frame for developments in progressive civil
society across the world, which are already under way.
These include the sometimes unacknowledged, and
constantly under relationships of progressive civil society
to political power. The social forum process has helped
intensify the growth of plural networks of international
actors. In its charter, the WSF conceives itself as a
'space' - it makes no claims to represent anyone and
does not seek to come to agreements collectively, as a
single body. It is a space, however, that has facilitated
common action by many of those who use it. Since no
human space is ever stable, the shape and character of
the forums is permanently contested and changed.

The political context for the momentum behind the
formation of the WSF is that the mass of people,
especially in the South, has for two decades suffered
the battering of unregulated market forces, and found
that the means of finding solutions offered to them by
existing, supposedly democratic, political systems are a
dead end. In response, a whole variety of new movements,
groupings, alliances and initiatives for social
justice and democracy emerged, with an increasing need
to converge without losing their autonomy and identity.
The WSF, and indeed social forums generally, provided
an open-ended opportunity to do this. Their potential
was reinforced by the initial symbolism of being hosted
by the participatory local government of Pôrto Alegre,
itself an actor, as we have seen, in an alternative
experiment in democracy that stimulates possibilities
well beyond the imagination of the traditional left.

The WSF and the democratic power
of civil society

From the point of view of civil society's relationship to
democracy, the WSF and the international connecting
and campaigning that it has helped to stimulate raise four
distinct issues. First, the WSF has strengthened the
transformative power of civil society. Second, this power
is being asserted in order to call governments to account
for their acquiescence in the international treaties and
deals of free market economics, and their support for US
military and political ambitions in the Middle East. Third,
these developments are producing a radical, open-ended
shift in the relations between civil society and political
parties. And fourth, within the WSF and the social forums,
forms of organisation are being invented to fulfil the
forum's aim of facilitating a plural horizontal network of
active campaigns. Many questions arise about the sustainability
of this process: questions about the obstacles
and legacies of more traditional, vertical traditions of the
left that these innovations come up against; and
questions about whether the WSF process has the depth
and resilience to overcome these conflicts and tensions
of emphasis and understanding (Corrêa Leite, 2004)

On the first issue of strengthening the transformative
power of civil society, the social forum process has
strengthened the power of civil society to bring about
democratic change, in several ways. First, the forum has
progressed from a predominantly Latin American affair,
appealing mainly to the organised trade unions, landless
movements and progressive intellectuals, to becoming
a genuinely open and near-global public space for
resistance and alternatives to the neo-liberal world order.
The result is that it has given otherwise isolated groups -
young people, unemployed, precarious workers, Dalits (the
'untouchables' in the Indian caste system), abandoned
rural and urban communities - a boost in collective selfconfidence
and experience of being part of a wide and
potentially powerful movement. Just as the encounter of
Chinese women with Western feminism gave independent
Chinese women's organisations access to a new language
and stream of thinking about self-determination,
autonomy and self-organised agency, so encounters
within the WSF have enabled traditionally marginalised
groups that lack obvious strategic power to move from a
consciousness of injustice and oppression to an awareness
of feasible connections and directions through which they
can achieve change.

While extending the reach of radical civil society, the
meetings of the WSF and the process of working
together to prepare for them have also strengthened
the cohesiveness and strategic thinking of international
campaigns and action-oriented research. Although after
four annual forums there is a wariness of being or
becoming a 'talk shop', there is no doubt the forums
have stimulated the growth and spread of a huge variety
of campaigning, cultural, solidarity and other networks
- including networks of groups working on practical
alternatives in, for example, production and agriculture,
or public administration. The extraordinary show of
organised and politically disenfranchised public opinion
seen in the anti-war demonstrations of 15 February
2003 is one sign of the increase in the international
cohesiveness and density of progressive civil society. The
date was suggested at the European Social Forum in
Florence, echoed through innumerable networks,
reinforced and spread globally at the third WSF in Pôrto
Alegre in January 2003, and on 15 February became a
symbol of 'the second superpower', which the first
power, the US government, ignores at its peril.

Behind the scenes of these dramatic mobilisations, the
No US Bases Campaign provides a good example of the
WSF helping to initiate all kinds of sustained cross-border
coordinated action. These bases are the points at which
the US government becomes physically present across the
world, so providing a focal point for calling it and its allies
to account. The campaign draws strength from a long
tradition of international peace movement collaboration,
as well as established local campaigns of base-affected
communities. This mixture of local campaigning
experience and international networking is crucial to the
campaign's success. In particular, the work of creating a
global network has been facilitated (not led) by radical
NGOs with extensive experience in this area. The WSF was
treated as an important part of a wider process rather
than an end in itself. The No US Bases Campaign was the
product of two strategic international peace conferences
held in May 2003: the Hemispheric Encounter against
Militarisation in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Jakarta Peace
Consensus in Indonesia. An open coordinating group and
email list were established after the Jakarta Conference,
and related meetings were held in Cancún and Paris
(Reyes and Bouteldja, 2004). This offers a valuable lesson
in how the WSF can be used in conjunction with other
campaigns and international encounters of the global
justice and anti-war movement. Although a thorough
mapping of the actions that flow from a meeting of the
WSF or another social forum has yet to emerge, this kind
of development is central to the potential of the WSF as
a new organisational form through which to realise the
transformative potential of civil society.

Opening up the political institutions

Where does this development of civic power lead in
terms of democracy, or lack of it, in political institutions?
This touches on an underlying tension in the 'alterglobalisation'
movement between, on the one hand,
developing bases of power - including power to organise
the means of daily life autonomous from the state,
Zapatista-style - and, on the other, directly calling to
account politicians and governments or seeking
representation, albeit on different terms, within the
political system. The WSF process feeds into both
approaches and combinations of them.

The impact of the WSF process is easiest to track in
relation to transparency - confronting and trying to open
up political institutions. Consider the issue of trade and
the needs and demands of the economically weaker
countries in the South, which was a major motivating
factor in the early networks that converged partly through
the WSF. A number of very significant NGOs in the South
have been working for many years on issues of justice and
democracy in trade relations between North and South.
Usually, they are both research organisations and, to
differing degrees, organisations of popular education with
strong connections to mass organisations - trade unions,
peasants, social movements of women, young people and
so on. They have an ethos of collaboration with these
movements, an attentiveness to their needs and a shrewd
sense of politics and issues of power. This makes them
different from conventional NGOs, which may have good
intentions but do not strive for an egalitarian relationship
with grassroots organisations and can be naive about
power relations. In different ways, all these radical NGOs,
along with other organisations, have been campaigning
for alternative trade policies to the patterns of trade,
which now perpetuate North-South inequalities. This is
an important issue of democracy because whether or not
there is a market for the products of developing countries
is a matter of subsistence or starvation to millions of
people. It is also an issue of self-determination: in many
areas, people are struggling, through cooperatives, fair
trade networks and socially driven financial institutions,
to create sustainable and socially just economic relations.
They need trade policies that prioritise social equity and
environmental sustainability, and this requires, at some
point, governmental - or rather inter-governmental -
action. And trade is something on which governments,
through negotiation, can act - although how governments
act is usually decided in secret without even the
minimum of accountability to elected parliaments. This
was certainly the case in the early years of the WTO and,
before that, the General Agreement on Tariffs and
Trade (GATT).

The achievement of campaigns like Our World is Not
for Sale and of the NGOs and movements campaigning
through the WSF is that there are now several Southern
governments that have been forced to make themselves
to some degree accountable to progressive civil society,
regarding their negotiations on trade and at the WTO.
South Africa has had to move beyond the corporatism
of the National Economic Development Labour and
Agriculture Council, through which the ANC government
negotiated with the unions and business. It has
now established a regular consultative council, which
precedes meetings of the WTO, to discuss the approach
of the South African delegation with a wider constituency
of social movements, involving women, young
people and other groups not organised through the
traditional, national and 'vertical' structures.

Increasingly, African governments have had to admit
that, if they want to achieve anything in their negotiations
with the US and Europe, they need organised civil
society. They need its knowledge of the complexity of
the trade agreements (which committed NGOs have
researched from every angle); they need links with
powerful lobbying NGOs based in Geneva; and they need
the campaigning strength that NGOs and social and
trade union movements can trigger through their
alliances in Europe and the US, aided by the regular
meetings of the WSF and other social forums. Recognition
of this has meant that, for example, the intergovernmental
South and East African Trade Information
and Negotiation International asks to meet regularly
with radical and independent civil society organisations
- not just `tame' NGOs - to prepare its bargaining
positions. This kind of alliance has helped shift the
balance of power, slightly - it is important not to
exaggerate - towards the South. For instance, the EU
and US had to concede in 2002 a long-standing demand
from Southern governments for 'special and differential
treatment for weaker developing countries'. At the
Cancún meeting of the WTO in 2003, an alliance of
Southern countries - including South Africa, Kenya,
South Korea and Brazil, where there is strong pressure
from social movements - blocked the agenda of the US
and the EU on agriculture and the privatisation of public
services. These are advances for democracy since wider
participation has meant both a move towards increased
political equality and greater popular control than
previously. The ability of elected politicians, for example
those of the ANC and other African political parties, to
respond to the needs of the people and resist the
pressures of the US and the corporate lobby, has been
enhanced by these developments.

A further way in which the WSF process has made
space for civil society to affect political democracy is as
host. In India, the process of organising the forum in
Mumbai under the malevolent eye of the chauvinist neoliberal
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had a significant
impact, both drawing the attention of the international
left and liberal press to the present realities of poverty,
fundamentalism and the BJP, and bringing international
attention to the struggles of the Indian dispossessed,
especially the Dalits. Furthermore, the WSF affected the
Indian left: the significant parties to the left of the
amorphous Congress Party, the Communist Party of India
(CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM),
were still largely unrepentant of their Stalinist traditions
and tended to treat 'movements' as 'their' mass fronts.
The necessity of making a political success of the Mumbai
WSF brought them closer to Indian social movements and
to a respect for the autonomy of these movements.
Conversely, the Indian forum persuaded social movements
to reconsider the importance of political parties. No
general perspective was agreed to guide further cooperation,
but the experience of close collaboration strengthened
the influence of anti-Stalinist, radically democratic
forces of socialist feminism and green politics on the
wider left. 'In retrospect', concluded left writer and activist
Achin Vanaik, 'Mumbai 2004 might well be identified as
the first major collective warning of the shape of things
to come' (Vanaik, 2004). The elections in India several
months later bore out the truth of this remark more
dramatically than Vanaik could have imagined, not
because Mumbai had any causal connection to the
surprise defeat of the BJP but because Mumbai was an
early sign of growing anger, self-confidence and selforganisation
of the Dalits, whose high turn-out at the
election was decisive for the victory of the Congress Party.

Political parties and civil society:
rethinking the relationship

This brings us to the third way in which the WSF
influences and throws into relief changing relations
between radical civil society and left political parties.
This is a vital issue because the relationship between civil
society and democracy hinges on the many different
connections between electoral and participatory (not
necessarily direct) forms of democracy. Political parties
are - in ways yet to be theorised - a vital mediating link
between the two levels of democracy.

The emphasis in the WSF is on civil society and its
autonomy from political parties and the state. Formally,
political parties and state bodies are excluded, though
there are signs that they are forming a generally
supportive but uneasy relationship with the forum. The
PT, as we have seen, provides support through its
position in the government of Pôrto Alegre. The Italian
Partito Rifondazione Comunista, or its members, played
a vital role in organising the European Social Forum in
Florence. Similarly, the Indian Communist Party was
central to the Coordinating Committee for Mumbai.
Indian anti-dam campaigner, Medha Patkar, described
the Mumbai WSF's relationship to electoral politics thus:

Electoral politicians are not untouchables here, but
the WSF is really an expression of people power and
non-electoral politics. Non-electoral politicians
need to build their strength to challenge elected
politicians. Those representing an alternative view
of development need to realise the commonality
of their ideologies and strategies.
(Quoted in
Wainwright, 2004b: 32)

In this way, social forums put into practice the
assertion of the women's and ethnic minorities' movements
of the 1970s that movements of the oppressed
and marginalised need autonomy to develop and
identify their own needs, identities and sources of power.
Now, as in the 1970s, these movements have a sense not
just of particular injustices but also of a need for a wider
alternative. The movements that participate in the social
forums see themselves as political in the sense of having
a full vision of the changes they would like to see, and
a comprehensive critique of society as it is. Implicitly
and explicitly they challenge the monopoly of the power
to achieve change that left political parties have historically
presumed is theirs. What has become clear in recent
years is that even strong, mass electoral parties cannot
adequately defend popular control and political equality
against corporate economic power, military apparatuses
or bureaucratic state institutions. Movements have
grown up in civil society to exert that democratic power
precisely where the elected parties failed. The WSF is
testimony to a strong desire on the part of radical
movements and networks to connect with each other.
It is a search for new ways of connecting the universal
and the particular, a function which, in the past,
belonged to the party. In the traditional notion of the
party, the particular became subsumed in the universal:
the party programme. The WSF's respect for diversity
and plurality is based on a recognition of the fact that
these struggles and movements are a source of
creativity, insights and power for change. A respect for
movements' autonomy at the same time as facilitating
their interconnections is fundamental to the WSF.

Autonomy, however, can be the basis of new relationships,
and there are tentative signs that this is the case
for social movements, and new and old political parties
of the left. The experience of the anti-war movement has
led to a new self-confidence to act in electoral politics
on terms set by radical civil society. We have referred
already to the significance of the Spanish elections. In
the US, there is a symbolic phenomenon of the League of
Pissed Off Voters: young people who are organising
support for US Democratic Party presidential candidate,
John Kerry, in the swing states, but on their own terms.
There are signs, too, across the left that political parties,
or significant groups within political parties, are prepared
to move beyond the instrumental approach to civil society
(the mentality of asking how the party can control it,
hegemonise it, lead it) to a recognition of civil society's
autonomous sources of power and, as a corollary, an
understanding of the position of the party as one actor
among many in the process of radical transformation. The
WSF and other social forums reflect this development
with an increasing number of open debates about the
role and relevance of political parties. It retains its
determination to grow as an autonomous space, however,
and any attempt by political parties to dominate or
manipulate its processes is met with stubborn resistance.

Finally, how democratic is the space of the WSF itself?
The forum is not a new form of political agency; its
founders and those involved in its International Council
are consciously determined not to be drawn in that
direction. In the vision of WSF founders like the Brazilian
radical Catholic, Chico Whitaker, it is 'a laboratory', 'a
factory of ideas' or 'an incubator from which new
initiatives aiming at the construction of another world
can emerge' (Whitaker, 2004: 113). It does not aim to
produce common declarations or agreed actions; rather,
it nurtures and creates the conditions for many, and
increasingly interconnected, actions. Therefore, the
democratic principles within it must favour such

Like any emergent organisational form, the WSF
displays the characteristics of old forms - new
approaches struggle with the conservative, inward-looking,
self-important habits of the political traditions
from whence people come. The WSF and its committees
are not meant to be loci of power, yet any participant
in the meetings that organise forums can observe
intense power struggles over the number, content,
length and speakers chosen for the moments in the
forum that are seen as most publicly setting the agenda.

A creative and influential search is under way into
how to dissolve those power centres, rather like the way
a massage works on a knot, seeking to get the blood and
muscles working across the body. Since the first forum,
there has been an uneven move towards the Forum
Committees (the International Council and the
Organising Committees for different forums) playing
more of a role in facilitating consultation processes
along cross-national and cross-issue lines, rather than
being decision-makers on the content of the agenda. In
2004, this has moved in a radical direction, with the
Methodology and Programme Commission (created by
the International Council) setting out to create the
whole programme through a process of electronic
communications, followed by face-to-face discussion
between organisations grouped around common 'axes',
or areas of concern. This process is more democratic,
practising the participatory democracy preached by the
WSF Charter. It links organisations to one another,
helping the WSF to facilitate ' . . . the formulation of
alternatives and the construction of common actions'.
If it works, it will be achieving a lot more than being a
more or less democratically organised mass event; it will
be taking practical steps towards solutions to age-old
dilemmas about how to achieve effective common
action with a diversity of actors; how to create a framework
for debate and the development of ideas while
meeting the needs of those engaged in action; and how
to develop strategy and visions rooted in the experience
of those seeking to create new sources of power.

The WSF could be a source of principles for linking
universal visions to the convergence or collaboration of
particular struggles and campaigns. Idealistic, I'm aware.
The proof will be in the practice, both at the next WSF
in Pôrto Alegre and on the ground in campaigns across
the world.

Concluding Comments

If by 'global civil society' we mean non-state organisations
that operate across borders, there is no inherent
connection between global civil society and democracy.
As in Guatemala, civil society organisations can exist in
a sphere of their own: meeting Western funders'
capacity-building targets but having no roots among
the poor and those who have a vested interest in
challenging unaccountable power (Howell and Pearce,
2001; Edwards, 2004).

As the Chinese Communist Party intends with
women's organisations, and British New Labour with
community organisations, well-respected groups in civil
society can perform practical functions - running daily
welfare services, for example - on terms set by central
government without any wider repercussions. In such
situations, civil society accepts a contained space, within
welfare and within the community, without questioning
the wider political framework. Civil society organising
can be an escape, playing micro-democracy while the
wider democratic institutions burn. In many parts of the
US, people spend an admirable amount of time on
neighbourhood democracy but, because it is impossible
for them to influence federal politics without millions
of dollars and they are not part of a powerful national
movement, none of this democratic impetus filters
upwards, or brings the powerful federal and global
institutions downwards. Again, 'tame' civil society
organisations, lacking real autonomy, can create an
illusion of democracy. There is no doubt, as Ali and
Carothers imply, that this has been part of the reality in
Iraq, where the US-chosen Iraqi Governing Council
funded 'civil society' groups to 'promote democracy' at
the same time as it cancelled and overrode elections for
university posts and city mayors that threatened results
that did not please Paul Bremer, administrator of the
Coalition Provisional Authority, and the Pentagon.

But this is not the whole story of civil society and
democracy. Civil society, however messy and experimental,
has always been a necessary precondition for
democracy. For democracy to exist, in the sense of
movement towards political equity and popular control,
there has to be challenging, critical engagement, from
autonomous popular bases of power, with the political
process. Nowadays, in a globalised world, such critical
engagement often seeks and receives empowerment
through horizontal cross-border links.

Participatory public administration, whether in Brazil
or Italy, in which the power of elected politicians is
genuinely augmented by participation, is one example
of a source of power to deepen democracy that is rooted
in civil society. In participatory budgeting, for example,
a public sphere of organised civil society helps, and
challenges, elected politicians to achieve popular control
over state institutions and increases public bargaining
power over the private market. The cross-fertilisation of
ideas of self-emancipation to a social group with a
strong sense of dignity and equal rights, but a weak
sense of its own agency, is potentially another illustration,
as we saw with women in China. Such crossfertilisation
may encourage women to use their rights
in a self-determining manner. The problem with civil
society in Guatemala, influenced by Western donors
(sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally),
was that it developed no autonomous sources of popular
power to challenge the country's economic elite. The
potential and need were there, especially among the
rural poor and the indigenous people, but the energies
of the NGOs and other urban civil society organisations
were elsewhere, diverted on to agendas set by international

The WSF illustrates the democratic potential - not
yet fully realised - of a horizontal net of connections
interlinking civil society across borders. It facilitates a
multi-driven process whereby progressive civil society
simultaneously maps and resists unaccountable,
authoritarian power structures. The established institutions
of power may be unified but the resistance comes
from many different angles, depending on where
the democratic leverage lies. Thus, a multinational
corporation exploiting women workers down the chain
of sub-contracting is a unified power structure, and is
difficult for any conventional political power structure
to control, even if it had the will to do so. But such
companies can be and are being challenged at many
points: in sweatshops and in private homes, where
women workers, with the help of women in the community,
have organised themselves; and at the
supermarket checkout by consumers exposing the
companies' policies and using the companies' need for
a morally clean brand.

The idea of global civil society as a multiple source
of democratic power (latent, not given) can be
illustrated through a part of the reality of post-war Iraq,
which has unfolded in the early months of 2004. After
the invasion, with the Provisional Authority in place,
civil society produced all kinds of movements, hastily
organised, first to protest at the policies of the
Governing Council, then to attempt from outside to
assert power over those policies, if only by blocking
them. The Union of the Unemployed, formed in the
aftermath of hundreds of thousands losing their jobs in
Paul Bremer's wholesale dismantling of the Baathist
state, organised large demonstrations and demanded
jobs. The independent Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions
organised protest actions and meetings, demanding the
right to strike and resisting privatisation. Students took
action to stop the occupying forces from coming into
the universities, which have traditionally prided themselves
on autonomy. They organised in support of those
who won elections to positions of university rector, only
to be replaced by an appointee of the Governing
Council. The mosque, the one institution that Saddam
and now the US cannot control, became a focal point
for opposition to both regimes. This, of course, is
contradictory from a democratic point of view. Iraqi
religious leaders are gaining disproportionate influence
with serious implications for the rights of women, for
example. But Iraq's religious leaders are not all cut from
the same cloth. Some are secular-friendly, holding
democratic elections and defending the rights of the
Kurdish people. Some are even enlightened on the rights
of women, who have been especially hard hit by the
sanctions and the occupation. Moreover, some Islamic
leaders have taken the lead in organising people who
rejected the strategy, advocated by other religious
leaders, of ending the occupation by cooperating with
the occupier. Shia and Sunni religious leaders formed
an anti-sectarian front, the Moslem Scholars Committee
(MSC). The MSC has organised most of the large
demonstrations in Baghdad, encouraging Muslims to
unite and pray at each others' mosques, where secular
people are also welcome.

The result of these various and contradictory impulses
has been a power struggle, a process that neither
Carother's nor Ali's cavalier dismissal of civil society as
a serious force for democracy would appear to
recognise. The refusal of the Iraqis to be fobbed off by
promises of democracy in the 'never-never land' of an
unspecified future, or by a 'local' transitional government
over which, in fact, they have no democratic
control has forced the US to abandon (for at least two
years) its plans to rule Iraq directly and to reshape its
institutions, including its plans to privatise its massive
natural and human resources. The Iraqi Governing
Council, effectively controlled by Paul Bremer, was
discredited and abolished, to give way much sooner than
originally planned to the transitional government,
custodian of 'full Iraqi sovereignty' until elections
scheduled for January 2005. The result is not democracy,
because the ambitions of the US government for Iraq
and the Middle East mean that the Bush administration
is determined to maintain control, by military means.
The US government has bowed to the inevitable on
social and economic government institutions, while
unleashing repressive military force - closing opposition
newspapers, shooting at meetings at the mosques and
at demonstrations and street protests. As I write, public
opinion and organisation is increasingly polarised and
increasingly militarised, which presents major obstacles
for the development of broadly based sources of civil

If the situation in Iraq points to the importance and
potential of civil society as a source of power for
democracy in even the most unfavourable circumstances,
it also points to the limits of that power. A
democratic 'civil' sphere locally or nationally can
enhance popular control and political equality in a
sustained way only where the political party that holds
elected office genuinely believes in sharing power with
civil society, as in Pôrto Alegre and Grottamare. Where
such a belief is lacking, and those in power fear or
despise civil society, the sources of power that local civil
society can organise bash their heads against a brick
wall or find themselves smothered in cotton wool. This
brings us back to the importance of international civil
society, working with and through local grassroots
organisations: the 'second superpower' that was in
evidence on 15 February 2003. Already the combined
forces of local and global civil society have had a
restraining influence on the first superpower. As Noam
Chomsky put it:

Had the problems of Fallujah, for example, arisen in
the 1960s, they would have been resolved by B-52s
and mass murder operations on the ground. Today,
a more civilized society will not tolerate such
measures, providing at least some space for the
traditional victims to act to gain authentic
(Chomsky, 2004)

The final achievement of that independence may
depend on democratic organisations in local and global
civil society transforming electoral democracy, as they
began to do with Spanish elections of March 2004, while
preserving their distinctive sources of more immediate
and popular democratic power. That is the challenge
of 2005.


1. The statistical evidence backs up this conclusion. Progress
towards social equality is far more advanced in Pôrto Alegre
than in other cities. Nine thousand families who, 12 years ago,
lived in shacks now have regularised brick housing; nearly the
whole population (99%) have treated water; the sewerage
system serves 86% of the city compared with 46% in 1989. A
detailed analysis of the municipal budget after 1989 shows that
the lower the average income of the participatory budget region,
the greater the volume of public investment per head

2. This analysis is based on the work by Howell and Pearce (2001),
whose conclusions draw on both their own research and a survey
carried out in 1998 by Creative Associates International for the
United Nations Development Program, which involved in-depth
interviews with members of civil society organisations.


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Copyright: Centre for the study of Global Governance and centre for civil Society, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Center for Civil Society, University of Clifornia, Los Angeles

Reprinted with permission

About the authors

Hilary Wainwright

Hilary Wainwright is a leading researcher and writer on the emergence of new forms of democratic accountability within parties, movements and the state. She is the driving force and editor behind Red Pepper, a popular British new left magazine, and has documented countless examples of resurgent democratic movements from Brazil to Britain and the lessons they provide for progressive politics.

As well as TNI fellow, she is also Senior Research Associate at the International Centre for Participation Studies at the Department for Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK and Senior Research Associate at International Centre for Participation Studies', Bradford University. She has also been a visiting Professor and Scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles; Havens Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison and Todai University, Tokyo. Her books include Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy (Verso/TNI, 2003) and Arguments for a New Left: Answering the Free Market Right (Blackwell, 1993).

Wainwright founded the Popular Planning Unit of the Greater London Council during the Thatcher years, and was convenor of the new economics working group of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly from 1989 to 1994.\

Follow Hilary on twitter: @HilaryPepper


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