The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Promoting Corporate Citizenship

Tue, 04/10/2007


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

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

Globalization and civil society organizations

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

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

However, as civil society engages in this exercise and becomes increasingly prominent not only at the national level but also globally, there are increasing calls by governments and critics of civil society that question the legitimacy, transparency and accountability of civil society. There are many efforts underway to address this challenge such as the efforts of a diverse group of international NGOs that have agreed an International NGO Accountability Charter in 2006. The charter illustrates civil society’s commitment to ensure that it maintains the highest ethical standards possible and that it never takes the high level of public trust that it enjoys for granted. There are several other efforts of civil society to develop self-regulation mechanisms at the local, national and global levels. Some of these are more generic in nature and others are more specific to specific sectors of civil society.

Globalization and the increasing power of transnational corporations

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

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

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

Democratic deficit: a challenge to civil society organizations

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

In the context of globalization, democratic deficit and an increasing power of transnational corporations in the market, there have been efforts by civil society organizations to craft new ways of organizing to address negative effects of the democratic deficit both at home and internationally. We have all observed that decisions that affect the lives and well being of people around the world increasingly lie with supra national institutions which are not directly accountable to those people nor easily accessible to citizen voices. This happens at the time when there is increasing acceptance that we need to move from considering participation as just a mean for better development to considering participation as a fundamental human right.

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

Transnational civil society movements

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

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

Challenges and opportunities to civil society organizations

Civil society has challenges of legitimacy and accountability stemming increasingly from its increased status and involvement in global matters. For civil society to become effective there is absolute need to show its effectiveness in bringing about a more just world. Civil society actions will have to be judged sooner or later by how effective they have contributed to this cause. Kumi has argued that: “…this entails finding a greater common ground for dialogue and action. Additionally, it is important for civil society to focus on the considerable number of areas where there is agreement and common ground for involvement and to agree to respectfully disagree on the smaller number of areas of difference. Civil society needs to reflect deeply, from the local to the global levels, how it can enhance and improve its effectiveness. Civil society across the world is called upon to recognize that one of its strengths stems from its diversity. The danger is that diversity can sometimes be used as an excuse for parochialism, a lack of willingness to explore collaborative ways of working and sometimes individualistic approaches to social change for the greater public good” .

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