The notion of civil society, once it became international, refers to a variety of actors and invites us to question the uses of the expression. To talk of international civil society homogenizes and de-territorializes these actors, while their practices continue to evince inequalities, tensions and important relationships on a local and national scale. Civil society actors organize protest, participate in initiatives alongside state governments and international organizations, as well as put forward proposals.

The notion of civil society emerged from political philosophy, where it has a variety of meanings. It became an international concept from the 1990s onward. It describes phenomena thought to indicate the emergence of a worldwide/ transnational /global civil society: alter-globalist demonstrations at the G8 summits and at WTO (World Trade Organization) ministerial conferences, World Social Forums, marches in various cities around the world to protest against intervention in Iraq in 2003, and international coordination of peasant organizations with La Via Campesina from 1993.

The term describes actors who organize themselves independently of states and intergovernmental organizations which tend to challenge and influence them. Like the related terms of global public opinion or global public space, its definition is vague. Depending on who is speaking, it can include NGOs, civil society organizations, social or religious movements, native peoples, sometimes trade unions and think tanks and even, in some cases, members of the trade sector, such as MNCs (multinational corporations).

The uses of civil society

This diversity of meanings invites us to question the uses of such a designation. The self-proclaimed actors of civil society use it to demand recognition for those they claim to represent: the people, those occupying the lower echelons of society, the voiceless, victims, and so on. The term is used by IGOs (Inter-Governmental Organizations) as diverse as ECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council), which in 1996 allowed national NGOs to have consultative status, the World Bank, the ILO (International Labor Organization) and the IOS (International Organization for Standardization). The expression lends these bodies a democratic veneer and helps them overcome their legitimacy crisis by demonstrating their openness – albeit selective and hierarchized – to non-state actors. Even the United Nations Security Council, with its inter-state composition, participates in this movement, devising the “Arria Formula,” so named after the Venezuelan diplomat who first invited a priest to testify informally before Security Council delegates. Researcher place this normative, positive, and homogenizing discourse in perspective.

An international civil society?

First, to talk of an international civil society in the singular means uniting actors who are very diverse in terms of values, financing (public, private), resources, strategies, positioning, and access to the international scene. In this respect, inequalities in the territorial distribution of those NGOs that have consultative status with ECOSOC reveal the domination of NGOs from the Northern hemisphere.

NGOs accredited with Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) status, 1946-2016

Source: United Nations, Economic and Social Council, 

Comment: Since 1946, the UN has allowed non-governmental actors to be present, or even to participate in multilateral debates. NGOs whose request to do so is accepted thus obtain consultative status at the ECOSOC. Three statuses exist: a “general” status granted to large international NGOs whose activities cover several areas; a “special” status which concerns those more specialized in one particular area, and finally a “roster” status which combines the other two. The map shows that accredited NGOs come primarily from the United States (almost 1,000), from Europe (United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, and Italy) but also from India (more than 200), Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Second, it masks the conflicts and confrontations that exist between these protagonists. For example, the international peasant movement La Via Campesina was fraught with difficulties and tensions between peasant organizations, the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), and the Paulo Freire Foundation (Delphine Thivet) from its inception.

Vía Campesina member organizations, 2017 

Source: La Vía Campesina, Report of the VIIth Conference, July 2017, 

Comment: The Via Campesina is an international movement that began in the early 1990s and represents small farmers and landless or indigenous people. This movement – which opposes industrial agriculture (a major user of GMOs and pesticides) and promotes peasant agriculture, equitable agrarian reform, and food sovereignty – brings together numerous organizations in America, Western Europe, and South Asia (particularly India) and, to a lesser extent, in South East Asia and a few countries in Africa.

Furthermore, the global dimension tends to conceal the importance of local and national aspects: activists are not detached from all territorial allegiance and their debate is embedded in national preoccupations. And while this expression seems to indicate that civil society has a measure of autonomy in relation to states and international organizations, studies emphasize the extent to which civil societies are “analyzed from the top down.” Finally, this concept implicitly invites us to think of these movements and organizations in terms of innovation. But this should be put into perspective: the international movement for the abolition of slavery dates from the late eighteenth century, when the first international organizations were already spaces for circulation and exchange with non-state actors.

Consultation, participation, proposition

These different actors said to represent civil society are often depicted as opposition forces, mobilizing in order to protest, like the alter-globalists and, more recently, the Occupiers and the Indignant, who combat neoliberal globalization. But their actions are not confined to protesting. Their cooperation with states enables them to influence the international agenda: for example, in the non-governmental Working Group on Women, Peace and Security (NGOWG), Namibia and Jamaica worked together in October 2000 to hold an Arria Formula meeting in the Security Council, to which several women activists (such as Luz Méndez) were invited, in order to prepare for the adoption of Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security.

The participation of civil society actors in the FAO’s (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) Committee on World Food Security, reformed in 2009, allowed this organization, which was then in crisis and rivalled by the World Bank, the OECD, and the WTO, to reposition itself in debates over agriculture. Civil society is also a force for putting forward proposals, as demonstrated by the success of two international coalitions, the international campaign to ban antipersonnel mines (ICBL) and the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons (ICAN), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 and 2017 respectively.

Arria-formula meetings at the Security Council, 1992-2017 

Source: Security Council Repor t, www.

Comment: The graph shows the regular annual recourse to a type of UN Security Council meeting: the “Arria Formula.” These informal meetings – which bear the name of a Venezuelan representative to the UN in 1992 – enable members of the Security Council to have “frank” discussions (as opposed to “diplomatic” discussions) with invited guests (both governmental and non-governmental).

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