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American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2008-69Abstract:The editors of the leading yearbook of global civil society studies offered to the authors of this article an opportunity to present a skeptical account of global civil society as the opening chapter in the 2004/5 yearbook. The article examines the standard account of global civil society as the transnational equivalent, in a globalized world, of civil society in a domestic society, and further as, in Kofi Annan's oft-repeated view, international NGOs as the representatives of the peoples of the world to international organizations such as the UN. The article attacks this standard view, arguing that the analogy between transnational NGOs and civil society organizations in a domestic democratic society is fatally flawed. Civil society does not act as the representative of citizens to a domestic democratic state, because citizens also vote; their democratic claims are not intermediated exclusively or even primarily by civil society organizations, but directly at the ballot box. International organizations are undemocratic and will always be that way, and international NGOs, for their part, cannot "represent" the peoples of the world and cannot substitute for democracy. The article then asks why international NGOs and international organizations such as the UN have so aggressively adopted the ideologically-laden language of civil society. The authors argue that this ideologically elevated language of civil society offers legitimation to each party - undemocratic international organizations gain faux-democratic legitimacy from international NGOs claimed to represent the peoples of the world, while NGOs gain legitimacy, access, and status as the people's representatives in global governance. The system nonetheless remains undemocratic and, the article suggests, undermines commitment to actual democracy by substituting values of human rights for democracy. The authors conclude by calling on international NGOs to give up faux-claims of representativeness and a promised role in global governance in favor of a return to narrower missions, discrete tasks, and measurement of success based on competence and efficiency. The article is a sharp attack upon inflated claims for global civil society, international organizations, and global governance.

Publication Date

January 2005

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Sage Publications


Global Civil Society, international organizations, international law, nongovernmental organizations, NGO, international nongovernmental organizations, civil society, United Nations, liberal internationalism, sovereignty, democracy, democratic deficit, globalization, legitimacy



'Global Civil Society': A Sceptical View

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