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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Globalization and Citizenship

Date: 9 - 11 Dec 1996



From 9 to 11 December 1996, UNRISD sponsored an international conference on Globalization and Citizenship. The event was co-sponsored by a consortium of Australian universities, led by the Swinburne University of Technology, and held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Its purpose was to consider a question posed in the conclusion of States of Disarray, the Institute report for the World Summit for Social Development: can the polarizing effects of globalization be offset by new approaches that reaffirm the basic civil, political and socio-economic rights of all people?

The first two days of the conference were organized around a small seminar, in which 40 participants considered such issues as the conceptual underpinnings of "globalization" and "citizenship", the changing political economy of the international system, the impact of globalization on people's rights and on the enforcement of international standards, and ways of strengthening democratic institutions. The third day consisted of a public meeting which was attended by 200 representatives of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the diplomatic and academic communities in and around Geneva. Speakers addressed questions related to the reform of the international economic system, multilateral co-operation, and precedents for expanding the boundaries of citizenship through regional structures. The conference programme and a list of participants in the seminar will be found at the end of this report.

Discussions at the conference highlighted both the threats and opportunities that globalization poses for citizenship. Economic liberalization and restructuring have eroded the economic and social rights of people in many countries, but falling barriers to communication have also expanded international awareness of rights and facilitated the creation of civil society networks on a global scale.

Within the context of extremely complex and contradictory processes of change, people are struggling to create or protect a sense of community and to bolster the institutions that provide them with social protection. In long-established welfare states, this implies defending the entitlements that form part of social citizenship. In a number of Third World settings, it implies organizing for democratic reform. "The rights of the citizen" have become a rallying cry in many situations: the modern concept of citizenship implies the existence of a civic and political community, a set of rights and obligations, and an ethic of participation and solidarity that is clearly needed in times of uncertainty and rapid polarization.

Much of the debate on citizenship occurs within national boundaries and asserts the basic civil, political and socio-economic rights of individuals. But people are also weaving transnational alliances and defining entirely new rights within supranational arenas. For example, women have been able to forge strong international alliances to insist upon recognition of reproductive rights. Environmental movements have championed the ideal of "sustainable development", which implies that generations yet unborn have an entitlement to live in an undiminished natural environment. These rights are increasingly articulated at an international level, although they may affect even the most local and personal spheres of daily life.

Rights go hand in hand with obligations, and the enforcement of both requires effective institutions, operating within a framework of legitimate governance. Therefore one of the most important questions discussed at the conference was the extent to which institution building — or reform — at national and supranational levels can create a workable structure for the negotiation and enforcement of rights and obligations.

In many developing countries, beset by economic crisis and at times by civil war, the situation is not encouraging. Some of the most powerful actors in these societies — including transnational corporations, the military and international financial institutions — largely escape democratic control. States are often weak and institutions ineffective. Although political and administrative structures are far stronger in developed industrial countries, groups with transnational economic agendas, shaped by the rules of a ruthlessly competitive global market-place, are also gaining power — and escaping accountability — in ways that affect citizenship negatively.

Reinforcing democratic governance within states is obviously of fundamental importance. But globalization also strengthens the need to develop what might be called an "enabling international environment" for citizenship, composed of standards and institutions that uphold universal rights and permit a wide-ranging consideration of issues that affect every human being as an inhabitant of the planet. To gain insights in this area, participants in the Geneva conference considered various layers of supranational institution building, including both the historical experience of the European Union with the creation of regional citizenship (supplementing, but not replacing, national citizenship), and a series of proposals for strengthening the governance structure of the United Nations system.

It seems obvious that while it may have been possible in the past to understand the phenomenon of citizenship by concentrating almost exclusively on the relations of the individual and the state, such a vantage point is no longer sufficient. Elements of citizenship are being created at many levels of society, from the most local through the most global; and it is increasingly necessary to consider how these different layers of identity and experience are related.