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UNRISD Launches New Research Project on Transnational Social Movements

4 Mar 2004

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UNRISD’s Programme on Civil Society and Social Movements Takes a New Orientation with an Additional Research Project on Transnational Social Movements

The past research conducted under the programme on Civil Society and Social Movements has focused on various forms of self-organization and initiatives at the grassroots level, both in rural and urban contexts, for defending or improving access to resources, income and services. It has also sought, notably in relation to the Institute’s work for the Geneva 2000 event, to assess the quality of service delivery by non-state actors and new challenges emerging in the triangular relations between donor institutions, national governments and civil society groups. Research findings stressed that many of the ambiguities and complexities inherent in the composition and actions of civil society organizations (CSOs) must be recognized for a more realistic understanding of their capacity and potential for social transformation. In some instances, civil society networks were successful in inserting themselves into national policy debates and implementing concrete projects and programmes at local levels; but, in others, success was subdued—especially in their attempts to build a more solid internal organizational structure, leadership and wider alliances, as well as in reducing their manipulation by powerful elites, governments or donor agencies. On the whole, the challenge remains of how to build a civil society capable of addressing the needs and aspirations of the urban and rural poor, and successfully influence the policies of governments and dominant development agencies in favour of structural change.

Taking stock of this knowledge, the Institute is currently seeking to orient its future research work on civil society activism and policy influence at the international level, but which also have significant impact at national and local levels. Deeply concerned with the many negative aspects of globalization and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of international economic institutions—the WTO, IMF, the World Bank and TNCs—CSOs have particularly been active in pinpointing the negative impacts of the present world economic and financial systems, especially by organizing forceful events at international summits and conferences and utilizing more actively Internet technology. Increasingly, CSO movements and networks are combining their advocacy campaigns with distinct alternative proposals and initiations to existing patterns of socioeconomic inequalities and deprivation. At the same time, the ability of CSOs to act in a cohesive fashion may be coming under greater strain as they become increasingly differentiated along the lines of those with access to power, influence and funding, and as tensions increase between Northern and Southern NGOs. Also, it is uncertain if those movements and networks open to negotiation and working with governments and donor agencies are more successful in producing expected results in global socioeconomic and political systems than those tending to reject the system and choosing to use political pressure and mass mobilization with increased militancy.

The objective of the Institute’s planned research is thus to emphasize the strength and weaknesses of major civil society movements and networks and their attempts to popularize and implement global issues of concern and specific initiatives. What are the specific methods of action and communication tools employed in global civil society movements, including the utilization of international summits and other events? Are these movements capable of having any significant impact on the policies adopted by leading international donor agencies and governments? And how do citizens and civil society groups that participate in these movements articulate their concerns and propose concrete suggestions, including those population groups at the grassroots level facing socioeconomic deprivation and political marginalization?

The project on The UN World Summits and Civil Society Engagement began sometime ago with the prime intent of ascertaining how the different summit processes affected civil society organizations, networking and advocacy, as well as their relations with public institutions at various levels. For further information on this project, please consult "Civil Society" under "Quick Links" in this Web site's homepage.

Global Civil Society Movements: Dynamics in International Campaigns and National Implementation

This project which has just begun proposes to assess five contemporary civil society movements: 1) campaigns for debt relief; 2) the movement to change international trade rules and barriers, 3) the global taxation initiative (Tobin), 4) an international anti-corruption movement and 5) a movement on fair trade. While some of these movements have appeared to be quite promising, there has been little systematic enquiry into the substance of their proposals. Significant differences should be expected in their coverage and achievements. But the present project’s interest is not merely to illustrate how the global movements in question are successful or unsuccessful, but rather to seek to explain why different trajectories lead to different results despite the fact that many of these movements enjoy considerable popular legitimacy.

Another area of key interest is the developmental implications of what is being proposed by these movements and how much consensus or resistance there is in relation to these proposals within the policy making circle. In particular, how do recent formal policy measures undertaken by national and international bodies reflect the dynamism in popularly-based civil society demands and alternative proposals? And, how could constructive dialogue and co-operation be promoted between civil society movements and national and international institutions, the academic community, NGOs, the media, etc., in various contexts?

Research on key global social movements is timely, not because there is increasing visibility of civil society activism at the international level, but rather civil society movements and networks are increasingly combining their protestation and advocacy campaigns with distinct alternative proposals and initiations to existing patterns of socioeconomic inequalities and deprivation. For example, the Porto Alegre Global Social Forum, which is now organized as an annual event and brings together several thousand civil society advocates and groups to discuss many of the negative impacts of globalization processes, has slowly moved towards putting forward many concrete propositions to deal with the consequences of neoliberal economic policies, with sustainable communities, dignified work and a healthy environment.

In-depth country studies will be undertaken in Argentina, Bolivia, the Philippines, Senegal and Turkey in order to critically assess the resourcefulness, capacity and potential for action of the above five civil society movements and networks in national and local contexts, as well as their internal institutional strengths and linkages at different levels. To have a complete picture of how selected movements are seeking to implement alternative proposals and with what effect, a critical assessment would also be undertaken on the work of the selected movements at the international level. Furthermore, a series of thematic papers will be prepared by specialists looking more closely at the main processes and factors that have significant effects on the ability of civil society movements to emerge as a powerful global actor capable of influencing international debate and implementing concrete action plans, but which may not be sufficiently explored in national and international level studies. This includes examination of some of the common as well as diverging trends observed in global movements, comparative analysis of reformist-radical movements, the nature of militancy and tensions between Northern-Southern civil society groups, and selected “old” social movements that have a considerable track record in influencing national and international debate.

The project extends over a total period of three years and is partially funded by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation.