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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

The Contemporary Global Social Movements: Emergent Proposals, Connectivity and Development Implications

This paper explores the complexities and potential for change inherent in a new wave of global movements concerned with contemporary patterns of development and globalization. One such example is the World Social Forum (WSF)—also known as the Porto Alegre Forum—which vigorously criticizes the negative consequences of neoliberal economic policies and claims to promote “alternative” globalization that defends wider social justice. But several global movements, at times loosely associated with the WSF, have also attained international significance, attracting considerable attention from the public, the media and policy-making circles. This paper has selected five of these movements: (i) debt relief; (ii) trade; (iii) Tobin tax; (iv) anticorruption; and (v) fair trade—assessing their organizational structure, social base, claims, methods of action and results. Of particular interest regarding these movements is their attempt to combine advocacy campaigns with concrete alternatives by way of action and practical application.

This paper begins by noting the difficulty associated with the existing social movement theories to deal with today’s transnational social movements, continuing with the description of the nature, diversity and connectivity of the five selected movements. The evidence hints at important similarities in their basic approach, means and strategies. In particular, all five movements have a similar historical and cultural origin in that they find many of the consequences of neoliberal economy defective, consequently requiring a variety of changes. Likewise, these movements have numerous overlapping agendas, thereby providing a collective identity. Yet, it is unclear if this convergence has actually led to a stable alliance and if essential claims are put forward in a coordinated manner.

In the subsequent section, given that transnational activism associated with these movements as well as “alternative” globalization as a whole seeks to move beyond conventional opposition strategies to proposing alternatives and to work with the existing system, this paper discusses the scope and forms of the evolving collaboration between political and development institutions and social movements. This paper suggests that although governments, bilateral bodies and international development institutions have gradually begun to pay attention to the reformist transnational movements, this has not resulted in any significant policy impulse. There are major ideological limitations of the system to readily accommodate such demands.

Finally, this paper provides an overall assessment of the dynamism in the selected movements. It suggests that while public influence of these movements has increased, taken as a whole, their actions remain highly spontaneous and informal, with a low level of institutionalization. At the same time, there are few signs of stable interactions between formal political bodies and social movements. While critical internal divisions persist between reformist and radical forces, these and the “anti-globalization” movement as a whole have come under increased financial pressure, and their social base remains highly unstable. This paper highlights the lack of information and analyses on many essential aspects and concludes that, on the whole, the political impact of contemporary transnational activism has grown somewhat.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 15 Aug 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD