Civil Society - The Third Global Power

- The Collapse of the WTO Agenda in Seattle -

Nicanor Perlas


There are a number of key lessons to be learned as the smoke clears around the WTO debacle in Seattle. But there is one lesson that now seems to be articulated with increasing clarity and intensity especially among journalists and the economic ministers from 135 countries. For one thing, this lesson has become etched indelibly in the psyche of these economic leaders as they desperately tried, in vain, to hammer out a new trade agreement at the waning moments of the last day of the WTO summit.

And what is this lesson? It is now clear that the fate of the world is no longer determined by the bipolar power struggle between large transnational corporations and powerful nation states, such bipolar power that is represented in the very structure of the WTO. The defeat of the WTO in Seattle now shows that a third global force has emerged with elemental strength to contest the monopoly of world economic and political leaders over the fate of the earth. This third force is what we now know as global civil society.

It was global civil society as the third force that actually determined the outcome of the WTO talks in Seattle. We now live in a tri-polar world of large businesses, powerful governments, and global civil society. If we are to learn the central lesson of the defeat of the powerful WTO in Seattle, it is now the time to understand the nature of global civil society as the third force. And one way to develop this understanding is to flash back to another major defeat of the powers behind the WTO early last year.

MAI Defeat: Bad Omen for the WTO

The fate of the WTO talks in Seattle was actually sealed last year in Europe. Global civil society mobilized and defeated the secret and highly controversial Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). The MAI was to be a WTO, Phase 2, or a more powerful WTO.

The powers-that-be behind MAI, the leaders of the 30 richest countries of the world making up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), had made a bad miscalculation. They thought that they could easily approve the MAI, an agreement aimed at bestowing almost absolute rights to TNCs and other investors over and above the rights of citizens and countries. The MAI would allow transnational corporations unparalleled access to the resources of a country with minimal obligations or responsibilities to that country. The MAI wanted to transfer enormous power to transnational corporations (TNCs). If the MAI were passed, then that would have seriously eroded the sovereignty of nations and citizens.

On the last week of April 1998, civil society organizations all over the world were celebrating. Through Internet activism, and the many meetings of parliaments as a result of this activism, they achieved an unprecedented and massive victory over the most powerful countries in the world. An estimated 20 million of their members launched a global initiative to stop the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). And they succeeded.

The defeat of the MAI by global civil society stunned the OECD ministers. "’This is the first successful Internet campaign by non-governmental organizations’, said one diplomat involved in the negotiations. ‘It’s been very effective.’ Canadian Trade Minister Sergio Marchi remarked that "the lesson he has learned is that ‘civil society’-meaning public interest groups-should be engaged much sooner in a negotiating process, instead of governments trying to negotiate around them." Remarking on their own victory, one civil society activist remarked: The MAI is ‘like a political Dracula, [which] simply cannot survive sunlight’.

The MAI negotiations had been sidelined, waiting for the next global venue to sell itself. They thought that this would be at the WTO Ministers Meeting in Seattle, Washington, USA. However, recent developments of the past days showed that this hope turned out to be a nightmare. Around fifty thousand (50,000) activists from around the world unfurled a massive protest against the WTO and any attempt to revive the MAI under the wing of the WTO. Meanwhile, millions of civil society activists, who could not be present, supported and cheered their colleagues on to victory in Seattle.

World Leaders Take Note of Civil Society

It is instructive to note the perception of the mainstream powers of this defeat of a very important initiative of the institutions behind destructive forms of globalization and the WTO. For example, in the Fall Issue of Foreign Policy. Stephen Kobrin writes an article entitled, "The MAI and the Clash of Globalizations". This is what Kobrin has to say.

". . . the story of the MAI is a cautionary tale about the impact of an electronically networked global civil society. The days of negotiating international treaties behind closed doors are numbered, if not over. A much broader range of groups will have to be included in the globalization debate, and much more thought will have to be given to how non-participants will interpret international negotiations and agreements. . . . . proponents of economic globalization must also learn the . . . lesson [that] . . . real secrecy will be hard to achieve when information can be broadly disseminated with the push of a button. . . . "As a corollary, globalization cannot be a top-down or elite-driven project. Policymakers cannot assume that all reasonable people share their assumptions and values..

". . . . The Information Age gives new powers, and new responsibilities, to the wide variety of actors forming the core of the new global, electronically interconnected civil society. It is a large virtual community that unites the like-minded groups across great distances; some estimates have put the total number of transnational NGOs at 20,000. . . . As one observer of the MAI debate has noted, the NGOs have ‘tasted blood’ and will be back. No longer satisfied with simply opposing whatever proposals the negotiators happen to place on the table, there is growing talk among them that their organizations should play a direct role in drafting the agenda".

Civil Society Creates Fissure Among WTO Members

Unfortunately, the WTO did not heed the warning of perceptive participants in the on-going debate about globalization. It isolated civil society out of the negotiating process. But civil society came back at the back door with an irresistible force. It started advancing an alternative analysis of the WTO, one that ultimately resulted in the internal fragmentation among members of the WTO.

The United States and the European Union, for example, are having a bitter debate over labeling of foods produced through the use genetic engineering technologies. Being the largest producer of biotech foods, the US does not want labeling of biotech foods as this would mark the end of their exports. The European Union and other countries, including Japan, New Zealand and Australia want labeling and are increasingly worried about the environmental and health hazards of producing and consuming biotech foods. In all these countries, civil society was responsible for the heightened concern over foods grown through genetic engineering technologies.

Similarly, the US is at odds with developing economies over the issue of application of US environmental laws as a standard for other countries to follow. The WTO, for example, recently struck down several environmental laws of the US and judged them to be barriers to trade. In one widely known case, the WTO said that the US cannot use its laws to prevent the import to the US of fish from developing economies that were harvested using methods that harmed endangered species. Again, civil society, especially environmental organizations, triggered the public outrage against the WTO for gutting environmental considerations in world trade.

Meanwhile in the issue of agriculture, developing economies were split in the raging battle between the US and the European Union over the latter’s continued use of agricultural subsidies to protect its agriculture industry. The EU has argued that agriculture has a multiple functions including environmental protection and cultural preservation and therefore cannot be subject to the rigors of competitive trade requirements. Similarly, developing economies argued for "special and differential treatment" for their agriculture sectors, thereby seeking for additional protection and concession for this threatened sector of their economy. Again, civil society was central in developing the direction and content of these debates among the different members of the WTO.

Transnational Corporations Also Vulnerable To Civil Society Activism

Governments are not the only ones that have to adjust to the new reality. Even giant, powerful corporations now have to be accountable to the public for the business decisions they make.

In January 1997 PepsiCo sold its 40% stake in a venture in Burma (Myanmar). It joined the long list of "victims" of the Free Burma Coalition (FBC), an alliance of citizens groups based in the United States. The FBC convinced Harvard University to terminate its $1 million contract with PepsiCo due to Burma’s continued violation of human rights. PepsiCo thus joined Macy’s Department Store, OshKosh B’Gosh, Eddie Bauer, British Home Stores, and other corporations who have pulled out of the country as a result of boycott pressure from FBC on their products.

More recently the chemical and biotech giant, Monsanto Corporation was subjected to a similar backlash. Over a period of several years Monsanto, a multi-billion dollar transnational corporation (TNC), worked very hard to build its image as a champion of the poor. It engaged in a high profile effort to be one of the champions of micro-credit lending for the poor.

But global backlash soon followed. Environmentalists and development activists learned about the agreement and were appalled. They launched a global campaign, asking Yunus and Grameen Bank to terminate its joint project with Monsanto. On July 29, 1998 Grameen relented. Its founder and Managing Director, Mohammad Yunus, announced that the Grameen Bank was pulling out of its joint project with Monsanto Corporation. The spokesperson for the bank explicitly cited the ‘fuss’ created by civil society as the reason for terminating the project.

With these developments, and dozens of other examples can be cited, the reality of global civil society has taken center stage. With these victories, the power of civil society is becoming more and more manifest. It is clear that global civil society is a counterveiling force to the rapid rise of elite or undesirable forms of globalization.

The Nature of Civil Society

In its modern form, civil society means the active and organized formations and associations in the cultural sphere. These would include, among others, NGOs, POs, academia, media, and Church groups, in contradistinction but not necessarily in opposition to the formal apparatus of governance in the political sphere and the web of business enterprises in the economic sphere. Business has economic power. Governments wield political power. But civil society uses cultural power.

Culture deals with the realm of ideas in its various diverse forms including worldviews, knowledge, meanings, symbols, identity, ethics, art, and spirituality, among others. The "cultural sphere" of society is that subsystem of society concerned with the development of full human capacities and the generation of knowledge, meaning, a sense for the sacred, art, and ethics.

Culture is that social space where identity and meaning are generated. The two are inseparable. Identity and meaning give human beings their cognitive, affective and ethical orientation. In short, it is the wellspring that determines and sustains all human behavior. Loss of meaning results in a cluster of aberrant and destructive behaviors. Discovery of meaning results in greater creativity, compassion, and productivity. It is clear that the institution, in this case, civil society, which controls meaning and identity and, therefore, behavior, will have a tremendous clout in the direction and affairs of national and world society.

The Cultural Power of Civil Society

The cultural power of civil society is also manifested in the kinds of questions and critiques that are now arising in the mainstream newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals of the world especially after the demise of the WTO in Seattle. The December 6, 1999 issue of Newsweek, for example, complains that NGOs, a key segment of civil society, do not always represent their constituencies. There is the question why NGOs get the right to wield so much power even if they are not democratically elected.

This opinion piece in Newsweek does not understand the manifestation of "cultural power" in the events at Seattle. When cultural power is active, it does not work in the realm of votes and election. Rather it unveils issues connected to meaning, truth, ethics, morality, authenticity, legitimacy and so on. Since the articulation of such concerns deeply affects politicians and chief executive officers at the cognitive and behavioral levels, cultural power can have large effects in society. This is the reason why elite globalization wants to ensure that cultural life is suppressed.

External Sources of Civil Society Power

One clue to the vibrancy and power of civil society is number of civil society organizations (CSOs) around the world. This is very difficult to establish with precision. But the estimates are that there are over 3 million CSOs. The US alone claims over 1 million CSOs. Individual CSOs can have very large memberships. In the US, for example, the National Wildlife Federation claims anywhere from three to six million members. Consumers International has membership of 5 million in 100 countries. The global network of the Friends of the Earth (FOE), a militant environmentalist CSO, claims a membership of 1 million in 60 countries. The Philippines, as of last count, has around 80,000 CSOs. Brazil and India also have tens of thousands of CSOs.

The global networks of civil society have attained a size and geographic coverage that is unprecedented in history. There are literally tens of millions of individuals involved in the activities of civil society..

Civil society is also able to mobilize significant amount of resources. For example, Care International, a relief agency, has a budget of $400 million, larger than the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Here is a CSO with a budget larger than a UN agency. But that is not unusual. The UN Commission on Human Rights has a smaller budget than Amnesty International, another CSO. Plan International, a Dutch-based global organization, has a $300 million of budget, which may make it larger than UNICEF. Eight major transnational NGOs each command about $500 million of resources or a total of $4 billion. This amount is around 50% of the total funds of $8 billion available for relief. These 8 organizations are CARE, World Vision International, Oxfam Federation, Medicins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children Federation, Eurostep, CIDSE, APDOVE (Association of Protestant Development Organizations in Europe). Overall, it is estimated that civil society has mobilized $1 trillion to support its causes.

There is another kind of test. This time it is a measure of financial support coming from the same culture which spawned civil society and manifesting its values in the realm of business. Individuals are putting their values to work for sustainable development. Socially responsible investment funds in the United States have reached $1 trillion. Individuals are making conscious choices as to where to put their money. And this trend is growing. Later on we will see what kind of cultural force is behind this movement for socially responsible investing as well as green consumerism.

Civil Society Indeed a Global Countervailing Force

Civil society is clearly an emerging force in the world. Jessica Matthew adds another dimension that indicates the long-term nature of civil society’s influence with the following observations:

"Except in China, Japan, the Middle East, and a few other places where culture or authoritarian governments severely limit civil society, NGOs’ [non-government organization] role and influence have exploded in the last half-decade. Their financial resources and–often more important-their expertise, approximate and sometimes exceed those of smaller governments and of international organizations. . . . Today NGOs deliver more official development assistance than the entire U.N. system (excluding the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund)".

The Beginning of a New History

The triumphalism of capitalism, as ostentatiously displayed in Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History, was misguided. Even Fukuyama himself, in his sequel, Trust, was already concerned that capitalism was starting to eat up the social capital of society. Without trust, social capital is weakened. Without social capital, the productivity of the economy suffers.

If we take a broad sweep of history and view it from the perspective of the emergence of global civil society, we come up with a different and more exciting vision of the future course of humanity. This vision differs from the current one where a new world order, basically the large-scale creation of political and economic elites, would dream of imposition a dictatorship of materialism and egotism around the world.

Since the 15th century, there has been a significant process of emancipation of the three subsystems of society. And this process of emancipation is a grand preparation for the current global emergence and diffusion of a threefold social order, where three key actors - civil society, government, and business, are determining the direction of the planet as we all enter the new millennium.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia formalized what was unconsciously emerging, with an elemental force, into the plane of world history: the birth of the nation state. The invention of the nation state was meant to reduce the incidence of wars among the diverse ruling powers of Europe. But this nation state had a tenuous relationship with cultural powers, especially the Catholic Pope. It also dominated economic life. However, it marked the birth of a form of polity that dominates the modern age – the form of the nation state. With the birth of the nation-state, we find the emancipation of polity from the prevailing social modes of that time.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, we see the emergence of Adam Smith and the 19th century classical economists. This marked the emancipation and emergence of the market, a powerful innovation in the realm of the economy. Of course, at that time, the emancipation of the economic realm via the market, was actually still constrained within the context of an all-powerful state like it was in Germany. Civil society was not too visible, except in the form of the academia and the various religious institutions.

In the subsequent centuries since their birth and most of the decades of the 20th century, both the state and market became the dominant driving force of the world. Higher values and strivings in life, which were nurtured in the realm of culture, were reduced to commodities in the sphere of laissez faire economics and to mere power plays in the arena of a totalitarian polity. And both aberrant political and economic forms were then transplanted by force through colonialism and imperialism in the other countries of the world.

It is now clear what the WTO debate is all about. In our time, at the end of the century, we are actually witnessing before our very eyes the emancipation of culture through the powerful activity of global civil society. This emancipation of the cultural life of the planet is going to play a significant and powerful role for the whole direction of human evolution.

Economic and political leaders in countries and institutions like the WTO have two choices. Either they genuinely engage civil society and inaugurate genuine threefolding processes that can lead to authentic sustainable development. Or they can ignore global civil society but at the risk of their own demise.

© 2000 - Nicanor Perlas

Nicanor Perlas is the President of the Center for Alternative Development and was an influential member of the Presidential Commission for Sustainable Development in the Philippenes, which elaborated the "Philippene Agenda 21". He is the author of the book "Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding".

[email protected]

This article originally appeared in the German magazine "INFO 3", Frankfurt, Germany.
[email protected]

[email protected]


The Battle of Seattle-Hawken | Favela Children-Craemer | Computers in Education-Setzer | Putting Soul into Science-Friedjung | Daphne-Maultsaid | Saint Death-Smith | Dogman-Stewart | Red-Headed Pizza-Smith | Pizza pelirroja-Smith | The Initiation-Frankel | Ideas de un Guitarrista-Medina | Expecting Adam-Talbott | Back Issues | Subscribe | Guidelines |