Role of Transnational Civil Societies


With globalization taking the better of the world’s economic and political landscape, new legislative measures that are flexible and accommodative of the new changes become more and more indispensable. These new changes call for the restructuring of the national rules and the development of global ones. However, with such needs, challenges also become inevitable. Such questions as who makes the global rules arise. It is from such perspective that the world has witnessed a proliferation of civil societies which are having a hand in almost every aspect of the political and economic decisions of every state. While some view these societies to be disturbance-causing organizations ready to disrupt governmental deliberations, others find them to be the only remaining hope for the global effort for justice and peace. Considering their popularity, this paper will identify what civil societies are, what roles they play and how they succeed or fail in their endeavors.

Depending on the perspective of a viewer, civil societies have different definitions. But the general definition that could reflect the several definitions by analysts defines civil societies to be “the realm of organized social life standing between the individual and the state” (McConnell 1998, p. 1). These are organizations that have steered mass actions that have been meant to counter some decisions made by the government but against the possible position of its citizens. McConnell further gives examples of civil societies. Among them are research and advocacy organizations that are international or domestic but non-governmental, social movements within localities, foundations, trade unions, churches, consumer organizations, the Media, intellectuals, and concerned sections of intergovernmental associations.

Do Civil Societies Matter in World Politics?

Critics have always questioned the role of civil societies in world politics. They have questioned whether the societies have any implication on the political scenery of the world. What is the scholarly view of this question? An example from the US can give insight into the implication of civil societies on the platform of governmental deliberations. In 1999, the City of Seattle witnessed a mass street demonstration of tens of thousands of people who had been mobilized by civil societies to oppose the World Trade Organization’s impeding meeting to set the agenda for a nouvelle round of proposed global trade negotiations. As Florini (2000, p. 1) points out, the primary objectives of this demonstration were so diverse and were instigated by several civil societies that were not only discontented by the unwelcome way through which the WTO was reflecting the environmental legislation within the individual states but also the nature through which economic integration was being fostered by the different corporations and governments.

This is just but a single example of several other such initiatives by civil societies. Other organizations like Transparency International provide a ranking of countries according to the perception of how corrupt they are. This shows a civil society’s fight against corruption. Other forms of civil society struggle against governmental deliberations include several civil societies that for years campaigned against nuclear testing. In 1936, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by 136 countries pointing out a victory for the civil societies (Florini 2000, p. 2). Other forms of civil society uprising include the campaign against dam construction which resulted in the formation of the World Commission on Dams by governments and private sectors and which regulates the construction of dams. Elsewhere, in 1997, more than 300 non-governmental organizations watched as governments signed the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. This came after a long fight that had witnessed resistance from powerful governments. And in the 90s, Augusto Pinochet, the head of the Chilean government faced international legal charges for human rights violations while Nike was also faced with the same charges for violating the rights of their workers in developing countries (Della and Tarrow 2005, p. 20).

The above examples point out that civil organizations have power and that they have yielded fruits in their campaigns. It shows that while some critics view them as disturbances on governmental deliberations or organizations with a primary objective of attracting attention to themselves, the societies implicate on the world’s political realms.

How do the Societies operate and what do they do?

Transnational civil societies have diverse activities. They deal with several issues within the international platform. In most cases, they have to struggle against decisions from governments to ensure that they are reversed. One of the major roles of transnational civil societies is the promotion of shared values. Unlike states which have specific boundaries and boasts of citizens who are patriotically bound to them and which advocate for self-interests, civil societies fight for the promotion of values that promote the public good. The values include religious beliefs, rights for animals, rights for minorities et cetera (Florini 2000, p. 3).

To be precise, transnational civil societies fight for human rights. A good example of a society that has dedicated its energy to ensuring that human rights are observed is the Human rights Watch. Another role that transnational civil societies play is the suppression of corruption. It is the role of these societies that people in power do not use their positions to abuse the rights of other individuals who don’t possess such advantages. They also ensure that powerful corporations do not use their influence to promote their self-interests of profit-making by rubbishing the rights of the individuals from which the corporations are operating. One of the societies fully devoted to the promotion of this effort is Transparency International. Other civil societies campaign for nuclear arms control. Among the organizations engaged in this are the Greenpeace movement and the Program for Promoting Nuclear Non-proliferation. The societies also fight for the wellbeing of communities downstream by campaigning against the construction of dams. Several of such societies exist in Brazil, China, India, Europe, Indonesia et cetera. In addition, some civil societies fight against specific governments in order to promote democracy within the country or change the politics and also the very nature of the governments. Such societies include the Zapatista Movement in Mexico. Another great concern for civil societies is the campaign against landmines. This activity is promoted by several societies including the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (Florini 2000, p. 3). These are just but few examples. There are several other activities that civil societies engage in.

But one question remains pending. How do they do the things they do? According to Florini (2000, p. 10), there exist several instruments of power. Among them are a military force, economic resources, moral authority, and persuasive power. Accordingly, states, civil societies, and private sectors all have different characteristics which subsequently give them varying advantages in the use of the different instruments of power. For instance, due to its advantage of military superiority, a government is much advantaged to use coercive power. This cannot be similar to a private sector or a civil society that has no military base. The government can also command more power in terms of economic resources because they have enough money through their taxing ability. However, civil societies have no such advantages. They lack economic advantages and also coercive ability. This leaves them with limited choices on the instruments of power. They use moral authority and persuasive power. Yet, these are ranked among the lowest in the scale of efficiency of power instruments.

Despite their weaknesses, the instruments of power work greatly. They have resulted in the signing of international treaties like the human rights treaties and the landmine treaty. The transnational civil societies operate by directly facing the policymakers and advising them to change their proposed policies for the good of the society and themselves. On the other hand, they influence the policymakers indirectly by altering the perception of the public on what the government or the corporations ought to have done. This translates to pressure on the politicians who eventually yield to it so that they can please their constituents or corporations reconsider their positions so that they can please their investors and consumers (Florini 2000, p. 10).

To some extent, civil societies have coercive power against the state. For instance, they can threaten to bring to public domain information that is embarrassing that would bring shame to the state, or even spark a backlash from the public. However, societies rarely use force. In most cases, they achieve positive results based on information and persuasion.

What can cause success or Failure

However, civil societies have failed to achieve the desired results. This has been a result of controversies that arise concerning their role and structure. To begin with, it is important to understand that success in any cause of these transnational civil societies depends strictly on persuasive power. Civil society will be guaranteed failure if it lacks the persuasion power of the public. As mentioned above, it is upon the civil societies to change the perception of the public so that the public subsequently exerts pressure on the government or the corporate organization which eventually yields to the pressure. Therefore, if the role of the civil society is perceived by the public to be promoting special interests of the foreign organization due to their top-down model instead of advocating for the general will of the local citizens, the society will not succeed (McConnell 1998, p. 4). This proves that a society will only succeed if it succeeds indirectly persuading the policymakers by providing adequate information to prove otherwise or by having the capacity to influence the public perception to the contrary of the decision made.

In conclusion, it suffices to say that transnational civil societies are a substantial force on the frontier of world politics. Through these organizations, oppressive governments and corporations that fail to reflect the interests of the locals have been brought into accountability and responsibility. As an individual, I have learned that transnational civil societies are a strong force that can guarantee world justice and peace. This is evidenced by the treaties that have been signed by governments and corporations as a result of pressure from these societies. Accordingly, world politics can be changed if transnational civil societies are empowered. This will be the only weapon that will promote the interests of the poor citizens.


Della, D. and Sydney Tarrow, 2005. Transnational Protest and Global Activism, Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Florini, A. 2000. The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Societies. Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange/ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

McConnell, S. 1998. University of California.

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