Global engagement, local action

Development Policy07 Oct 2009Donatella della Porta

Global Civil Society 2009: Poverty and Activism, edited by Ashwani Kumar, Jan Aart Scholte, Mary Kaldor, Marlies Glasius, Hakan Seckinelgin and Helmut Anheier, Sage, 376 pp. A review by Donatella della Porta.

What is the role of global civil society in pressing for a fairer global order? The 2009 Global Civil Society yearbook is the product of an innovative collaboration between scholars from the North and the South. It offers a comprehensive analysis of recent civil society interventions and a balanced overview of struggles against poverty and social injustice in many countries.

The question addressed by the various contributors is whether global civil society is actually advancing the struggle against poverty, or whether it is helping to maintain a system of which poverty is a part. To answer this question, the authors look at methodological as well as substantial, and normative as well empirical aspects of impoverishment.

In the first chapter, Harsh Mander, Virginius Xaxa, Lakshmi Lingam and Amita Bhide reflect on the conceptualization and measurement of poverty, and challenge current definitions. The authors point to the bias that is inevitable when a conceptualization of poverty that is linked to European history is applied to other contexts. They criticize in particular the technical view that ‘produces generic policies to be applied in different countries’, and which ‘emphasizes capacity building on a Western model rather than the construction of legitimacy through a process of negotiation, struggle and debate’ (p.13). The crux of the matter is that those who have the power to define what poverty is, also have the power to define its causes and assign responsibility for its solution.

In chapter 2, Sally Stares points to the limitations of monetary measurements of poverty (even if they take into account unequal income distributions), and the important role of civil society in developing different indices, based on alternative knowledge, that can help produce innovative solutions. She praises several civil society actors who have created new measurements as well as new, participatory ways to collect data. The NGO Social Watch, for instance, developed the Basic Capabilities Index, based on the notion that living in poverty means not having basic capabilities, such as freedom and the ability to participate in social life, as a result of having inadequate food, education, sanitation or shelter.

The yearbook shows that poverty is no longer a defining feature of Southern countries alone. Globalization has produced both extreme impoverishment in the North, and rich enclaves (such as the private-policed ghettos) in some cities in the South. Impoverishment – and not just poverty – should therefore be analyzed as the destitution that results when certain actors deny others their human rights. The contributors therefore focus on women, migrants and indigenous peoples – groups that represent a large proportion of the ‘poor’ in both the North and the South.

Existing definitions of poverty tend to imply that the poor themselves are responsible for their condition and for their limited capacity to organize against it. Challenging the homogenization of ‘the poor’, which is often used to justify top-down technical interventions, some contributors present poor people as actively resisting poverty and as agents of deepening democracy in many countries. Others focus on the tendency of local groups to ‘go global’ and build transnational alliances. Examples include the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers, which developed proposals for sustainable fish harvesting, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, which is fighting for recognition of the rights of tribal and forest communities, and the alliances of NGOs that have challenged many large dam projects financed by the World Bank.

Civil society organizations use different strategies to address politics within different policy areas, with some accepting and others challenging the dominant views. Among them, some cleavages have emerged with regard to organizational formats, action strategies and both the diagnosis and prognosis of poverty. Development NGOs, for example, are divided into those that coordinate professional advocacy interventions (such as Oxfam) and those that focus on organizing the poor ‘from below’, such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a confederation of associations in 30 countries. Similar tensions have emerged in the world of labour rights, between the vertical organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the horizontal community organizing of StreetNet International, a global alliance of informal street traders. Among women’s groups, some well structured advocacy organizations are contrasted with the programmes from below (especially through self-help and consciousness raising) promoted by loose networks such as the Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (Groots).

The diversity of strategies does not necessarily represent a weakness of global civil society in addressing poverty, however, especially as far as network organizations allow for the development of common campaigns. But there is a need to combine identity claims within struggles for recognition with universal demands for redistribution.

The final answer to the question of whether global civil society is effective in combating poverty has to be a nuanced one. While several victories can be singled out at the level of national policies as well as international norms, the impact of specific NGO interventions on poverty alleviation, as well as on sensitizing global public opinion, are much more difficult to assess. For the moment, the major contribution of the various struggles against impoverishment seems to be the empowerment of the poor, and their growing capacity to make their voices heard.