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The false promise of civil society participation in international organizations

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Fredrik Söderbaum | 7 February 2020


Editors note: This post is not part of the current Blog-Fest on Populism, which will continue on Monday with a contribution on Donald Trump and the United States Foreign Aid’s Erosion of Legitimacy by Salvador Santino Fulo Regilme.


This blog post questions the prevalent belief in both policy and research that participation by civil society organizations increases the legitimacy and accountability of global and regional governance institutions.

Drawing on my book, Rethinking Regionalism (Palgrave Macmillan), and previous research collaboration with Andréas Litsegård, I highlight that many civil society actors participating in (non-European) regional organizations are best understood as either ‘partners’ or ‘protestors’. The argument is that ‘partners’ and ‘protesters’ affect regional organizations in ways that have been neglected in previous research.

More or less all regional organizations around the world — such as ASEAN, AU and SADC— have established a range of mechanisms to promote participation by civil society and private actors in policy-making and project implementation. Through these practices and institutional reforms, regional organizations are profiling themselves as ‘people-friendly’. However, most regional organizations are mainly interested in engaging with what I refer to as ‘partners’.

Partner civil society organizations focus heavily on service-delivery, for instance caring for the sick, distributing medicines, or providing a range of other services conventionally associated with public policy. A related partner-function is to provide ‘assistance’ to regional organizations in policy-making. However, the ability of civil society to have a real impact is limited by the fact that virtually all interaction between regional organizations and civil society in Africa, Asia and Latin America takes place within technical committees at ‘lower’ levels and within the secretariats of regional organizations. The fundamental problem is that most regional secretariats are very weak, and all power is vested in the councils of ministers or heads of state meetings where civil societies have no access or influence. The prevailing top-down hierarchies prevent partner civil society organizations from proposing alternatives, challenging current policies, and performing the traditional functions of civil society intended to contribute to more democratic, legitimate and accountable international organizations.

In most regions, there are also a fair number of civil society actors that ‘protest’ against state-led regional organizations. For instance, in a spirit of ‘protest’, the Southern African Peoples’ Solidarity Network (SAPSN) charges that Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders use the organization as a self-serving ‘old boys’ club’ for mutual support “whenever the interests and power of the ruling elites come into conflict with human rights, and the democratic and development aspirations of their own populations”. Similarly, other critical civil society actors refuse to join the ‘non-governmental organization-crowd’ and participate in schemes like the African Union and the Southern African Development Community because they are criticized for bringing in civil society just to gain a veneer of public legitimacy. As stated by one civil society representative, the SADC’s efforts to collaborate with civil society actors “is a joke and we don’t take it very seriously. ...It is a classic example of institutionalized co-option” (quoted in an article co-authored with Andréas Litsegård).

Clearly, many civil society groups protesting against regional organizations have managed to fill a vacuum created by the absence of real alternatives to state-led and top-down regionalisms that overwhelmingly fail to address issues that affect ordinary people. However, contrary to widely shared beliefs expressed in the literature, civil society protests may not, necessarily, be bad for the legitimacy of international and regional organizations.

One reason for this is that many protesting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are dominated by a limited number of vocal activists. The ability of these activists to deliver their message and finance their activities is heavily dependent on how successful they are in attracting donor funding or other support from Western NGOs. These features affect perceptions of how rightful, legitimate and representative are in comparisons with state-led regional organizations. As Anders Uhlin explained, “an international organization can afford to ignore weak protestors as long as it retains the consent of powerful elites”.

Summing up, the first message of this blog is that current mechanisms for producing democratic legitimacy in regional organizations by civil society participation do not work. Civil society participation can even be counterproductive when target audiences and stakeholders understand that partner non-governmental organizations may be co-opted or instrumentalized. The second message is that civil society protests against regional organizations may be counterproductive — if and when target audiences and national elites consider the regional organizations to be more reliable, accountable and trustworthy than protesting civil society actors.


Fredrik Söderbaum is a professor in peace and development research at the School of Global Studies. His research interests include regional and global governance, aid, security, Africa and development theory.


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