Global Policy Forum

Thirst for Justice


How Civil Society Has Challenged the Democratic Legitimacy of G8 Countries

By Sara Parkin*

July 11, 2001

A few months ago, the Italian government officials preparing for next week's G8 Summit in Genoa came to London. Their mission? To explore with UK groups how international civil society and the poorest countries in the world might engage with the G8 process. At the forefront of their minds (though not actually on the agenda) was the Italian's desire to avoid another punch-up between international uncivil society and the local police.

Around the table, however, were representatives of the un-balaclava-ed, non-cobblestone-throwing wing of the UK environment, development, poverty and peace movements. As they talked, it became clearer than ever that all governments are deeply uncertain about how to handle the spectacular growth of what they call civil society, not least because its growth is being paralleled by a sustained decline in participation in the normal democratic process.

The G8 countries are facing serious difficulty each time they meet. They face a crisis of legitimacy. Other international bodies, such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are being challenged because their power is entirely disproportionate to their accountability both to the citizens who pay the bills and to the citizens who live with the consequences of their decisions.

But the G8 summit is a meeting between heads of states who fancy they carry a democratic mandate of one sort or another. Challenges to their legitimacy they don't need - especially a challenge carrying a legitimacy of its own.

The extent of that legitimacy was explored in a 1998 survey done by Johns Hopkins University in 22 countries. It revealed that the GDP of various 'not for profit' non-governmental organisations totalled over $1.1 trillion. Only seven countries have a larger GDP. These NGOs are estimated to employ around 19m people between them.

Not one corporation employs anything like this number. The only sector that is bigger is transport, which employs 22.5m people. But because this international civil society has no boundaries, unlike a state, and no corporate headquarters, governments find it extremely difficult to negotiate with it in any traditional way. Yet negotiate they must, and all credit to the Italians for having a go.

In some of the so-called mature democratic countries, including the UK, the response to the rise of a vocal and active civil society has been to question its legitimacy.

As the Johns Hopkins survey also shows, the growth in NGO membership and activism has largely occurred over the last decade. It might be more fruitful for the G8 and others to fret less about NGO micro-management and more about why their citizens feel a need for them at all.

What is it that governments are getting so wrong that prompts so many people to give up voting in elections every four or five years, and to go elsewhere for the services and political campaigning that matter most to them?

If sustainable development means anything at all, it surely means ending poverty and narrowing the huge gap between rich and poor within and between nations; securing a life-supporting environment for everyone; and ensuring peace and prosperity all at the same time.

It does not mean being in a state of continual trade-off, or putting one issue after another - the economy first, the environment later. The reason governments persistently fail to see the connections between endemic poverty, environmental degradation and the way the economy works, is because they don't look at them all together. Different people deal with each issue on different days in different departments. Consequently, government remains blind to the inconsistencies that are actively preventing them from hitting the Holy Grail of simultaneous environment, social and economic beneficial outcomes.

The Washington-based Worldwatch Institute is promoting the idea of an Ecological 9 - a new grouping of world leaders that between them account for about two-thirds of the world's population, economic wealth, CO2 emissions, and key biological resources.

Putting the E9 leaders round the table in Genoa would do more than anything to convince people that their governments live in the same real world as they do, and help reunite civil society with the democratic process.

*Sara Parkin is chair of The Real World Coalition, which comprises more than 25 leading UK campaigning organisations ( The coalition's second book, From Here to Sustainability, January 2001 is published by Earthscan.

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