The world has several million civil society organisations, from local self-help groups to large national organisations, and from volunteer-based outfits to highly professional specialist agencies. However, there are only about 50 international civil society organisations (ICSOs) which are active around the globe. About half of these carry widely known and respected names such as Amnesty International, Oxfam or WWF. At a time when more and more of the challenges humanity is confronted with can only be successfully addressed at a global level these organisations carry a special responsibility.
Whether we look at climate change or migration, the pollution of the oceans or the destruction of tropical forests, the control of weapons of mass destruction or the fight against international crime: success can only be achieved by approaches which include many, if not all, of the countries and regions of our planet. But while a rapidly growing number of our challenges are global the world is still organised in national terms. The United Nations try to turn diverging national interests into effective global policies – all too often to little effect. Several decades of ineffective policies on climate change are the most telling example of the failure of our global political structure.
Sadly most ICSOs are structured very similarly to the UN. They are federations of 50, 100 or more national affiliates which have to agree on common terms for a global policy to be created and implemented. The result, just like in the UN, is often a compromise which allows all the organisation’s affiliates to protect their interests but is rather ineffective at the global level. I remember so many situations where ICSOs failed to produce a policy position which was markedly different from the average national government statement at the UN. In other cases, producing a joint statement approved by all affiliates on a key global issue took so long that the discussion had moved on and the opportunity to influence decision making had vanished.
While governments and civil society organisations approach global challenges and opportunities based on inter-national compromises, the corporate sector is the only one able to pursue effective global policies. Large global corporations usually have final decision making power allocated at the global level. Thus they are often able to turn international decisions towards their interests. With the Sustainable Development Goals and the climate negotiations we have seen the rapidly increasing involvement of business. This is a positive development because we will not be able to conduct the transition towards a sustainable, fair and equitable world without the involvement of the corporate sector. At the same time, many of us are rightly worried about the growing power imbalance which puts the greed for profit in charge of our global future.
If ICSOs are serious in their endeavour to create a better and more sustainable world they have to organise themselves much better in order to promote citizens’ interests more effectively at the global level. They need to find more appropriate governance models than the federated ones they use at the moment and they need to reallocate power to improve both their global effectiveness and their local legitimacy.
Given that in most ICSOs today power is held predominantly at the level of national affiliates, this means a massive transfer of power both towards the global level and towards local communities. Obviously, convincing the present power holders to give up much of their power is a challenging task – and in discussions I often hear that this is simply impossible. But I am deeply convinced that ICSOs which fail at this transfer of power will fade into irrelevance both as global actors and in the eyes of the people they aspire to serve.