In a world increasingly beset by famines, wars, genocide, AIDs, environmental deterioration and continuing population momentum in the poor countries, the failed state has become the Achilles heel of the emerging international community. For every failed state there are many more "weakly institutionalized" governments, which can, curiously, also be described as semi-authoritarian. (1) International governance, if it is not to become Olympian at best and tyrannical at worst, can only be built on what happens at the national level. To be accountable and strong, the national level must intersect, at least indirectly, with the efforts ordinary people make in their own communities. So, in a way, the local and the global are intimately connected, not just because people plant trees or recycle, but because all politics, to paraphrase Tip O'Neill, is ultimately local.
The good news is that in much of the developing world, failed states co-exist with civil societies, which have expanded dramatically since the 1970s. What Salamon et al calls this "global associational revolution" (2) is particularly evident in Asia, Africa and Latin America. By the late 1990s there were an estimated 50,000 intermediary grassroots support organizations (GRSOs) that worked with hundreds of thousands of community-based grassroots organizations (GROs) in the developing world. (3)
Coinciding with the later years of this phenomenon has been an explosion in transnational alliances on everything from human rights to land mines to corruption. Often these two macro trends interact. El Taller, for example, is a practitioner researcher alliance that also provides staff training for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from many countries.
More formal international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have also proliferated in numbers and probably now exceed 25,000. (4) Even though official international organizations, INGOs and international peacekeeping forces are increasingly cooperating with each other and with indigenous NGOs these global actors had to contend with more than 40 complex human emergencies in 1998 alone. (5)
The relationship between civil society and the state may in the long run help determine whether a particular country will contribute to or undermine collective efforts, however inchoate, to enhance stability, democracy and living conditions at the global level. By civil society, however, I do not just mean a collection of NGOs. Indeed, as Perez Diaz defines it, civil society includes "markets, associations and a sphere of public debate." (6)
Why markets? Because a significant percentage of non-profit NGOs in the developing world promote for-profit activities, such as micro-enterprises and community-based enterprises. In some countries more traditional business associations are emerging, and some scholars even include businesses in their definitions of civil society, arguing that they form part of the intermediary realm between the citizen and the state.
Why a sphere of public debate or deliberation? Because public talk of all types--in the media or through public meetings or deliberations--can knit together the pieces of civil society and provide citizens with a public voice that can enhance governmental accountability. The Inter-American Democracy Network has trained over 100 NGOs to work with local communities, name and frame their own issues and moderate forums that can assist ordinary people, through deliberative talk, in governing themselves.
Both this broader view of civil society and the inclusion of community-based GROs help counteract the assumption that the growing numbers of intermediary NGOs or GRSOs will, by themselves, somehow enhance democracy, prosperity and stability. Still, even larger NGOs that "behave like governments" may be a step forward in situations of violence and chaos.
While keeping the broader definition of civil society in mind, this paper focuses on NGOs, including GROs, GRSOs and their networks. …