Academic journal article Global Governance

Cyberdemocracy? Information and Communication Technologies in Civil Society Consultations for Sustainable Development

Academic journal article Global Governance

Cyberdemocracy? Information and Communication Technologies in Civil Society Consultations for Sustainable Development

Article excerpt

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly used to engage civil society in intergovernmental negotiations on sustainable development. They have emerged as a potential remedy to the democratic legitimacy deficit that pervades traditional mechanisms for civil society representation and, ultimately, intergovernmental policymaking. However, many observers have contested the benefits of ICT for democratization on both theoretical and empirical grounds. This article contributes to this debate by evaluating the democratic legitimacy of ICT in civil society consultations in intergovernmental policy, taking the numerous online dialogues of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 conference) as a case study. The article argues that, despite its promise, ICT reinforce rather than reverse embedded participatory inequalities in a global context, and fail to substantially increase transparency and accountability. This prevents, in turn, a meaningful participation of civil society in intergovernmental negotiations, thus indicating the limits of "cyberdemocracy." Keywords: ICT, civil society, sustainable development.


One of the main challenges facing global governance today is the growing democratic deficit of the intergovernmental policymaking system. (1) The lack of responsiveness of intergovernmental norms and policies to collective concerns and preferences as well as the lack of accountability of intergovernmental organizations and institutions are generating a crisis of legitimacy. (2) Resolving this crisis requires, among other things, the development of institutional mechanisms that allow citizens to participate in a meaningful way in the creation and implementation of global norms and policies. (3)

One widely cited example of such novel institutional mechanisms for global participatory governance is the creation of nine overarching categories, (4) called "Major Groups," in the context of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro. Through these new categories, "all concerned citizens" were envisioned to be able to participate in the UN activities in the field of sustainable development. (5) The Major Groups are based on organizing partners who act as facilitators between their constituencies and intergovernmental processes. Twenty years after its in ception, however, the system of Major Groups raises doubts about its capacity to offer all concerned citizens direct access to global norm production. (6)

As a consequence, researchers and practitioners have provided numerous reform proposals for further democratizing intergovernmental policymaking outside the Major Groups system. While some proposals--such as the increasing use of qualified majority voting in the UN (7)--are mainly state centered, others give a stronger institutionalized role to civil society (i.e., the organizations, movements, and citizens who are engaged in negotiations and debates about the character of the rules with governments and international organizations). (8)

In particular, a number of proposals advocate the establishment of separate decisionmaking or consultative bodies in intergovernmental institutions such as an international forum of civil society within the UN, (9) a UN parliamentary assembly, (10) or a deliberative global citizens' assembly. (11) However, it is unlikely that these proposals will materialize in the foreseeable future as they lack support, particularly from most larger countries, at present. (12)

In this context, information and communication technologies (ICT) may offer a promise to overcome these constraints by providing alternative ways of direct participation. The Internet, in particular, appears to be an ideal channel to provide civil society with direct access to intergovernmental policymaking, given its character as a low-cost horizontal means of communication that transcends barriers of space and time. …

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