Conceptions of Civil Society in International Lawmaking and Implementation: A Theoretical Framework

The last two decades have seen an unprecedented explosion in the number of civil society organizations seeking to influence national and international policy making and implementation. Global leaders, activists, scholars, and policy experts have increasingly called for the inclusion of civil society in international governance and in the national implementation of international commitments. Most recently, the wave of civil uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa has put fostering civil society participation high on the agenda of national governments and international organizations. Indeed, most international organizations have devised mechanisms to engage with civil society and regard civil society participation as contributing to their legitimacy, accountability, and effectiveness. The meaning of “civil society,” however, is deeply ambiguous. It has been interpreted in a variety of ways reflecting conflicting underlying normative values and commitments. International organizations have used the term “civil society” inconsistently, betraying this lack of consensus and clarity about its meaning. For example, in his address to the General Assembly urging international organizations to engage civil society in global governance, then U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali defined civil society as encompassing all nongovernmental entities, including business and industry. In contrast, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) excludes individual profit-oriented enterprises from its definition of civil society but includes “business forums” that aggregate and lobby on behalf of private, for-profit business interests. An official U.N. Report on United Nations-Civil Society relations (the Cardoso Report) adopts a narrower definition that excludes industry lobby groups and business federations. Some international organizations and supranational bodies, such as the World Health Organization, appear to use the terms “civil society” and “non-governmental organizations” (NGOs) interchangeably, and to favor the participation of nationally and internationally recognized NGOs in policy making and enforcement. Yet other international bodies, such as the World Bank, focus on the role of local civic associations in developing the capacity of citizens to participate in public life.