Fredrik Söderbaum.
Fredrik Söderbaum.

Drawing on research from the LegGov program as well as my recent book Rethinking Regionalism (Palgrave, 2016), I highlight that most CSOs participating in (non-European) regional international organizations (RIOs) are best understood as either ‘partners’ or ‘protestors’. The argument is that ‘partners’ and ‘protesters’ affect the legitimacy of RIOs in ways that have been neglected in previous debates.

More or less all RIOs around the world, such as ASEAN, AU, SADC, ECOWAS, MERCOSUR, have established a range of mechanisms to promote participation by civil society and private actors in policy-making and project implementation. Through these practices and institutional reforms, RIOs are profiling themselves as people-friendly organizations. However, most RIOs are mainly interested in engaging with what I refer to as ‘partner’ CSOs.

Partner CSOs focus heavily on either service-delivery or ‘assisting’ in policy-making. Service-delivery may imply caring for the sick, distributing medicines, or providing a range of other services conventionally associated with public policy. While the second function, assisting in policy-making, may certainly be relevant, the ability of CSOs to have a real impact is limited by the fact that virtually all interaction between RIOs and CSOs in Africa, Asia and Latin America takes place within technical committees at ‘lower’ levels and within the secretariats of RIOs. Most regional secretariats are very weak and all power is vested in the councils of ministers or heads of state meetings where CSOs have no access or influence. The prevailing top-down hierarchies prevent partner CSOs from proposing alternatives, challenging current policies, and performing the traditional functions of civil society intended to contribute to more democratic, legitimate and accountable RIOs.

In most regions, there are also a fair number of CSOs that ‘protest’ against RIOs. For instance, in a spirit of ‘protest’, the Southern African Peoples’ Solidarity Network (SAPSN) charges that SADC leaders use the SADC as a self-serving ‘old boys’ club’ for mutual support ‘whenever the interests and power of the ruling elites come into conflict with the human rights, and the democratic and development aspirations of their own populations’ ( Similarly, the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) refuses to join the ‘NGO-crowd’ and participate in states-led regional schemes like AU and SADC that they claim bring in civil society just to gain a veneer of public legitimacy. According to one APF representative, the SADC NGO Council: ‘is a joke and we don’t take it very seriously. … It is a classic example of institutionalized co-option’ (quoted in a recent article I co-authored with Andréas Godsäter).

Clearly, many civil society groups protesting against RIOs have managed to fill a vacuum created by the absence of real alternatives to states-led and top-down regionalisms that overwhelmingly embrace conventional market-driven policies that fail to address issues for ordinary people. However, contrary to widely shared beliefs in the literature, civil society protests may not necessarily be bad for the legitimacy of RIOs. Although there are several reasons for this, it is essential to understand how different audiences and stakeholders perceive of and think of ‘protestors’ and the RIOs, respectively.

Many protesting CSOs are dominated by a limited number of vocal activists. The ability of these activists to deliver their message and finance their activities is dependent heavily on how successful they are in attracting donor funding or other support from Western NGOs. These features impact on how rightful, legitimate and representative the protesting CSOs are believed to be compared to the RIOs. As Anders Uhlin explained in a previous LegGov Blog, ‘an [international organization] IO can afford to ignore weak protestors as long as it retains the consent of powerful elites’.

Summing up, the first message of this blog is that the current mechanisms for producing democratic legitimacy in RIOs by civil society participation do not work. Civil society participation can even be counterproductive when target audiences and stakeholders understand that partner CSOs may be co-opted or instrumentalized. The second message is that civil society protests against RIOs may be counterproductive — if and when target audiences and national elites consider the RIOs to be more reliable, accountable and trustful than the protesting CSOs.

Fredrik Söderbaum