Global Networks

Citizens' organizations are joining forces around the world
and becoming a new form of global governance

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 27
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

When the term “global governance” is used, many people picture centralized, top-down bureaucracies. But global governance can also come from the grassroots. For example, every time a member of Amnesty International writes to a foreign head-of-state demanding the release of a political prisoner, or any time environmentalists meet across national borders to exchange scientific information and discuss strategies, a form of global governance has occurred.

Hazel Henderson, an international development policy analyst, has organized many citizen groups worldwide. Her latest book is “Paradigms in Progress;” her quality-of-life “Country Futures Indicators” will debut in 1994. Hazel held the Horace Albright Chair at the University of California at Berkeley. She can be contacted at PO Box 5190, St. Augustine, FL 32085 tel: 904/829-3140; fax: 904/826-0325.

This article is adapted from “Social Innovation and Citizen Movements,” which appeared in Futures, Vol 25, No 3, April 1993, pp 322-339, and is printed with the permission of Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, UK, and the author.

The blossoming of citizen-based organizations as one of the most striking phenomena of the 20th century has been described by Elise Boulding as ‘a major shift in the nature of the international system.’1

Citizen movements and people’s associations cover the whole range of human concerns – from service clubs, churches, self-help, and spiritual groups to chambers of commerce and professional associations of teachers, doctors, farmers, scientists, musicians, and artists – all sharing some concern for human society that crosses national borders.

Citizen movements, now global as well as national and local, are key drivers in changing societies. They constitute an evolving form of democratic governance, sometimes rivaling the influence of heads of state, generals, scientists, inventors, and multinational corporate executives.

The power that citizen movements wield is informal, unpredictable, and often unnoticed by elites until it emerges as a critical mass. Such movements generally constitute ‘social early warning systems’ signaling dysfunction. Their role in social innovation stems from their ability to provide corrective feedback and creative approaches to social evolution.

These networks of citizens groups are often freer to act and respond to humanitarian concerns than nation-states. They often serve as precursors to new national and international government systems. The United Nations recognizes these proliferating non-state actors as ‘non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) or international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

The structure and philosophy of NGOs make them ideally suited to solve problems that prevailing institutions either ignore or find intractable:

  • NGOs can question conventional wisdom and relentlessly point out cases where the ‘emperor has no clothes.’
  • Because they can tap and organize information laterally – across borders, as well as corporate and government boundaries – they rapidly synthesize overlooked and new information into new approaches and paradigms. 2
  • NGOs and INGOs serve as nodes and ‘magnets’ that attract previously censored information, as well as that from ‘whistle blowers’ in business and government.
  • At all levels, from local to global, citizens’ organizations arise around the social and environmental impacts of existing policies and industrial technologies – from air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, nuclear wastes, and distorted energy-intensive development policies to coercive family planning programs and foreign assistance that reinforces social, economic, and gender inequalities.3
  • Although such groups often organize around problem-identification, they quickly move to more positive and prescriptive agendas – often forced to innovate because existing institutions cannot respond to their proposals. For example, the Kenya-based Greenbelt Movement and India’s Chipko Movement were busy planting trees long before scientists studying climate change began advocating reforestation.
  • Independent groups often represent a priceless social resource that offers new paradigms to societies trapped in wasteful consumption and production habits, and obsolete technologies that are proving unsustainable. For example, the coalescing of INGOs with indigenous peoples has brought forth new agendas based on ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions about how to live sustainably. 4
  • Citizen organizations have emerged worldwide as major actors in leading the search for global ethics. They have staged ‘citizen summits’ on vital issues wherever leaders have dragged their heels – such as The Other Economic Summit (TOES), which has dogged the G-7 nations’ annual summit meetings since 1984 with alternative approaches. And, through their work, citizens’ summits and diplomacy activities helped end the Cold War.


The further growth of global independent sectors will be driven by the increasing loss of nation-state sovereignty and competence resulting from the globalizing forces of technology, finance, information, labor markets, arms trading, pollution, and culture. As NGOs and their proposals are judged more pragmatically on their merits, we may expect an enormous burst of creativity and social problem-solving.

To put this landscape into perspective, we would do well to study social movements and citizen groups even more carefully as old structures and nations devolve.5

The Cold War era hastened the blossoming of NGOs focusing on peace, human rights, nuclear test bans, non-proliferation, disarmament, development, globalizing educational curricula, student-exchange programs, and humanitarian relief, all of which offered major new forms of expertise to governments.

By the 1960s, massive citizen movements emerged to respond to such planetary issues as biosphere degradation, desertification, species extinction, and resource depletion. They also addressed unchecked human population growth, the widening poverty gap between North and South, and extending human rights and fuller political and economic participation to women.

The UN became a natural venue for these new national and transnational concerns. Citizens’ organizations emerged, such as the National Organization for Women, Friends of the Earth, and Zero Population Growth in the US. They joined older NGOs, such as Planned Parenthood and the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature, to push new issues onto their national governments’ agendas.

Such pressure on UN member-states, from NGOs in both the North and South, resulted in a series of ad hoc UN conferences, notably on environment (1972), population (1973), food (1974), women (1975), habitat (1978), and new and renewable energy sources (1982). At each of these UN conferences, it became successively more recognized that their agendas had been shaped by NGOs, new citizens’ organizations, and broader social movements bringing pressure on member-states’ governments.

In early conferences – such as that on the environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972 – these citizens’ organizations were grudgingly recognized; they organized their own parallel Environmental Forum a half-hour bus ride away from the press and the main conference held in the city center. While often ill-informed government delegates droned on in the main conference (the US delegation was headed by former child movie star, Shirley Temple Black) the people’s Forum hosted brilliant debates by many of the world’s leading intellectuals from North and South, including representatives from indigenous peoples from all over the world. The air was charged with excitement as NGOs hammered out their own declarations of principles and drafted treaties and protocols for protecting the Earth; changing the course of economic development towards new values, ecological sustainability and poverty reduction; and recognizing the key role of women as the world’s primary food producers, educators of children, and protectors of the environment.

Indeed, many of the policies and social innovations proposed by NGOs at the Stockholm Environmental Forum – from environmental auditing of corporations, socially responsible investing, and ‘green’ taxes to subsidize R&D in renewable resource and energy-efficiency technologies – are now government policies in scores of countries. Government and corporate elites often are the last to hear of such viable policy alternatives, as they are insulated within top-down hierarchies from such inconvenient information.

The greatest outpouring of interest in these paradigm-shifting debates and the world’s independent sectors occurred at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992.6 The Rio Conference boosted the growth of these citizens’ organizations by providing a global forum for some 13,000 such groups and reinforced their networking activities.

Many of the citizens’ organizations attending Rio’s Global Forum were already sophisticated and linked on computer-conferencing systems, such as PeaceNet and EcoNet. Today, these electronically linked citizens’ groups are becoming a truly global independent sector, a third way for global problem solving and in Boulding’s phrase, ‘a global civic culture.’ 7 s

Notes and references

1. Elise Boulding, Building a Global Civic Culture (NY, Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), p 36.

2. See, for example, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, Networking (New York, Doubleday, 1982); and updates from the Networking Institute, 505 Waltham Street, West Newton, MA 02166 (fax: 617-965-2341).

3. Hazel Henderson, The Politics of the Solar Age (New York, Doubleday, 1981; also Indiana, IN, Knowledge Systems Inc, 1988), chapter 9, Workers and environmentalists: the common cause’, pp. 245-282.

4. See, for example, The Elmwood Quarterly, E(3), Elmwood Institute, 2522 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702 (fax: 510-845-1439).

5. Hazel Henderson, Paradigms In Progress (Indianapolis, IN, Knowledge Systems Inc, 1991), chapter 3, ‘From economism to earth ethics and system theory,’ pp. 71-110.

6. Proceedings: Agenda 21: the Rio Declaration (available from Room S-845, United Nations, New York, New York 10017, (fax: 212-963-4556).