Civil Society for a Participatory Democracy Justice for Columbia

"Our times demand a new definition of leadership - global leadership. They demand a new constellation of international cooperation - governments, civil society and the private sector, working together for a collective global good." Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General to the UN, Speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (29 January 2009)  

 Democracy is facing a major crisis brought about by globalization. However, increasing participation in social networks (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) and use of mobile communication devices (smartphones, Ipads, etc.), have helped various international institutions  find a way to organize web debates with the civil society. 

In theory, the civil society can make positive contributions to democratic governance. Reliable information and analysis are be provided to governance agencies by civic associations representing different social circles. In this way, civic activism can empower citizens and shift politics toward a more participatory democracy. However, democracy is changing and developing. E-participation, e-democracy and citizen initiatives are playing an increasingly important role in the modern civil society. We should look into the benefits of e-participation, like those of European citizens initiatives in the EU (e.g. Fraternité 2020, Let Me Vote, Right to Water) or online petitions for citizens, decision-makers, and civil society.

Back in the 1990s, civil society became a goal for new democracies, particularly in formerly dictatorial regimes all around the world. The information revolution provided new tools for forging connections and empowering citizens. Civil society became a key element of the post-cold-war zeitgeist.

According to Putnam, voluntary associations in a civil society are where this learning occurs. He articulates the understanding of the relationship between liberty and good government as social capital: in the small-scale setting of the bowling league or the local union organization, individuals learn the habits of cooperation, reciprocity, and trust that are necessary for all collective endeavors, including good government. Citizens must make the personal choice to join and participate in community life and voluntary associations.

Civil society participation and the United Nations 

Various areas of global governance are spanned effectively by the growth of civil society participation. With the end of the Cold War, there has been a lot of talk of the “democratic deficit” of the United Nations and other intergovernmental institutions. International institutions such as the United Nations, with an historical record of no or limited access have slowly and gradually opened up to civil society actors. Absolute absence of civil society access to international institutions is exceedingly rare today.

What are the role and the impact of civil society on international institutions like the United Nations? Given the great distance between global institutions and citizens around the world, information technology appears ideally suited to bridge the communication gap that otherwise would be nearly insurmountable. United Nations organizations have consultative functions. Both governments and international organisations anticipate advantages from this cooperation. NGOs are given access to power knowledge and are pushing into the vestibules of power.

The United Nations was among the earliest post-war institutions to offer NGOs access to selected bodies, notably the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC). Over the years, the number of NGOs with consultative status has increased dramatically, from 41 in 1948 to 3742 today.

A more limited collection of United Nations documents are available on the UN’s public website, mostly press releases and daily summaries of United Nations meetings prepared by DPI. There is also a treaty database, which is accessible by paid subscription. The possibility for citizens to freely access public policy-related information is widely recognized as a central aspect of democracy. As Catinat and Vedel emphasize: "…the exchange and free movement of information has always been a key element in democracy. As democracy means a system in which people make the basic decisions on crucial matters of public policy, the citizens in a democracy, as the ultimate decision makers, need full or at least a lot of information to make intelligent political choices".

Access to information is the principal tool for citizen participation in a democratic system. It is a crucial criterion for the existence of an informed electorate, government accountability and the proper functioning of the political and electoral process, not only within the state but also in the international organisations. NGOs can be a bridge between the international community and civil society.

E-democracy and civil society - closer to active citizenship 

Consultation on issues of public policy making processes has expanded the area of government e-democracy. Consultative frameworks were adapted to the online environment in the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, special portals dedicated to promote open online consultations of the citizens by the government were created in Canada and New Zealand.

Accountability and transparency are key characteristics of good governance. Nowadays, e-government is a new tool to decrease corruption, particularly in post-communist societies. Thus, e-government and e-democracy experiences could increase levels of trust and establish a relationship between civil society and governments. Only a few countries, like Estonia, have put in place an Internet-based voting system in national elections, but many others (like Ireland and Canada) have experimented with it. In the Estonian e-voting case, we can see that between the local elections in 2009 and the Parliament elections in 2011 the number of Internet votes has increased by 35%. An interesting fact is that the number of young voters represents 10% of the Internet voters. According to Thad Hall, surveys have found that Estonians view their system as very effective. On the other hand, Alex Halderman says the opposite about e-voting in the USA. At a time when Google, Twitter, and the Pentagon are facing hacking attempts every day and cannot successfully defend themselves against some of them, there’s just no way that tiny municipalities running election systems across the country are going to get Internet voting security right.

E-democracy is changing the way citizens interact with their government and politicians. Developments of web 2.0 and modern technologies allow information to be shared far more effectively and at almost no cost. On the other hand, the Internet is now a way to raise money for political campaigns in the United States of America. But Adam Berensky states that most electoral reform measures only benefit voters who were already highly motivated to vote. This could anticipate the fact that e-voting might make it easier and more convenient for dedicated voters and partisans.