Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja: The new social movements in the South

Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja: The new social movements in the South

Seminar "The New Social Movements in the South" Opening address Helsinki 14 September, 2001


Ladies and gentlemen,

The idea of democracy and the role of civil society within it has stirred social imaginations across the globe in recent years. Since the end of the Cold War we have witnessed the triumph of democracy as the only model for truly legitimate governance with potential universal validity.

Democracies come in many different forms. No two democratic systems are identical, but it can be said that a functioning democracy maintains inclusive political and social channels for the peaceful discussion of differences and provides, particularly in the rule of law, a system of universally applicable rules to govern such a discourse. In addition, a functioning democracy permits adaptation, dissent, accountability and change through various mechanisms including political debate, legislation and elections.

And whatever theories may say, I know of no real democracy which is not based on freely established political parties competing with each other in free and fair elections. While this is a necessary precondition for demoracy, it is not, of course, enough. Democratic parties are also NGOs and part of civil society.

The role of a vibrant civil society is crucial for the functioning of democracies. Nonetheless, civil society is more an aspiration than an accomplishment, and an ill-defined one at that, since it recedes before the scrutinizing gaze. The preoccupation with civil society at the beginning of the 21st century owes much to the reconfiguration of the sovereignty of the nation-state, the meaning of citizenship, and ideas about the respective roles of public and private spheres.

Each historical epoch creates its own civic movements. During the era of the industrial revolution, from the early 19th century, the main civic movements were churches, cooperatives and trade unions. These organisations developed slowly into national level institutions which had a definite role in the societal fabric.

Now, we have to ask: What are the relevant forms of civic movements during this post-industrial era? One issue facing the new social movements is obvious: they need to address globalisation. Globalisation obliges us to develop new forms of democratic governance. This is important, not only for the end results but also for the the legitimacy of the political system. New social movements have a definite role in this development.

Another, less obvious feature of the new social movements is their need for high level professional expertise. Many politico-administrative arrangements are very complex and one needs intimate knowledge of law, administration and economics to grasp what is going on. The need for professional expertise has given the new social movements some of the traits of academic bodies or the pressure organisations of business interests and similar, somewhat selective groups. The change in social profile may easily create a certain degree of elitism. In order to avoid such tendencies, the new social movements need to look at themselves in the mirror, so to speak. In other words, they need to constantly evaluate their own democratic credentials.

A third feature of the new social movements is their increased specialisation in narrow fields of activity. The animal rights movement is an often cited case in this respect. While specialising in narrow fields, the new social movements lack the kind of broad and balanced perspective that political parties have. For this reason too, the new social movements can never replace political parties.

How do the new social movements actually become organised in the South?
Social movements tend to emerge from a practical interest in tackling an existing social problem. Typically, social movements soon become registered non-governmental organisations, often from the simple necessity of meeting legal requirements for the channelling of funds for various activities. NGOs mushroom in societies undergoing transitions. NGOs can make significant contributions to development processes. They can assist in getting the voices of the vulnerable heard for policy making purposes, they can act as watchdog bodies monitoring government performance against promises made, they can act as catalysts for new ideas and inject fresh perspectives into the political debate. In some circumstances NGOs have undertaken service delivery roles in the social and educational sectors that have traditionally been the responsibility of government agencies.

But just as civil society acts as a watchdog, monitoring the legitimacy of its government, civil society needs to take a good look at itself. Key issues include representation, accountability and transparency. From the outset, it is worth remembering that not all social movements claiming to advance noble causes and the ‘larger good’ are genuine players. Some are elitist, some lack a broad-based constituency, some lack transparency and some engage in outright destructive behaviour.

In fledgling democracies the credibility of civil society is often at stake. Although the concept of democracy allows for dissent and alternative voices, it is crucial that those actors who claim to represent a broad-based constituency clearly distance themselves from violent and reactionary operators who have nothing to contribute to social development.

Finland supports the development of civil society through its development policies. In recent years, approximately 10-15 % of Finnish ODA has been directed towards NGO support, both domestic and international. In addition, a number of our embassies in developing countries have funds available to support local civil society activities, particularly with regard to democracy and human rights issues. Hence, we take particular care in selecting those we choose to support in order to make sure that they are genuine operators with a well-established constituency and that they do quality work.

A truly pluralistic, democratic civil society is able to pursue constructive partnerships with the state and also the private sector. We should note that foreign support for civil society should not undermine or limit the responsibilities of the state in developing countries. The sustainability of public service delivery is at stake. The primary responsibility for their citizens lies with the developing countries’ policy makers themselves.

Civil society players from the South have important contributions to make not only to the construction of their own societies but also in bringing forward important perspectives to the debate about global public goods. They remind us of the need to take seriously the calls for a more just world order and the need for level playing fields in social and economic orders.

Networking, as a way of strengthening NGO capacity, is of great value. It offers greater flexibility to NGOs and increases their visibility and participation. Networking also provides encouragement to local players. There are several world-wide citizens’ human rights and democracy movements which connect individuals through NGOs.

I hope that this seminar becomes a way to establish a ‘network of mutual learning’ for interaction and exchange of information, practises and expertise among civil society members from the North and the South. I feel sure that the seminar will produce fruitful results and I wish all participants much success in their endeavours.

Thank you.