Global civil society is often uncritically seen as a democratic force in global governance. Civil society organizations claim to hold states and intergovernmental institutions accountable and channel the voices of the world’s poorest people in policy making. Yet to what extent do they succeed in performing that role? This article assesses the representation of the poor in global civil society, with a focus on the negotiations of the Sustainable Development Goals, a process widely hailed as one of the most democratic ever organized by the United Nations. We first analyse how the poor and their local representatives are procedurally included in global civil society (procedural representation). We then quantitatively assess the actual representation of civil society organizations from the world’s poorest countries in the civil society hearings of the SDG negotiations, where civil society was invited to speak on behalf of their constituencies (geographical representation). Finally, we evaluate the extent to which global civil society representatives who claim to speak on behalf of the poor legitimately represented the interests of these people (discursive representation). We found that global civil society fails to fully represent the poor on procedural, geographical and discursive terms, and eventually perpetuates postcolonial injustices in global sustainability governance.
- In international institutions, civil society representation from the Global South must be drastically increased.
- This requires, among others, global funding mechanisms to enable participation of, and prior regional consultation among, Global South constituencies.
- Operational rules of global civil society networks must be radically transformed to allow for transparent, fair, and meaningful representation by organizations based in the Global South.
- The United Nations and other agencies must ensure through clear rules and supportive funding mechanisms that civil society participation is geographically balanced. As an example, the majority of speaking slots for civil society in negotiations must be reserved for organizations based in the Global South.