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Whose Democracy? Information Flows, NGOs and the Predicament of Developing States.

This talk considers the paradoxical role played by NGOs in developing civic infrastructures, and suggests that greater focus needs to be placed by NGOs on securing intellectual property rights for developing states as the condition of political and economic sovereignty within informational and biotech economies. Abstract of talk at Dark Markets Conference, Vienna, October 3, 2003.

Everyone likes to claim their organisations operate in ways that adhere to basic democratic principles. The complex of informational relations between African states, supranational entities, corporations, civilian populations and NGOs is defined by various scalar tensions that seriously undermine the constitutive dimensions of a democratic polity. Herein lies the logic of uneven modernities. This talk considers the paradoxical role played by NGOs in developing civic infrastructures, and suggests that greater focus needs to be placed by NGOs on securing intellectual property rights for developing states as the condition of political and economic sovereignty within informational and biotech economies.

Introduction There's no question that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have more often than not played vital roles in fulfilling a range of humanitarian related tasks in numerous states that have been subject to the ravages of colonialism, environmental disasters, agricultural failure, civil wars and genocide, internal political and social instability, currency crises, or a combination of all of these. In many instances, NGOs have filled a gap in the vacuum within developing, transitionary or "quasi-states" who, for various reasons, do not have the capacity to provide social services for their populations. As a result of this, NGOs entrench an extant condition whereby developing states may often not be equipped with the sort of institutional infrastructures and sociopolitical formations - namely, a domestic capitalist bourgeoisie and civil society traditions - that have enabled the formation of democracy within the project of nation building, as witnessed in the West. As such, many developing states do not have the sort of structural conditions in place to experience the unfolding of modernity. Or rather, in a dialectical sense, these states have indeed experienced forms of modernity that are radically dissimilar in spatio-temporal and ontological ways from that experienced by and within western liberal democracies.

In many respects, the material conditions of developing states have enabled the possibility of a range of conditions and experiences in advanced economies that could be considered as privileges constituted by legitimately enacted violence. A large part of this experience can be accounted for by referring to the histories of colonialism - a project whereby hegemonic states are able to secure the material resources and imaginary dimensions necessary for their own consolidation and prosperity. These histories have been well documented, but it is worth keeping the spectre of colonialism in mind when discussing the situation of developing states, NGOs and informational economies - the subject of my paper today.

My argument in this paper is that in order for developing states to secure political sovereignty, it is first necessary to obtain a degree of economic power. (In this sense my thesis is fairly traditional or conservative, even crude.) I suggest that a key way in which economic power can be obtained for indigenous peoples and developing states is through intellectual property rights as they pertain to cultural production and biological knowledge. I maintain that the state form is an important one in the process of democracy formation, and that it is a mistake to see the state as obsolete within globalised informational economies. Furthermore, I do not see the state as necessarily antagonistic to the functioning of informational economies. Indeed, the discursive figure of the state is built in to member obligations of the WTO's Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in 1995 as a key administrative, legal and political actor. The challenge is to reform IP laws in such a way that meets the needs and interests of indigenous peoples and those in developing states.

To this end, my argument has attracted hostility from cyber-libertarians and sectors in open source movements who persist with that rather ridiculous mantra "information wants to be free", as though there is some ontology to the technicity of the net independent of the social relations which make the net intelligible. Cyber-libertarians and IT open source movements overlook two key things when they advocate the free flow of information: 1) the world is not a software program: i.e. other forms of knowledge also exist, and the extent to which information is accessible so that it might then be transformed into knowledge depends to a large extent on degrees of cultural capital, not only IT access. 2) To promote and argue for IP rights for indigenous peoples and developing states does not preclude the ongoing circulation of information within those communities. Rather, it ensures that knowledge specific to those communities is not exploited by transnational corporations (TNCs), who 'own approximately 90% of technology and product patents in the world, and up to 80% of technology and product patents in developing countries'. Furthermore, such a pro-IP position recognises that indigenous peoples and social formations within developing states are quite adept at functioning both within customary law as well as international contract law as it pertains to proprietary rights over cultural production and biological knowledge. That is, we shouldn't overlook the way indigenous peoples engage in bi-modal regimes of practice. To do so is to relegate indigenous peoples and those in developing countries to nostalgic and violent discourses of pre-modern timeless time.

To a large extent, the anti-IPR response by cyber-libertarians has been shaped by a North American political tradition that is hostile to and suspicious of government regulation and intervention. This, we are all familiar with. And in many respects the cyber-libertarian position colludes with the ideology of liberalism, as it figures in mainstream US political traditions that place a primacy on the individual over and above the collective. And it smacks of hypocrisy and righteousness to hear such objections from cyber-libertarians when many occupy positions of privilege, frequently accompanied by salaried day jobs associated with computer programming, data surveillance or software development.

Finally, my argument with regard to NGOs is that while NGOs occupy a significant structural relationship with supranational entities, state apparatuses and local communities - thus constituting what Castells terms the new form of a "network state" - they do not exploit their political leverage in any extensive sense by pursuing IP policy reforms and negotiating with government on behalf of securing intellectual property rights for local communities. It strikes me, then, that this is a key direction for NGOs to pursue if they are to maintain an advocacy role for civilian populations in developing states.

Scalar tensions

In taking up roles traditionally the reserve of the state, NGOs condition the possibility of three key features, all of which undermine the economic and political sovereignty of emerging states.

Firstly, with the logic of flexible production, accumulation and consumption that has corresponded with the emergence of new ICTs and the capacity to organise social relations in the form of networks, we have seen an increasing liberalisation of the state and the market. And with this process we have seen liberalisation decoupled from democracy, where the latter ensured a degree of transparency and accountability from the former: this well and truly vanished with the onset of the "new economy", as we've seen in the shonky accountancy methods of companies associated with the tech-wreck, Enron being the most obvious example.

The kind of inflated economic returns in the form of debt management on the balance sheet has been the basis for neoliberal states to feel secure in their ongoing pursuit of deregulation and privatisation. Furthermore, hegemonic states and the supranational organisations they are aligned with have been unrelenting in imposing this structural logic of neoliberalism upon developing states as a condition of receiving financial aid from the IMF, World Bank and the like. In the case of developing states this has led to a range of structural conditions that emulate some of the structural arrangements peculiar to neoliberal modes of organising social relations, state bureaucracies and corporate practices.

NGOs often find themselves involved in activities in the realm of education, providing training and literacy skills to local communities. Such activities may be secondary to the key mission of NGOs. As Rececca Knuth notes with regard to information flows in complex emergencies, 'There is an acute awareness among relief organizations that short-term intervention to save lives must be supplemented by long-term reconstruction initiatives that reconstitute local systems and prevent future crises'. However, there is a high risk that such long-term initiatives become fragmented and reproduced, at best, as a series of short-term interventions undertaken by an assortment of relief agencies in as much as there is no guarantee that NGOs have either the financial resources or enduring personnel to commit to long-term reconstruction projects.

Furthermore, the state no longer holds a structural relation to civilian populations. This immediately begins to undermine the constitutive dimensions of modern democracy. For example, the task of the modern university corresponded with the project of nation building, of establishing what Benedict Anderson called an 'imagined community'. In modern times, the university has been a key actor in the process of democracy formation within the West. The university cultivated an informed and knowledgeable bourgeoisie and citizenry, trained with the capacity to deliberate over the political and social life of the nation. The university also played a key role in the development of civil society insofar as it occupied a critical space independent of the state. Today, of course, we have seen this role seriously eroded as universities and academics working within them are constituted within a neoliberal paradigm as "pseudo-corporate" institutions and "post-intellectuals".

When NGOs become responsible for educating civilian populations, an almost perverse correlation with the civilising mission of the coloniser kicks in. In fact, I would go so far as to say that at a structural level NGOs occupy a similar territory as TNCs, both of whom contribute to a process of recolonisation of postcolonial states. This can result in tensions between well-meaning NGOs and local populations over the kind of political, social and cultural values attached to the techniques of education. Moreover, the state foregoes the hegemonic process of negotiating sociopolitical values with civilian populations as they are articulated through and within the educational apparatuses. As such, a key dimension of democracy formation is dispensed with.

Secondly, in adopting the task of educating civilian populations about procedures for clearing landmines - as in the case of the German Initiative to Ban Landmines, to take one example - we see a process at work that is similar to the neoliberal technique of outsourcing. At a structural level, then, the state "leapfrogs" straight into a neoliberal frame, bypassing the temporal and spatial experiences of the modern welfare state. In other words, developing states are structurally positioned whether they like it or not in flexible modes of delivery, hence creating a dependency relation on external providers as distinct from domestically developed systems of learning and the social formations and cultural values that attend such a process.

In this sense, NGOs, when involved in auxiliary roles such as education, undermine one of the traditional roles of the state. As such, NGOs are assisting in the formation of conditions that also benefit the interests of TNCs, which seek to obtain by any means possible conditions that enable unilinear flows of capital, unrestricted by domestically determined regulatory interventions by the state. Furthermore, the presence of NGOs, as external providers of services traditionally the reserve of the state, reinforces the sort of conditions associated with IMF and World Bank monetary loans and their structural adjustment programs. This raises serious questions with regard to NGOs who claim to occupy an advocacy position on behalf of civilian interests. Indeed, I would suggest that the very notion of civil society as a sort of autonomous space is brought into question as NGOs find themselves in a paradoxical field of tensions in which they are at once bound to local communities whilst assisting in direct and indirect ways the interests of TNCs and supranational governance.

As many of you will recall, a lively debate tracked this issue on the nettime mailing list February 1997 with a number of postings critiquing the Soros network and the inter-relationships between NGOs, corporations and civil society. Some of the issues and critiques from that time were synthesised in an interview with Saskia Sassen by Geert Lovink in 1999. On the issue of accountability, Lovink noted that 'One of the problems of NGOs - especially if they are linked to large international organizations - is that for people on the ground, and even for governments, they are no longer accountable for what they do. They can move very quickly and in many ways can behave like finance capital'. In this sense, NGOs again can be seen to model some of the dynamics of TNCs and reproduce techniques of organisation peculiar to neoliberalism. Deconstructing the question of accountability, Sassen importantly notes:

accountable to what and for what? In some cases, the fact that some of these organizations are not accountable is actually better, because it means that a different kind of political project can be enacted - whereas if an organization is accountable, it often means being accountable to existing value systems, which in some cases are the very ones best avoided. However, many of the big NGOs are profoundly accountable - by which I mean they are accountable in the kinds of ways and to the kinds of entities one might not want to demand accountability for or to.

Then, relating the question back to her own research on the architecture of global finance and the need to 'invent new systems for accountability and accountability for different kinds of aims in some of these systems', Sassen elaborates on the problematic of "transparency":

There is an architecture, there are certain standards the players adhere to; and there is transparency, the famous term "transparency", which implies something that's intrinsically good. But what is it? It is accountability to shareholders and their short-term profit. But do we always want this kind of accountability? No - including from global finance - so we're presented with the challenge of discovering new types of accountability, new ways of thinking the question of accountability - accountability to a larger public good, and so on.

For the purposes of this paper, I want to highlight that while NGOs may procure tactical benefits from an absence of accountability, this has to be weighed against the correspondence such a system of organisation has with informational secrecy by corporations. The consequence of this is fundamentally antithetical to the "transparency" assumed of conventional notions of democracy. Or perhaps what is needed now within theoretical reflections are new concepts of democracy as it figures in post-governmental networks. That is, can democracy be conceived in "post-political" times in which, according to Hardt, there is a 'withering of civil society'?

Thirdly, the sidelining of the state is also significant at a political level, since there is no institutional residue or collective memory of things being otherwise. And at an imaginary level, the possibility of different forms of political organisation that correspond with the space of the nation is not there. While the neoliberal state has seen the erosion of traditional differences between the left and the right and the emergence of "third way" style politics, I think it is premature to overlook the political function of pseudo-corporate institutions such as the university and the persistence of trade unions: these are institutions that are part of what I'm calling a collective residual memory that contribute to what Ghassan Hage has called the possibility of spaces of hope. Having said this, I wouldn't want to rule out the potential for alternative political models emerging from indigenous modes of political organisation.

In short, I hope the above examples gesture towards, if not convincingly demonstrate, the paradoxical role of NGOs within quasi-states: probably against their best wishes, NGOs are situated in such a way that assists in the imposition of neoliberal systems of organisation upon developing states. As such, these states are occluded from the sort of modernising experiences and processes - its times and its spaces - that have been fundamental to the constitution of liberal democracy in the West. I'll return to the question of democracy in the final section of this paper, once I establish the political role of IP rights for developing states and their civilian populations.

Informational flows, scale and borders

With the advent of new ICTs, particularly the internet, NGOs have been able to consolidate and expand themselves, creating new alliances by networking with each other through horizontally organised information flows. As I noted earlier, the rise of NGOs has coincided with the emergence of globalised economies. Similarly, the net has enabled NGOs to interface with local, state, military and supranational entities. This might give the impression that distinctions in scale disappear, and that tension between and within these sectors no longer prevail. Certainly this is not the case, since NGOs often enough contest the powers of the state in the interests of the "the people" (a politically dubious figure at best). With their enhanced capacity to gather and disseminate information, NGOs have obtained greater legitimacy as political actors, often challenging the sovereignty of authoritarian governments. The horizontal expansion of informational flows has led a number of scholars to claim that a new state form has emerged - a form which Castells has termed the "network state", one that international relations theorist Martin Shaw calls the "global state", and a form that Hardt and Negri attribute to the "post-political" manifestation of "Empire".

The extent to which such a new state form can be called democratic is highly questionable, however. Moreover, such a form has not fared well for communicative relations for those civilian populations deprived of adequate IT infrastructures; nor should an intensification in informational flows be assumed to correspond with open systems of communication. The commercialisation of the net and its regulation via domain names and intellectual property regimes functions to close information flows. But as I argue below, depending on the extent of reform, IPRs can be used as a strategic political architecture that at once maintains the flow of information within informal networks, while securing a closure against external exploitation.

The lack of any extensive IT infrastructure militates against the possibility of translocal networks within and across African states, though there are indications that this is changing. For the time being, a reproduction of dependency goes on in which the relatively few users connected to the few metropolitan ISPs within African states are dependent on the expansive networks in Europe and the US for their information flows. It's for this reason that '133 developing countries have asked the United Nations to maintain radio stations and other traditional media as a means of disseminating information, because use of the internet alone would exclude many people from access to information flows'.

This condition of a "digital divide" is illustrated well in Mathew Zook's internet mapping projects. As his map of CONE and country code domains by city shows, there is a vast concentration of domain names registered in Europe, North America and the Asia Pacific. This data reinforces the claim that advanced economies hold a geopolitical monopoly on informational flows, and it follows that the intensity of networks will be greater in those cities and regions with the highest concentration of domain names. Furthermore, the socio-technical infrastructure in the form of services and so forth that is necessary to support these informational nodes will also be greater in those areas with higher concentrations of domain names.

According to statistics from the Ireland based web publishing and software company NUA, there were approximately 580.78 million users connected to the net in May 2002. Of this figure, 182.67 million and 167.86 million users are located in North America and the Asia/Pacific respectively. In stark contrast to this, Africa has 6.31 million users, and there are even less in the Middle East, which has 5.12 million users. In percentage terms, Mathew Zook's map of Internet Users Worldwide, which is based on NUA statistics, registers less than 2 per cent of users in most African states, with the exception of South Africa (4.9 - 13%), compared to over 35% connection rates for populations in North America and Scandinavian countries. A recent report published on NUA's site claims that in Africa there is 'roughly one internet user for every 200 people, compared to a world average of one user for every 15 people, and a North American and European average of about one in every 2 people'. Interestingly (and not surprisingly), each connection in African countries supports 3-5 users. Connections are confined to major cities, with most capitals having more than one ISP. However, there are signs of a recovery of sorts, with a 20 per cent increase in the number of dial-up internet subscribers in the past year, according to this NUA report. This shift can be accounted for by the rapid privatisation and deregulation of state-owned telecommunications industries in many African countries over the past year or so.

The relatively dismal connection rate for African states has prompted Castells to make the pretty obvious point that 'Most of Africa is being left in a technological apartheid'. Such a condition has been compounded by economic circumstances, with a steady decline in economic growth over the last decade in Africa accompanied by substantial drops in the levels of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). As Ankie Hoogvelt notes, 'Africa's share of all FDI flows to developing countries has dropped from 13 per cent in 1980 to less that 5 per cent in the late 1990s'. Referring to the crises in Asian "tiger" economies in the late 90s, a recent report in the International Herald Tribune noted that high levels of foreign investment flows are no a priori guarantee to fast-tracking economic development: 'developing countries that allow an inflow of foreign money into their financial markets are vulnerable to disastrous, panicky withdrawals, especially if they have not developed sound banking systems first'.

My point in detailing these vital statistics is not only to add some empirical weight to my argument. I also want to signal that with this seeming change to the telecommunications landscape in Africa, it is even more necessary for major inroads to be made into the management and reform of IP rights in African countries. As much as there might be a technological leap under way in Africa, this is no guarantee that individuals and communities possess the means to function within informational or knowledge economies in which knowledge and ideas are 'embodied in products, processes and organisations', which in turn 'fuel development'. Such a move requires a vast educational infrastructure and cultural apparatuses and industries if information is to be codified in symbolic forms as knowledge. It also requires investment in 'sustaining the physical state of human capital (health expenditure)'. Furthermore, such investment and infrastuctural needs has implications for democracy formation, since the figure of the politically enabled citizen presupposes an educated and healthy civilian; thus information flows depend upon a civic infrastructure that includes schools, technical colleges, universities, library resources, and so forth. One important precursor if not parallel to such infrastructure consists of ensuring that indigenous cultural production and biological knowledge is not alienated from local communities and individuals.

NGOs and IP and their relationship to the State

Whilst IP regimes can be understood as a form of abstraction that potentially alienates production from labour, this is not necessarily a contradiction in terms when IPRs are considered as a strategy to ensure a degree of economic and political self-determination by indigenous peoples and those living in developing or quasi-states. Intellectual property rights enable developing states to place an economic value and regime of scarcity on their cultural and biological resources. New ICTs are the mechanism for then distributing this property and extracting financial remuneration from its use by those participating in informational economies.

Furthermore, the codification of production as property reinforces the legal authority of the state, since property cannot exist independently of state recognition. That is, IPRs can assist in the development of the state apparatuses, albeit ones that are circumscribed by economic interests, and reinstate their authority to legislate progressive policy related to privacy rights of their constituents. While IP in and of itself does not alleviate poverty or misery, it does provide a crucial potential for leverage out of such conditions, certainly more so than if IP is handed over to TNCs who have a monopoly on ownership of both technology and product patents and copyright of cultural production.

Of course there are numerous issues and problems associated with intellectual property regimes as they currently figure. IP law reinforces what Castells identifies as a key characteristic of the 'information age as a result of its networking form of organization': namely, 'the growing individualization of labor', and this functions to undermine collective bargaining or the regulation of labour and wages by agreements between unions and the state. Intellectual property regimes still attribute proprietary rights to an individual, rather than a collective. In this regard, IP does not favour the social form of production peculiar to many indigenous peoples and people in the developing world, where production occurs through the form of the collective. Further reform needs to occur to current intellectual property law that legitimates ownership of knowledge that is not fixed in form, and enables indigenous intellectual property to be protected in perpetuity. Herein lies a challenge for NGOs at policy and legal levels.

Conclusion: whose democracy?

In conclusion, I would like to return to the title of my paper, 'whose democracy?'. A couple of years ago when I first read Chantal Mouffe's The Democratic Paradox, I questioned the extent to which her concept of agonistic or pluralist democracy as a politics of legitimacy that enables 'the struggle between adversaries' rather than antagonistic struggles between enemies was relevant in any pragmatic sense within an informational age of network societies. Certainly I thought Mouffe's identification of the antagonistic dimension of "the political" as that which is underscored by the ineradicability of violence, following the work of Schmitt and others, was insightful and timely as rational consensus models gained even greater purchase as the only legitimate models of democracy in town. But how, I wondered, was an agonistic politics to be conditioned within the logic of informationalism?

The postnational ideological terrain of network societies has seen the apparatuses of the state undergo deregulation and privatisation, or, in the case of developing states, simply bypassed altogether. Mouffe's model of agonistic democracy, which is predicated on traditional institutions of the state as the place in which a democratic polity unfolds, seemed problematic and decidedly modern in light of the reconfiguration of statehood at extraterritorial and networked dimensions.

However, in light of my argument today on NGOs, the state, and intellectual property regimes, I would suggest that it is precisely through pursuing IP rights for indigenous peoples and civilian populations in quasi-states that an agonistic politics might unfold. My reason for this is that IPRs constitute a hegemonic field of articulation of "the political" in which the identities of states, peoples, NGOs, corporations and supranational entities are contested and reconstituted in ways that challenge a neoliberal order as it currently stands (e.g. the imposition of structural adjustment reforms on developing states by the IMF and World Bank as the condition for financial aid). To avoid engaging with the problematic of IPRs is not a political alternative.

The auxiliary task for NGOs is to ensure that the people they represent are able to be situated as political actors within this networked terrain. Such networks, as suggested by Florian Schneider, might be considered as 'packets in agony'. Political legitimacy, I would suggest, is conditioned in the first instance by indigenous peoples obtaining economic sovereignty which in turn positions them as political actors in as much informational flows across scalar dimensions and the expansion of capital depends upon engaging with what is otherwise a community of others excluded from informational economies and network societies.

Content type
Projects Dark Markets
Public Netbase
Date 03.10.2003
Location Vienna


colonialism network society intellectual property rights IPR NGO state TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) civil society transnational corporations (TNCs) patents ICT (Information and Communications Technology) CONE FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) landmines Africa USA Europe Middle East Ireland South Africa WTO World Bank Saskia Sassen Geert Lovink Michael Hardt Manuel Castells Benedict Anderson Rebecca Knuth Matthew Zook International Herald Tribune Ankie Hoogvelt Chantal Mouffe Florian Schneider Ned Rossiter
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