Creating space for democracy

Marian Sawer, The Australian National University

Donatella della Porta and Dieter Rucht (eds) Meeting Democracy: Power and Deliberation in Global Justice Movements, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013 (273 pp). ISBN 9-78110702-830-2 (hard cover) RRP $125.00.

Sabine Lang NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013 (273 pp). ISBN 9-78110702-499-1 (hard cover) RRP $105.00.

The role of non-government organisations (NGOs) in democracy is a highly topical subject in Australia. In an historic decision in the AidWatch case in 2010, the Australian High Court upheld the freedom of charitable organisations to engage in public advocacy on matters of public benefit. Four years earlier, the Tax Office had revoked the tax deductible status of AidWatch, sending shock waves through the sector. The majority decision of the High Court was that engaging in public debate about foreign aid, as AidWatch had done, was a beneficial purpose compatible with charitable status. The freedom of political communication was at last to apply to NGOs, protecting their democratic role from financial penalties. As we shall see later, this High Court decision has now been enshrined in important Commonwealth legislation. This is the first time there has been statutory recognition of the democratic role of NGOs despite its significance. In Australia, most political representation between elections is undertaken by the peak bodies that regularly speak to government and to parliament on behalf of different sections of the community. These NGOs also perform other vital democratic functions, creating space for public deliberation and serving as schools in democratic practice

The issue of a public sphere where deliberation can take place is a central concern for ‘deliberative democrats’ who associate the quality of democracy with the quality of its public talk. Such quality is measured by the willingness of participants in debate to change their minds after listening carefully to different points of view. In other words, the potential for ‘preference transformation’ is an important measure of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democrats sometimes assume that existing political organisations, including NGOs or social movement organisations, are too bound up with pre-given interests or ideological frames to provide a public sphere where such deliberation can occur (Hendriks 2002, p. 65). They favour new mechanisms, ranging from deliberative polls to citizens’ juries, consensus conferences or citizens’ assemblies, to achieve the quality of deliberation that should be central to democracy. But is it true that existing political organisations, including those arising from social movements, make poor homes for deliberative democracy? An ambitious European research project has recently found much evidence to the contrary.


Distinguished social movement scholar Donatella della Porta has been leading a large-scale research project funded by the European Commission on the democratic role of global justice movements. The project’s goal was to observe the inner life of these movements to see how decision-making was conducted and conflicts managed. This is a very different focus from most scholarship on social movements, which has been more interested in protest events than the nature of the decision-making processes that lead to them. Yet, as the authors of Meeting Democracy point out, activists actually talk more than they act (p. 3).

NGOs create space for public deliberation and serve as schools in democratic practice.

Meeting Democracy presents the findings of participatory research into twelve social movement organisations in six European countries as well as the European Social Forum at the transnational level. The chapters have been written by different members of the research team and present different aspects of the research (methodology, patterns of participation, types of controversy, power and arguments, quality of deliberation, emotions, structurelessness). The book will be of interest to social movement scholars for its highly ambitious attempt to combine qualitative and quantitative research techniques. Is it possible to combine rich ethnographic observation of meeting culture with comparative methods requiring standardisation of data and coding? Clearly, coding was difficult as there was often a mixture of elements, for instance use of both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power. Intercoder reliability was tested by getting team members to code material from the film Twelve Angry Men. Readers who suffer anxiety about qualitative forms of research may be reassured that findings, for example that the participation of women resulted in a more co-operative mode of conflict management, were ‘supported by linear regression analysis’ (p. 218).

An appendix setting out the research instruments in detail will also be of interest to deliberative democracy scholars. Central to the project was drawing up an index of deliberative quality covering the use of soft (communicative) rather than hard power, reciprocity (acknowledging the contributions of others), symmetry (treating others as equals), co-operative rather than competitive behaviour, emotional charge (relaxed rather than tense) and civility (p. 29). Where a meeting was awarded a high score on the deliberative democracy index it would have reached consensus on a controversial issue without sacrificing the viewpoints of minorities or dissenters. A meeting characterised by what the researchers call ‘hard power’ (arguments from position, threats of sanction or exit or a majority vote) was more likely to resort to bargaining and to reach a compromise rather than consensus. Familiar dilemmas were encountered, such as how to deal with determined Trotskyists within meeting practices intended to be open, participatory and consensus seeking.

Although the possible effects of the presence of the researcher are discussed, in general there is less reflexivity than might have been expected from participant observers sitting in a circle with a small group. This may be because researchers were concentrating so hard on the almost impossible task of quantifying things like the degree of tension in groups during the handling of controversies (there was most tension recorded in the German groups, least in the Italian and Spanish ones). In line with current developments in social movement research, there is also some recording of the emotion work needed to sustain organisations—such as the evoking of positive emotions through narratives of previous achievements. Such story-telling contributes to collective identity and facilitates consensus-building (p. 135).

The quality of deliberation was improved by the participation of women.

Solidarity can also be built through sharing of personal issues (p. 217). Strangely, the examples provided do not include family problems, although surely even in global justice movement groups personal disclosure might include sleep deprivation associated with teething children. As is well known from research on women’s movements, personal disclosure does contribute to closer emotional ties among participants. Such friendships help sustain organisations but can also create a barrier to organisational renewal, with new members feeling excluded by existing cliques (Sawer 2008, p. 244ff). Meeting Democracy does include sensitive portrayals of the ‘burn out’ that leads to lack of action and a downward spiral, contributing to the need for new members to take on organisational roles but also to the tendency to ‘pounce’ on the new members and overload them with tasks (p. 93).

Overall the project found that deliberative practices outweighed more majoritarian or hard power modes of decision-making within all the social movement organisations studied. Social movement organisations were indeed creating alternative public spheres where participants listened to each other, were open to preference transformation, respected minorities and dissenters, and limited the role of leaders. The quality of deliberation was improved by the participation of women and by social movement practices such as limiting speaking times or using a facilitator, although there was only infrequent use of ‘go rounds’ to ensure all participants contributed.

While Meeting Democracy provides a rich portrait of the kind of democracy practised within global justice movement organisations, it has little to say about how these democratic practices contribute to a broader public sphere, the subject of Sabine Lang’s book discussed below. Meeting Democracy also has surprisingly little to say about the Internet (there is not even an index entry for it). With political activism and collective identity-building increasingly moving online, this seems an odd omission. Certainly research by Frances Shaw (2013) in Australia shows that the mutually respectful and inclusive deliberative practices discussed in Meeting Democracy can be found in online feminist political communities. Like global justice movement activists, feminist bloggers have also been creating an alternative public space within which challenges to dominant social norms and discourses can be developed through talk and the development of affective ties. Further, the boundaries between online and off-line organisations are becoming increasingly blurred, as the latter rely more and more on social media rather than face-to-face communication between members.


Web 2.0 technology is certainly dealt with by Sabine Lang in NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere. Like della Porta and Rucht, she is interested in the democratic role of social movement organisations, beyond the protest events that gain most attention. However, Lang is primarily interested in the question of whether ‘NGOization’ has reduced the ability of civil society movements to create an alternative public sphere, rather than assessing the quality of deliberation within that public sphere. There are interesting crossovers between the two books, however, as when Lang speculates that NGOs like World Vision may ‘outsource’ voice and protest to social movement organisations like Attac Germany—groups in the Attac network were studied for Meeting Democracy.

Public, not insider, advocacy promotes citizen engagement.

‘NGOization’ is a term originally invented by Lang to encapsulate the institutionalisation and professionalisation of the German women’s movement, which she saw as displacing broader feminist mobilisation (Lang 1997, p. 102). The phrase struck a chord and has been taken up around the world, but particularly in Latin America, to refer to the substitution of more state-oriented organisations for broader mass movements and activism. The concept of ‘NGOization’ coincided with a dramatic global increase in the number of NGOs, although Lang’s account in this book is slightly mistaken. The number of NGOs with UN consultative status in 1994 was more than 700, not 41 (p. 13, cf. United Nations 2009) but it had risen by 2012 to 3,735.

In the context of globalisation and state restructuring there is increased reliance on NGOs to deliver services. Lang is concerned that closeness to government may bring access to policy-making but impair the ability and inclination of organisations to engage in public advocacy. Being drawn into partnership in service delivery increases the risk of co-option and the opportunity costs of public voice may be seen as too high. She argues (p. 7) that this exchange of public voice for insider gains is detrimental to democracy because it is public rather than insider advocacy that promotes citizen engagement. NGOs become ‘proxy publics’ for government purposes, while giving up on the task of engaging and representing broader publics.

Lang’s argument is vigorous and well-informed by personal observation (she is a former ministerial chief of staff in the Berlin government, and is now at George Washington University, Seattle) as well as by diverse sources of evidence. She certainly does not lay all the blame at the door of strategic decisions taken by NGOs—she has a chapter on the broader environmental factors that limit public advocacy, ranging from legal regulation of not-for-profits to pressures applied by funding bodies and marginalisation by news media.

Lang also presents case studies—one reproduces her interesting research on women’s transnational advocacy networks in Europe. Her research covers five networks, including the European Women’s Lobby, which receives 80 per cent of its funding from the European Union, and Women against Violence in Europe (WAVE), which has more diverse funding sources. She found that although network representatives were privately critical of the ‘gender mainstreaming’ strategy of the European Union, this did not translate into strong public advocacy of an alternative approach to gender equality. The networks made little use of the interactive and mobilising potential of the web 2.0 technology at their disposal, giving priority to developing policy expertise and making effective insider interventions. The transnational networks have become intermediaries between political institutions, femocrats and activists (the so-called ‘velvet triangle’) in Brussels. This becomes a transnational version of the story about how institutional strategies are adopted at the expense of mobilising constituencies and engaging broader publics.

The only way to ensure greater equality of voice is through government funding for NGOs.

The other case study compares urban development advocacy in six cities, half in Germany and half in the United States. There is much more reflexivity here than in Meeting Democracy. After witnessing a Citizen Forum in Bremen, where all decisions are reached by consensus, Lang walks towards the bus station with a ‘buzzing head’. A group of Russians had been persuaded that a proposal for a youth skate park meets a greater need than their proposal for a community sauna. There is nice ‘thick’ description in each of the case studies of how local governments organise citizen input, the role of NGOs, and whether public engagement increases or not. The main problem in the book arises from an urge to scientism. For example, we are told (p. 139) that case selection was based on inventories and measures of social capital and referred back to a footnote in Chapter 1, which turns out to be the wrong footnote, but even the right one does not explain what these measures are. This wouldn’t be important except that Lang apparently wishes to establish whether there is any relationship between the level of social capital, the density of NGOs and NGOization. In fact, social capital soon disappears from her story. She finds it is the nature of local governance rather than anything else that determines whether NGOs become ‘catalysts or proxies for urban democracy’ and whether innovative forms of citizen participation emerge or only the ‘democratization of the irrelevant’—for example, consultation processes that are just window dressing (p. 162).

Despite the problems of too close a relationship between NGOs and government, Lang is clearly aware that the only way to ensure greater equality of voice is through government funding. She sets out (pp. 220–221) ways in which governments can support the democratic role of NGOs—by loosening restrictions on NGO advocacy but also by making public funding conditional on ‘stronger engagement with publics’ (Australians would probably say community engagement). While seeking to strengthen the political role of NGOs, she argues for this to be combined with requirements for donor disclosure.


How do recent Australian governments measure up on support for the democratic role of NGOs? Lang makes generous reference to Australian research, although she invents a Ruud (sic) Government elected in 2006 (sic) (p. 106) and makes some other minor slips. I shall bring further up to date the story she presents. The Gillard Government enacted legislation in 2012–13 that enshrined the High Court Aid/Watch decision, and spelled out that advocacy must not be prohibited under governance standards required of charities under the new arms-length Commission. Next came the Not-for-Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act of 2013, an attempt to shore up the right of NGOs to engage in public advocacy, even when in receipt of government funding and even when critical of government. The Howard era was notable for the introduction of gag clauses into NGO funding contracts as well as threats to tax deductibility. A survey by the Australia Institute (Maddison, Dennis & Hamilton 2004) found that 90 per cent of NGOs believed that public criticism of government would lead to funding cuts. The recent suite of Labor legislation provides statutory underpinning for the public voice of NGOs.

On community engagement, at least in terms of reaching out beyond a primary constituency, the contracts for the six women’s ‘Alliances’ funded since 2010 by the Australian Government are worthy of attention. The evaluation framework for the women’s Alliances requires collaboration with other Alliances, as well as engagement with their own constituency (often facilitated by web 2.0 technology). As the Alliances represent women with different characteristics or issue priorities (for example, the Australian Migrant and Refugee Women’s Alliance, the National Rural Women’s Coalition or the Equality Rights Alliance) this means promoting coalition-building across difference. In fact, broader collaboration takes place on issues, projects and events, as shown in the review that preceded a second round of triennial funding in 2013.

Governments are discomfited when NGOs bite the hands that feeds them.

On the third issue, that of NGO funding disclosure, Lang’s concern stems from use of charitable status by US political action committees (that collect funds for political campaigns) to avoid disclosure of their donors. In Australia, at the federal level the Howard Government introduced the requirement of annual disclosure for third parties spending more than an indexed $10,000 on ‘public expression of views on an issue in an election’. This means that NGOs engaging in political campaigns must disclose both their expenditure and the details of donors who have provided an amount over the current disclosure threshold (now $12,400). This requirement was introduced to harass unions, environmental groups and GetUp!. The past three annual disclosures, however, have shown business organisations such as the mining and gaming industries account for 76 per cent of declared expenditure in 2011–12, far outspending unions or public interest NGOs (Australian Electoral Commission 2012). No caps have been introduced for either political donations or expenditure at the federal level.

Overall these are two important books, stimulating further reflection on the role of NGOs and social movement organisations in Australian democracy. One thing is clear—although recent governments have expressed their support for this democratic role, there is still discomfort when NGOs bite the hand that feeds them. While the public funding of political parties and parliamentary opposition is now firmly entrenched, this is much less the case for NGO critics of government. To take but one example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2008) has a web page listing ‘key democratic principles and practices’ in Australia. These include ‘equitably resourced and respected opposition parties’ but not advocacy organisations. There needs to be greater appreciation of the forms of constituency-building and representation undertaken by NGOs and their contribution to equality of voice and a culture of democracy. The research by della Porta and her colleagues closely examines the deliberative practices of NGOS and suggests their democratic advantage over the simple aggregation of individual preferences. In contrast, neoliberal governments tend to favour more individualised forms of citizen or consumer engagement, undervaluing what Lang calls collective civic voice and a vibrant public sphere. This is an aspect of democratic theory and practice where Australia has both much to offer and much to learn.


Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) 2012, ‘Summary of political expenditure returns 2011–12’ [Online], Available: [2013, Oct 4].

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2008, About Australia: Democratic rights and freedoms [Online]: Available: [2013, Oct 4].

Hendriks, C. 2002, ‘Institutions of deliberative democratic processes and interest groups: Roles, tensions and incentives’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 64–75.

Lang, S. 1997, ‘The NGOization of feminism: Institutionalization and institution building within the German women’s movements’, in Transitions, Environments, Translations: Feminisms in International Politics, eds J.W. Scott, C. Kaplan & D. Keates, Routledge, New York & London.

Maddison, S., Dennis, R. & Hamilton, C. 2004, Silencing dissent: Non-government organisations and Australian democracy, Discussion Paper 65, Australia Institute, Canberra.

Sawer, M. 2008, Making Women Count: A History of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Shaw, F. 2013, ‘Blogging and the women’s movement: New feminist networks’, in The Women’s Movement in Protest, Institutions and the Internet: Australia in Transnational Perspective, eds S. Maddison & M. Sawer, Routledge, London & New York.

United Nations 2009, ‘Introduction to ECOSOC Consultative Status’ [Online], Available: [2013, Oct 4].

Marian Sawer is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University and led the Democratic Audit of Australia from 2002 to 2008. She is the co-editor of the International Political Science Review. Her most recent book is The Women’s Movement in Protest, Institutions and the Internet: Australia in Transnational Perspective (with Sarah Maddison and other project members).

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