Archive for November, 2016

NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society

NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society by Thomas Davies. London: C. Hurst, 2014. 268pp., £20.00, ISBN 978 1 8490 4310 6.

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Beginning in the late 1970s, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have helped to create what has been described as an ‘associational revolution’. They have played a significant role within civil society, facilitating not just the transition of many communist and authoritarian regimes to democracy, but also the process of participatory development and good governance. Most of the literature on NGOs has documented their role since the 1970s in particular, but very little has been written on the history of the NGO sector itself. Thomas Davies’ work in this context becomes an important contribution for it takes a longue durée approach and provides a history of the NGO sector over the past two-and-a-half centuries.

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The central question that drives Davies is how to construct a new history of the transnational civil society that has come to play a dominant role in international politics and development in the last few decades. Davies’ argument is that the history of the transnational civil society is not limited to the last two or three decades, but ‘[has] a far longer history than traditionally assumed’ (p. 1). By combining both quantitative and qualitative methods, and by following a comprehensive historical analysis, Davies looks at the evolution of transnational civil society beyond the Euro-American narratives and constructs a more heterogeneous and pluralistic history by giving greater consideration to the ‘Eastern’ origins.

The book has three major chapters, describing the three major waves of transnational civil society. Davies begins by introducing transnational civil society as the ‘non-governmental non-profit collective action that transcends national boundaries but which does not necessarily have a global reach’ (p. 2). In this sense, the ‘institutions of transnational civil society are numerous, and include advocacy networks and social movements as well as more formally organized INGOs’ (p. 2). Following this introduction, the first chapter discusses the various factors that made the development of transnational civil society possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and explains how ‘the development of transnational civil society occurred in parallel with the development of the nation-state’ (p. 16). Chapter 2 looks at ‘the most neglected periods of the history of transnational civil society’ – that between the two world wars – and discusses the emergence of new INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) in fields such as business, humanitarianism, health and education (p. 16). The final chapter examines the contradictory role of the Cold War in splitting, as well as integrating, transnational civil society.

The book thus makes a significant contribution to the literature by providing a uniquely comprehensive history of transnational civil society. Its coherent structure and style make it a pleasure to read, and it must be recommended to students of sociology and political science.

Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi)

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@ Political Studies Review, Vol.13, No.4, November, p.595

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