Santa Clara University


NGOs and Other Transnational Organizations

Attention to the global impact of transnational organizations received mainstream academic notice beginning in the 1970s as scholars focused on the increasing power of multinational corporations that operated with limited restraints across national boundaries. Eventually, some analysts, e.g., John Keane (2003), discussed the coming of a “global civil society” in which such organizations, including NGOs like Amnesty International, would play an analogous international role to domestic civil groups that foster national democratic cultures. This “global civil society,” according to Keane (p. 5), is “a dynamic non-governmental system of interconnected socio-economic institutions” that exists in the influences the entire world.

The source of public legitimacy for transnational organizations, however, remains an issue. Citizens may elect their governments, but who do NGOs represent? Many are accredited at the United Nations, but does this accreditation solve the legitimacy problem, especially when NGOs may seek to act for aggrieved groups? Do multinational corporations and labor unions, for example, have public roles and public responsibilities? The recent U.N. business initiative “Global Contact,” strongly fostered by Kofi Annan, certainly indicates that they may, but this “Global Compact” remains a voluntary initiative. On the other hand, since its founding in 1919 under the League of Nations, the supranational International Labor Organization has maintained a semi-public character more analogous to the current World Trade Organization than “Global Compact.” ILO members are required to submit all conventions to the proper national authorities and report their response. In 1998, the ILO acted on the increased impact of globalization on workers by adopting a Declaration of Fundamental Rights and Principles at Work.

There is currently tremendous fluidity of organizational type in the global system, and many theories about what the optimal mix might be. Traditional realism (Morgenthau) and its more modern variants (Kissinger) remain, but, in addition to the above Keane, one could list more multilateral and/or global approaches by Knight and Masciulli (in U.N. Section), Charles Beitz, John Rawls, Michael Walzer, Peter Singer, and many others.

A Short Introductory Course:

The classic introduction to this topic is Keohane and Nye. Sassen shows how globalization has strengthened both state and non-state actors. Keane discusses the topic of global civil society.

Keohane, Robert O., and Nye, Joseph F, Jr., eds. Transnational Relations and World Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972). This volume (p. xi) “focuses on these ‘transnational relations’—contacts, coalitions, and interactions across state boundaries that are not controlled by the central foreign policy organs of government.”  They are, for example, “multinational business enterprises and revolutionary movements; trade unions and scientific networks; international air transport cartels and communications activities in outer space.” One of the essays (pp. 129-52), Ivan Vallier’s “The Roman Catholic Church: A Transnational Actor,” covers a religious phenomenon.

Sassen, Saskia. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, updated edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Keane, John. Global Civil Society? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Keane analyzes the current “global civil society” that leads to a “cosmocracy”: “a conglomeration of interlocking and overlapping sub-state, state and supranational interactions and multi-dimensional processes that interact, and that have political and social effects, on a global scale.” (p. 97)

Other Resource Materials:

Beitz, Charles. Political Theory and International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Hanson, Kirk O. “Implementing Codes of Ethics in the Asian Context,” Beijing, October 20, 2006. This talk to Chinese business leaders discusses the nature of company codes of conduct, the manner of implementation, and reported problems inside the company, outside the home country, and specifically in Asia. (Text on Markkula website)

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber, and Piscatori, James, eds. Transnational Religion and Fading States (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1997).Rudolph and Piscatori offer a series of eight case studies on the political influence of transnational religious organizations: four Christian, three Islam, and one in East Asia. 

Singer, Peter. One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

Walzer, Michael. International Society. What is the Best We Can Do? Paper No. 8

The following is a select list of transnational organizations active on international ethical issues:

See Markkula Links on Religious Perspectives on Ethics (18) and NGOs and Non-Profits (9)

Recent News Articles:

“2 Foundations Join in Africa Agricultural Push,” and “Philanthropist Gives $50 Million to Help Aid the Poor in Africa,” New York Times, September 13, 2006. Gates and Rockefeller Foundations join to increase agricultural productivity in Africa. Soros supports Sachs’ Millennium Promise effort to jump-start African villages.

"Clinton Effort Reaps Pledges of $7.3 Billion in Global Aid," New York Times, September 23, 2006. Ex-President raises serious money for his foundation in its second year.

"The faith of Tony Blair," National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 2009. Article by Patricia Lefevere on Blair's initiatives following retirement as prime minister and their connection to his faith. Relation to Hans Kung.

November 6, 2009.