The Role and Legitimacy of Global Action Networks

Collective Social Contract Agents within an Emerging Global Culture


The financial crisis, the environmental crisis as well as new complex conflict systems[1] are arising on a global level and predict an uncertain future for humanity. Researchers, activists and politicians are starting to understand that “the rise of systemic risks” requires a systemic response and that “effective global governance and policy development have never been so necessary and urgent” as today in an emerging global culture. Goldin and Vogel argue that “global governance requires radical structural changes in existing institutions and the development of new global institutions that reflect the realities of new global power balances and address the forces of systemic risk in the 21st century.”[2] In order to master these challenges, humanity needs transformational change and societal learning on a global scale. This raises the question: Who would be suited and can execute structural and transformational change on a global level and has the legitimacy to do so?

In this post I will outline how global action networks, in particular Transparency International, take on specific systemic global challenges and work on solutions through transformational change and societal learning. The focus of this paper will be how they are constructing their role as legitimate norm entrepreneurs for global and local societal learning as social contract agents. In the beginning I will address the history and evolution of legitimacy through social contract theory until today, how this concept mainly evolved in western cultures, and why it needs to continue to evolve since the role of the state as a legitimate actor for societal contracts has changed and is being challenged by an emerging global culture.

1. The evolution of social contracts and concepts of legitimacy

The Arab Spring to some extent has shown how strong the will of people can be if they are united and demand “justice, peace and freedom” as was the case in Egypt. Nevertheless there has still been no social contract established through an elected government and many scholars claim the new regime to be even more repressive than the old one.[3] It seems as little progress has been made, and while this is true from a short-term understanding we often forget the slow and painful evolution of the social contracts that are underlying our (western) democracies. Maxwell argues that “states legitimated through contract theory” is “historically a very recent phenomenon.” While “the path to French democracy (…) involved three revolutions, two dictatorships, and two foreign interventions” and “lasted the better part of a century“ (…), it took Germany a full century to establish “a stable German democracy.” This involved three revolutions, “if one counts the 1989 revolution that toppled the Berlin wall, and an unusually brutal dictatorship.” For the USA this process took even more time and “also involved revolution, and if one accepts that American democracy rested on British foundations, the process of establishing it lasted centuries.”[4] Today we are living mainly in societies where by definition and constitutions “…all men are made by nature to be equals, therefore no one has a natural right to govern others, and therefore the only justified authority is the authority that is generated out of agreements or covenants.”[5] While this definition of our social contract was first defined by Rousseau as early as 1762 the question around legitimacy within societies dates back to Ancient Greece. Plato could therefore be seen as “perhaps the first philosopher to offer a representation of the argument at the heart of social contract theory.” Yet in the platonic dialogues ultimately Socrates “rejects the idea that social contract is the original source of justice.”[6]

1.1 Construction of the “state of nature” by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau

Later Hobbes developed the definition of the “state of nature” and claimed that all men in their true nature are purely self-interested. For him “the State of Nature would be unbearably brutal”[7]. Humans according to Hobbes are reasonable, yet passion is most often overriding reason and therefore men “must agree to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in the State of Nature.” To make sure not to fall back into the state of nature they also “must both agree to live together under common laws, and create an enforcement mechanism for the social contract and the laws that constitute it.” Because he sees men as something similar to a wild animal, “no matter how much we may object to how poorly a Sovereign manages the affairs of the state and regulates our own lives, we are never justified in resisting his power because it is the only thing which stands between us and what we most want to avoid, the State of Nature.”[8] To a certain extent Sissi’s legitimacy and role as a strong leader for Egypt could be justified if one accepts Hobbes view of human nature.

While Hobbes’ perspective can be seen as a pure conventional one, the concept of human nature and social contract evolved with the work of John Locke and Rousseau into a more rational and modern concept. John Locke, for example, sees “the justification of the authority of the executive component of government” in “the protection of the people’s property and well-being”. If “such protection is no longer present, or when the king becomes a tyrant and acts against the interests of the people, they have a right, if not an outright obligation, to resist his authority. The social contract can be dissolved (…).” Rousseau goes even further and claims that “we are endowed with freedom and equality by nature, but our nature has been corrupted by our contingent social history. We can overcome this corruption, however, by invoking our free will to reconstitute ourselves politically, along strongly democratic principles, which is good for us, both individually and collectively.”[9] It is easy to see how through this perspective legitimacy is placed into the hands of every individual within a society. In other words we are “submitting our individual, particular wills to the collective or general will, created through agreement with other free and equal persons.”[10]

1.2 Simultaneous existing concepts of societal contracts in a global culture

While this might be the case for some societies, it is not for others. Some scholars are making the distinction between “democratic” governments and “demotic” governments. A democratic government “subjects themselves to popular review in the form of free and fair elections, respect the rule of law, and honor the civil rights of its inhabitants, and so forth”. On the other hand “demotic governments also move beyond the claim of legitimacy by god or supernatural forces. They prefer to claim that their legitimacy “arises from the popular will”, without holding free election and inadequate rule of law.[11] Egypt under Sissi could be seen as an example of this kind of government. Next to demotic forms of governments there are even other forms of god-given legitimacy in our days, for example in Saudi Arabia or Iran. On the other hand, failed states where tribal lords, pirates and politicians are fighting for power in a leviathan reality indicate that different forms of legitimacy and social contracts are existing and evolving simultaneously within the global context. This places even more pressure on the challenge to address systemic risks within a global society through a global collective will. How can we generate legitimate agreements across diverse states, cultures and systems?

1.3 The need for new governance norms in a global culture

Societal change and transformation does not happen over night. The Arab Spring as well as the development of social contracts in the Western cultures are and were long-term processes. The difficulty today is that systemic risks on a global level are increasing with great speed. They can be seen as “wicked problems”. Those are problems that cannot be solved or even defined by traditional ways of thinking and action.[12] Governments, NGOs or the business sector are overwhelmed by those problems. Even global partnerships don’t live up to their promises and show devastating results of effectiveness. A study done by the International Civil Society Center claims that “partnerships do not seem to address core functions where their particular role and comparative advantage was expected to lie: to initiate new global governance norms in areas where governments fail to take action (…).” On the other hand the study shows that “legitimacy has positive effects on the performance of partnerships and therefore should be carefully monitored and managed.”[13]

2. The evolution of legitimacy and social contract agents through GANs

How legitimacy is constructed successfully in the first place and can lead to societal learning and transformation is of particular interest to me. Therefore I will examine Transparency International (Ti), an anti-corruption Global Action Network (GAN). Corruption on a global scale is still a wicked problem and far from being eliminated, yet a lot of progress has been made by Ti in changing the global discourse in order to implement new norms. Not long ago within governments and international organizations ”corruption was a problem to be tolerated in developing countries in exchange for global political stability (…)” and sometimes even seen as ”beneficial to development and modernization (…)”. Today, mainly through the work of Ti, corruption was redefined as a “cancer” to be stamped out of the global economy, wherein no country was immune from its scourge.”[14] From a systemic perspective corruption in a global economy increases systemic risks. Those risks in the financial and other sectors created “a governance gap through which non-state actors such as nongovernmental organizations, multinational enterprises, civil society and global institutions have become increasingly influential and collaborate with state actors (…)”.[15]

Steve Waddell argues that GANs in a “context of organizational evolution” are developing into new “global social contract agents.” For him “recent fundamental and subtle shifts suggest a new social contract organizing paradigm that does not place “government,” as traditionally conceived, in such a central role.” GANS as “global, multi-stakeholder, systemic change agents” not only “tackle wicked problems”, they also “challenge the traditional social contract theorists about the role of the state as the coordinator and arbitrator of societal interests.”[16] While systemic global risk threatens national social contracts, the question of how GANs gain legitimacy prevails.

2.1 Legitimacy construction within the Global Action Network Ti

Next to an international office of Ti in Berlin, the main work in Germany was and is done by a national chapter. They are “indigenous, wholly locally owned, and responsible for determining national programs of action to suit national circumstances.”[17] Through this the network is able to act according to the needs of specific cultures and circumstances.

This is particular important since one of the major integration challenges of a GAN is to deal with different cultures and to bring them together in order to find sufficient trust and commitment to work with each other. Following the definition of Hofstede, culture is the “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one group or category of people from another”.[18] Legitimacy can be seen as something built from the bottom up, which needs to grow within a particular culture. Therefore I will be looking at examples from national chapters in Germany and France. Before this I will differentiate normative, sociological and political conceptions of legitimacy.

2.2 Differentiating and integrating conceptions of legitimacy

Very often, notions of legitimacy within the nongovernmental sector “(…) rely on standards from liberal-democratic principles, such as respect for the rule of law or the protection of human rights. When a set of rules or an international institution reflects or embodies such standards, according to this conception, it can be said to be legitimate.”[19] From a normative standpoint “NGOs and their networks are legitimized by the validity of their ideas, by the values they promote, and by the issues they care about.”[20] From a sociological perspective, legitimacy within institutions can be observed and are “a matter of empirical fact rather than of normative judgment. According to this view, one can observe legitimacy in the extent to which a set of rules or an institution is accepted as such.”[21] Sociologically speaking, organizations earn their legitimacy. They need to be accepted “and worthy of being obeyed, by relevant audiences.”[22] Arguably, Steve Bernstein defined a very interesting, political definition. For him legitimacy is “based on relations between institutions and the communities they serve/interact with.” Within this school of thought legitimacy is “multi-leveled, simultaneously implying both agreement with the rules (whatever these may be) and — following Weber’s understanding of the concept — the perception that the behavior in question is legitimate.”[23] This means that legitimacy is based on perception and relationships and can change according to who is looking at what. Simply put, the target audience of a GAN “determines which types of legitimacy are required, and which characteristics confer such legitimacy.”[24] To construct appropriate legitimacy for multiple stakeholders therefore requires specific strategies and a deep understanding of the cultural background.

2.3 Cultural differences of legitimacy construction

Within Germany Ti was able in the beginning to gain access to elite networks and government officials through personal connections by founding members like Peter Eigen and later Mike Wiehen, both who had been working for the World Bank. Ti “was perceived by government officials and business leaders as a legitimate actor, with the moral authority to prompt a justifiable response (…)” to corruption. While Ti was seen as a legitimate advocate in Germany this was not the case in France.[25] Where Ti successfully managed “through a series of private “closed-door” meetings with top executives of major German multinational corporations (…)” to convince “some of the largest German companies”[26] to adopt Ti’s Integrity Pact, in France Ti was not seen as an legitimate actor. Nevertheless, Ti France shared the same access to elite networks within government and business, yet the “target audiences did not accept TI as a legitimate advocate on international anti-corruption, nor on France’s policies with regard to the OECD Convention.” The successful construction of legitimacy in Germany was built on the “access to elite social networks” and “its allegiance to non-confrontational, “consensus-building” strategies for promoting anti-corruption among its target audiences in business and government.”[27] The same strategy in France “actually contributed to TI’s non-legitimacy and hampered TI’s advocacy efforts among French intellectuals, business leaders, and government officials.”[28] Also the link between Ti France to the transnational Ti Secretariat in Germany was seen with mistrust. Articles in the French media by Le Canard Enchaîné and Le Monde Diplomatique even accused Ti of having “direct links with the CIA” and “asserted (Ti’s) non-legitimacy in France.”[29] This means that the same strategies can construct legitimacy in one culture to a degree that Ti Germany was even asked to supervise the corruption law before it was implemented, having “a direct impact on German policy”[30] while on the other hand Ti “lacked public visibility in France and had no significant influence on business or the government in France.”[31] One possibility could be that in France the target audiences had underlying cultural convictions generated through a strong social contract tradition about the idea of the state as the only legitimate societal arbitrator.

3. The role of relationship between target audience and social contract agents

What becomes obvious through this for me is that legitimacy “is not solely a matter of specific objective characteristics (…)” of a GAN. Legitimacy today depends also on the quality of relationship one has “with relevant target audiences.”[32] The need to construct and build legitimacy therefore requires context and culture sensitive strategies and new methods informing how to build agreements and relationships across sectors.

3.1 Why relationships matter even more today

What is particularly new today is “the nature of interdependence and complexity, as more integration and more people, combined with new technology, have led to increased interdependence and fragility and the creation of a global risk society.”[33] Relationships become therefore even more important. Nation states will not dissolve in this time of globalization; the opposite trend has been the case actually.[34] Yet, new forms of societal contracts for “effective governance at both the national and global scale“[35] are only possible if our social contract theories evolve. This means that the traditional model were we focus “on the state as the core agent of social contract production (…) seems oddly out of step and even eclipsed in this new world.”[36]

3.2 The archetypal roles for the main three societal sectors

If we look at the main sectors of governance, business and civil society we can distinguish archetypal roles for each of them. Already Rudolph Steiner in 1920 generated a concept called societal three folding with “three distinct spheres: the political sphere of law-making, governance, and rules regarding how people interact; the economic sphere promoting production; and the cultural sphere, which refers to the free human spirit expression involving thinking, morality, and creativity.” Today the archetypal role of government’s is “to maintain order, business’ to create wealth, and civil society’s to hold traditions and values. The sectors are also characterized by different sense-making modes, with government being dominantly mental, business physical, and civil society emotional (Waddell, 2005b).”[37] To understand those different roles within a global society and to integrate them seems for me crucial for developing global social contracts in order to tackle wicked problems and systemic risks. This requires the co-creation of new societal agreements with all three sectors together.

3.3 Conclusion

Considering the diversity of identities (also within individuals) due to globalization, I don’t believe that the role of the individual will be diminished by new concepts of social contracts. If we take a close look we will find that “GANs do not challenge the value of individuals. Rather, they challenge the operationalization of value as ‘one person, one vote’ in favor of an organizational or higher level as the key unit. GANs aim to transcend this operational interpretation while embracing its continued legitimacy for the state and other organizations.”[38] While GANs are for sure not the answer for everything, they are an important building block, a next step in societal evolution for the development of global social contracts. Understanding our own Western conceptualization of social contracts based on a strong form of individualism helps to reflect and to be open for new perspectives. The rise of Asia, with strong collectivist cultures, requires us to build new relationships and to come to new agreements. Out of those new agreements legitimacy for a transnational societal contract could support Global Action Networks as norm entrepreneurs to facilitate societal learning and transformation.


[1] Wagner, A. (2015). Multiparty Negotiations and Complex Conflict Dynamics — A Case Study of the Failed Facilitation of Israel/Palestine Peace Process in 2014.
[2] Goldin, I., & Vogel, T. (2010). Global Governance and Systemic Risk in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Financial Crisis. Global Policy, 1(1), P. 14 -15.
[4] Maxwell, B. A. (2010). A Brief History of Political Legitimacy : Demotic Ideology and the Spread of Democracy., (December), P. 96–98.
[5] Social Contract Theory, Internet Enciclopedia of Philosophy, (last access on 26 September 2013). (2013). P. 9.
[6] Ibid. P. 2.
[7] Ibid. P. 4.
[8]I bid. P. 5.
[9] Ibid. P. 9.
[10] Ibid. P. 8.
[11] Maxwell, B. A. (2010). A Brief History of Political Legitimacy : Demotic Ideology and the Spread of Democracy ., (December), P. 99.
[12] Wagner, A. (2015). Facilitating Global Change — How Systems Action Theory Could Support Global Action Networks To Tackle Wicked Problems.
[13] Gnaering, B. (2014). Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships. P. 9–12.
[14] Gutterman, E. (2013). The legitimacy of transnational NGOs: lessons from the experience of Transparency International in Germany and France. Review of International Studies, 40(02), 391–418. P. 12.
[15] Goldin, I., & Vogel, T. (2010). Global Governance and Systemic Risk in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Financial Crisis. Global Policy, 1(1), P. 6.
[16] Waddell, S. (2012). Design Guidelines to Address Global Challenges: Lessons from Global Action Networks. Journal of Organization Design, 1, P. 1–2.
[17] Gutterman, E. (2013). The legitimacy of transnational NGOs: lessons from the experience of Transparency International in Germany and France. Review of International Studies, 40(02), P. 12–13.
[18] Waddell, S. (2012). Design Guidelines to Address Global Challenges: Lessons from Global Action Networks. Journal of Organization Design, 1, P. 4.
[19] Gutterman, E. (2013). The legitimacy of transnational NGOs: lessons from the experience of Transparency. International in Germany and France. Review of International Studies, 40(02), P. 6.
[20] Ibid. P. 8.
[21] Ibid. P. 6.
[22] Ibid. P. 7.
[23] Brassett and Tsingou, ‘The Politics of Legitimate Global Governance’, p. 5. Scholte, Towards Greater Legitimacy’, p. 111. Collingwood, Non-Governmental Organisations’, p. 444.
[24] Gutterman, E. (2013). The legitimacy of transnational NGOs: lessons from the experience of Transparency International in Germany and France. Review of International Studies, 40(02), P. 9.
[25] Ibid. P. 13.
[26] Ibid. 20–21.
[27] Ibid. P. 19.
[28] Ibid. 27.
[29] Ibid. 25.
[30] Ibid. 18.
[31] Ibid. 24–25.
[32] Ibid. P. 33.
[33] Goldin, I., & Vogel, T. (2010). Global Governance and Systemic Risk in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Financial Crisis. Global Policy, 1(1), P. 12.
[34] See the term Balkanization:
[35] Goldin, I., & Vogel, T. (2010). Global Governance and Systemic Risk in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Financial Crisis. Global Policy, 1(1), P. 12.
[36] Waddell, S. (2012). Design Guidelines to Address Global Challenges: Lessons from Global Action Networks. Journal of Organization Design, 1, P. 3.
[37] Ibid. P. 2–4.
[38] Ibid. P. 14.[1] Wagner, A. (2015). Multiparty Negotiations and Complex Conflict Dynamics — A Case Study of the Failed Facilitation of Israel/Palestine Peace Process in 2014.