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Computer-mediated Communication and Civil Society

NGOs and the Global Civil Society

Ricardo GOMEZ

11 / 1996

NGOs had been generally very isolated from each other, but there has been a recent trend towards their articulation around some global issues. They are becoming increasingly visible at UN and other international fora as their power and capacity to communicate and coordinate actions increases. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro is frequently regarded as a landmark, a turning point in the emergence of the global civil society. Not only was the attendance by NGO representatives unprecedented, but an open electronic communication system was put in place by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), providing e-mail, international electronic conferences, and access to databases related with the UN Earth Summit. After the Rio Summit, APC has provided similar communication services at other major international conferences. The impact of this participation still remains to be further evaluated it is now clear that in the international political scene "the APC network now plays a key role, and constitutes an indispensable media to keep track of the experiences of civil society throughout the world". While it may be true that NGOs worldwide have gained access to the lanes of the Information Society via the APC Network services among others, much remains to be accomplished in terms of global practices towards democratic communication. We need to focus on the more concrete aspects of their use of Computer-mediated communication (CMC), and of electronic mail in particular, since of all the CMC tools, electronic mail remains the most readily available and used by NGOs.

Nonetheless, e-mail has been shown to be powerful enough to enact the "ritual sharing" that constitutes virtual communities. What is yet to be seen is the actual uses of these technologies, limited as they may seem, by the people in the NGOs involved. Most of the literature on the effects of CMC focuses on business, education or recreational virtual communities, and there is no guarantee that the same kind of effects hold when the users are NGOs in the construction of a virtual community for a global civil society. An ongoing study in Latin America shows that there are four main kinds of perceived effects of using CMC in NGOs: speed of communication, enhanced networking, better information, and reduced cost. Furthermore, there is a growing awareness of the possibilities offered by CMC to strengthen the coordination between diverse actors in civil society in a global field of action.

The speed of communication is, for obvious reasons, the most frequently mentioned effect of the use of CMC, and needs not be described in detail here. But second-level effects report a sense of enhanced networking with CMC, which has allowed them a better coordination of activities based on shared interests with partners in the country and around the world. Persons and institutions with common interests are perceived to be more easily brought together, independently of where they are located; the perception of a global scope of action is more easily achieved. Furthermore, initial data indicates that new contacts have been made possible for NGOs, providing more new partners to exchange information with. Users also report that CMC makes it possible to maintain the relations with their partners on a more regular basis, shortening geographical distances and strengthening internal communication between branches of an organization, both nationally and internationally.

In this way, CMC is perceived to strengthen the bonds within the NGO community both nationally and internationally. This is materialized in an increased sense of knowledge and understanding of what others are doing, and better chances of exchanging information with those who share common particular interests. Communication with them is perceived to be more frank, direct and continuous, allowing faster decisions and timely solutions, and encouraging "joint efforts and proposals among a community of interests that is more tightly bound". This perception has also expanded the geographical boundaries of partnerships to a larger perspective of a global NGO community confronting similar problems in different contexts. Nonetheless, this perception of a global perspective is only a slow, ongoing process.

The idea that the service provider provides a virtual meeting place for NGOs in the country is the most commonly reported reason to choose it among other commercial service providers. The APC node is perceived to group progressive national NGOs; its non-commercial, alternative and progressive character is a strong element of attraction for NGOs to join it, as well as the fact that it was established and promoted by a coalition of well-known NGOs in the country. The sense of belonging to an alternative family of NGOs in an alternative network for CMC, both at national and international levels, is strongly present. It is important to note that even though solidarity, support and a sense of community may indeed be strengthened with partners who are accessible though e-mail, the relationships with those who are not connected can be deteriorated.

In sum, there is a generalized perception that CMC has at least positively affected the relations between NGOs and its partners, as it has allowed "a slow tightening of the ties (among NGOs)with information about common interests and projects". It is perceived to be "an excellent way to speed communications to organize meetings and other international events, to prepare joint proposals, publications and other documents collectively or in co-authorship". Furthermore, it has contributed to strengthen the sense of belonging to a global community, sharing many interests, concerns and activities; in order to reduce the exclusion of partners from the enhanced networking possibilities of CMC, access to its resources has to be more widespread and available, even to grassroots and community organizations. Better information is perceived to be another major effect of using CMC among NGOs. This means having access to more abundant, more updated and more relevant information, accessible through more channels and from more sources, and with more powerful tools to search and gather new information.

Low cost of communication is the last major recurrent issue that is reported in relation to the use of CMC. Almost half of the respondents perceive that with CMC their communication costs are lower than they would be with other media. On the other hand, the needs for more training and for more upgraded equipment are the most commonly felt in order to improve their use of CMC, and lack of funds to pay for such items is reported to be of concern among several of them.

Negative effects are barely mentioned by those who are already using CMC. But the lack of privacy and security in communications, and the predominance of English language in CMC at an international level are perceived as limitations. Some NGOs mention the poor phone and telecommunications infrastructure as barriers that limit their use of CMC, especially in remote regions of the country, where phone service is unreliable or inexistent.


communication, réseau de communication, ONG, société civile

, Amérique Latine


Ricardo Gómez, Tel./Fax: (1 514)254 1397. Email:


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