“Private” Engagement and Public Interest in Transnational Contexts — The “World Citizen” as a Political Actor?


Subject Matter

In the global civil society, one particular type of actor is becoming politically more significant: namely, the politically active individual who, as a “citizen of the world,” engages in transnational activities for the benefit of his or her fellow human beings. Through their activities, these actors hope to effectuate comprehensive societal change in order to overcome social inequality, achieve worldwide recognition of human rights, and protect global common goods. In contrast to many NGOs who seek to influence the process of setting and implementing policy standards through advocacy work, these actors consider themselves to be “in the business of doing” (William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton, 42nd President of the United States). Instead of taking the circuitous route over the established political institutions charged with collective standard setting, these actors aim for direct impact in problem solving, by providing, for instance, healthcare or educational facilities and equipment, or trying to transform social norms directly. Each of them contributes in their own special way, bringing in particular resources that they have at their disposal. Consider, for instance, Muhammad Yunus who serves as an outstanding example of the “social entrepreneur,” by founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering microcredit; Al Gore or Bob Geldorf who use their special access to the public to try to raise public awareness, change social patterns of behavior, or amass donations for worthy causes; Bill Gates or Douglas Tompkins who have placed much of their capital in foundations and now contribute to the provision of public goods themselves (e.g., healthcare provision, protection of the natural bases of livelihood).

The aim of this research project is, first, to describe systematically the activities of these new cosmopolitans or “citizens of the world,” based upon selected examples; second, to characterize the different types of actors to which this general description applies; third, to critically scrutinize their contributions toward the developing political order beyond the nation-state. Is it really the case that there is a kind of citizens’ contribution to global civil society outside the activities of national structures and the efforts and achievements of international cooperation — namely, the political engagement of cosmopolitan activists whose activities transform societal preconditions and thereby induce social change — without this contribution being considered “governance” in the classic sense? Aside from their obviously positive potential, a number of questions concerning the legitimacy of such activities can also be raised, namely, issues of control, continuity, effectiveness and a great deal more, which need to be dealt with.

Relationship to the Research Unit’s Research Program

This project contributes to further differentiation of the general hypothesis that society becomes politicized in reaction to growing trans and supranationalization processes. The political behavior of the individual actors analyzed in the project can be seen as a reaction to deficient governance as performed by international institutions. Politicization, in this case, does not consist in the constructive exploitation of international institutions for one’s own purposes (as is indeed the case for NGOs doing advocacy work); nor does it consist in basic opposition. The intent is, rather, to skip over the classic structures and target problem-solving effects directly. To the extent that individual societal actors recognize those tasks that the body of nation-states has failed to fulfill satisfactorily (e.g., the safeguarding of global common/public goods), this can help to contribute to a more differentiated view of global governance on the whole. Finally, the general purpose of this project is thus to add another mosaic tile to the still incomplete picture of political order building beyond the nation-state. In the horizontal relationships between citizens, which the project investigates, transnational solidarity deepens: This is what citizens of the world owe to one another as fellow members of the world community, and as addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Main content

Selected Publications

Tine Stein (2008). Global Social and Civil Entrepreneurs: An Answer to the Poor Performance of Global Governance? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 28-31 08 2008, San Francisco, California.