Global civil society: London's role

London Essays – Issue 1: Soft Power

Global civil society: London's role

Having lived and worked in London for ten years, I have experienced first-hand its role as a global node for trade, finance and education. Yet, it wasn’t until I moved to a new job in Johannesburg two years ago that the importance of London’s role in global civil society really became clear to me; as did quite how spoiled I had been.

By Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Civil society can be roughly defined as realm of association and activity beyond the market and the state, aimed at holding both to account and advancing ideals of transparency, fairness, democracy, and environmental conservation and sustainability. All of us contribute to civil society (or the Third Sector, as it is often called) in one way or another. But it depends crucially on organisations to sustain it – organisations like charities, voluntary membership bodies, campaigning groups, independent universities, a free press and, increasingly, free digital media.

Most civil organisations are local or national in focus, but there have long been organisations that have worked across national borders. International campaigns to end slavery, for instance, or protect and help victims of war, have histories that go back centuries. International environmental organisations don’t have quite as venerable a history, yet still go back many decades. The Plumage League, later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was founded in 1889 and always had an international focus. It is only in recent decades, however, that we have seen the development of a truly cosmopolitan civil society – a development that has gone hand in hand with the growth of international travel and communications and the development of a much more globalised economy and a somewhat more globalised political system. 11

As with so many aspects of London’s success, its role as a centre of global civil society goes back a long way.

Today, there are numerous large, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work across the world – some of them with turnovers and global brands that rival large corporates. Global civil society plays an increasingly important role in trying to influence policy at the national and intergovernmental levels and leading global campaigns on important issues. Think of the ban on landmines, the Jubilee 2000 campaign which changed thinking and policy on poor countries’ debt, or current campaigns to discourage investment in fossil fuels or end child marriage, female genital mutilation and rape as a weapon of war.

While we know that London is one of the world’s leading economic capitals, its role as a leading international centre of global civil society is much less well known and certainly under-explored. (Tellingly, the term ‘global civil society’ was popularised by London’s Mary Kaldor, Professor of Global Governance at the LSE). In this essay I make a first attempt to describe London’s role in international civil society and identify challenges and opportunities ahead.

London’s international third sector has developed in tandem with, and is largely inseparable from its domestic third sector. The city is home to tens of thousands of voluntary organisations, focusing on everything from child welfare to good governance. It hosts countless conferences and events, and can draw on a pool of bright and passionate employees and volunteers. I see little of this in Johannesburg and, in my experience, even the likes of New York or Paris lag behind. But London’s role as a centre for ‘global civil society’ cannot be taken for granted.

History’s hand

As with so many aspects of London’s success, its role as a centre of global civil society goes back a long way. While some countries are only now recognising the importance of nurturing and formalising the Third Sector, British legal protection dates back at least to the Charitable Uses Act of 1601. As a result, London is home not only to some of the world’s oldest charities (Corams, set up as the Foundling Hospital in 1739 is probably the world’s oldest dedicated children’s charity) but, importantly, from the beginning many of them also had an explicitly internationalist agenda.

For example, in the latter half of the 19th century, a small group of returning colonial servants set out to create a people-to-people network across the British Empire. Receiving its Royal Charter from Queen Victoria in 1868, the Royal Commonwealth Society – as it is now called and where I once worked – stands today as the oldest and largest Commonwealth civil society network.

Then there was Eglantyne Jebb who was arrested in Trafalgar Square in 1919 for handing out leaflets highlighting the plight of children in war-ravaged central Europe. That year, she called a public meeting at the Albert Hall and set up The Save the Children Fund. Today, with an annual income of around £350m, Save the Children is one of the world’s largest international NGOs.

A year later, Lionel Curtis, a senior British official who dreamed of a world federalist government, set up the Royal Institute for International Affairs. Today, Chatham House, as it is better known, is consistently ranked amongst the top foreign policy think tanks in the world.

In 1961, London lawyer Peter Benenson was outraged by the arrest of two Portuguese students for raising a toast to freedom. Starting with a small office, staffed by volunteers, in his Temple chambers, he founded Amnesty International, now perhaps the world’s most highly-respected human rights organisation.

And then, emblematic of London’s role as magnet for entrepreneurial immigrants, there is Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese engineer who saw the potential for mobile telephony in Africa. In 2005, he sold the company he had founded for $3.4 billion so that he could focus on philanthropic activities. Headquartered in Portman Square, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has probably done more for promoting good governance and leadership in Africa in recent years than any other organisation.

At the heart of all these stories is the global vision that seems still to be shared by so many Londoners – perhaps in part due to the city’s former position at the heart of Empire. And it is a global vision that continues to drive the city’s role as a hub for civil society today.

A cluster like any other in a city unlike any other

On average in England and Wales, there are 2.6 voluntary organisations per thousand people. The City of London, the heart of London’s central business district, has 126 voluntary organisations per thousand residents, over ten times the ratio for any other local authority in the UK 12 – largely no doubt because many of the businesses located there run their own charities.To understand the role London plays in civil society on the world stage, one should start with its dominance on the UK stage. According to a 2013 estimate, the combined income of London’s 40,000 plus charitable organisations is £16 billion, while the national figure sits at £39.2 billion. 13 Seven of London’s central boroughs account for one third of all voluntary sector income in the UK. 12 The income and the expenditure of voluntary organisations in London is more than 3.5 times that of any other area of the UK, and their combined assets are nearly six times greater than those of the second most asset-rich region, the South East. 12

There are several obvious reasons why UK civil society clusters and thrives within a relatively small geography. The capital boasts an abundance of legal facilities, with strong expertise in charity law, in part due to efforts made by the City of London and the Lord Mayor to promote and nurture this specialism. It offers proximity to the country’s national political institutions, globally respected newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and other media organisations, and excellent international travel links.

The income and the expenditure of voluntary organisations in London is more than 3.5 times that of any other area of the UK, and their combined assets are nearly six times greater than those of the second most asset-rich region, the South East.

London’s civil society organisations are also supported by a strong scaffolding – trade associations such as NCVO and BOND, thoughtful and creative funders, like the Trust for London, the City Bridge Trust, the Mayor’s Fund and the fast expanding London Community Foundation, and dedicated NGO work spaces such as CAN Mezzanine.

But what is interesting about London is that this vibrant cluster has a strong international focus. Here, the city’s historical head-start is consolidated by a few key contemporary factors.

First London has a large talent pool upon which civil society organisations based in the city can draw. The city’s world-class universities boast a high proportion of international students and a large number of international and development focused courses. Foreigners now account for more than half of students at the LSE and one in three at UCL. London’s immigrant population also supplies valuable language skills, knowledge and networks covering the whole globe, and is itself generating a growing number of diaspora-led development charities. Less studied is the role of Brits themselves who also have a propensity to travel the world. An estimated 5 million Brits live abroad at any one time, a far greater proportion than of the French or the Americans. 16 So London’s labour market, sitting as it does at the crossroads of global mobility, provides the ideal context for international NGOs.

London’s international third sector has also been helped by government support and investment. Since the establishment of DfID as a separate entity to the Foreign Office by the 1997 Labour government, Britain has consistently made the case for significant international investment and focus on development policy. While cutting funding to almost every other department, following the global financial crisis, David Cameron ring-fenced the DfID budget which, for the year 2014–15, has grown to £11.5 billion, or 0.7% of GNI. By contrast to the large amounts of USAID funding that is soaked up by private contractors – the so-called ‘beltway bandits’ that are located around Washington DC – DfID money is, by and large, still directed to NGOs, many of them of headquartered in London.

London has particular strengths in the creative industries, including theatre, film, music, publishing, design and advertising and this has put the city at the forefront of creative and innovative global movements, organisations and campaigns. Band Aid, Drop the Debt and Make Poverty History, to take just three examples, were incubated in London.

Likewise London’s international think tanks such as the Overseas Development Institute and Chatham House have benefitted from London’s strength as a centre of social and political research and governmental know-how. London’s international influence is amplified by the role of London-based media organisations like the BBC and The Guardian – still the media of choice for many in global civil society.

London has a large talent pool upon which civil society organisations based in the city can draw.

The capital also exerts significant pulling-power. The recent global summit on ending sexual violence co-hosted by William Hague and Angelina Jolie at London ExCel was considered cutting-edge for taking on a difficult issue in such a high-profile way. I have been told that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who supported the summit, were so impressed by London’s power to convene a successful international conference that they have decided to develop their presence and networks in the city. Indeed, the Foundation was one of the sponsors of last year’s Evening Standard Power 1000 – an annual list of the most powerful Londoners. Davos is famous for attracting global leaders once a year. But London is a permanent Davos, with international leaders meeting in the city every day.

What makes London’s role as a hub for civil society particularly special is that, with the exception of the likes of the International Maritime Organisation and the Commonwealth Secretariat, it does not rely on the presence of international institutions. It seems unlikely that Geneva or even New York would play the role they do in international civil society in the absence of their United Nations institutions. But London somehow pulls off the trick.

Of course, there are a clutch of factors that contribute to London’s role as a global hub across all sectors. English is the global language, and certainly the lingua franca of global civil society. Even the time zone helps. I have been in innumerable global conference calls in our sector that start at 2PM GMT, catching colleagues in New York as they are arriving at work and Asian and Australian colleagues just before they go to bed. Take language and time zone together, and London becomes more attractive than its American or continental rivals.

No room for complacency

London’s history, geography, language and diversity have all contributed to its contemporary leading role in global civil society. Yet, there are at least three factors that may yet conspire to de-throne the city.

The first is simple: London is expensive. In 2014, London was ranked the world’s most costly city in which to live and work, a reality that bites hard in civil society, given the sector’s relatively meagre budgets and salaries. This explains in part why Plan International is located in Woking and World Vision International is in Milton Keynes, both within easy reach of London, but without the high property prices and other associated costs for both organisations and their staff. And global civil society’s reliance on the US dollar means that London becomes less attractive when the Sterling is strong – as it has been recently.

Second is the rapid tightening of the UK’s visa regime, both for of workers and visitors. When I first joined the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2004, applying for, and obtaining, a work permit was cheap, quick and straightforward; child’s-play compared to the rigmarole, expense and uncertainty associated with bringing in skilled foreign workers these days. Even inviting foreigners to events in the UK can be prohibitively cumbersome. So much so that my own organisation, like many others in civil society, will not host a conference in London if we can avoid it. Instead, we choose to meet in places like Istanbul – where I have been five times over the last year – because Turkey has rolled out an efficient and cheap online visa application process in order to attract the conferencing circuit.

In 2014, London was ranked the world’s most costly city in which to live and work.

The third factor may be the most complex and difficult to deal with, as it potentially inverts the historical reasons for London’s success as a civil society hub. Increasingly, it is being recognised that global civil society cannot continue to concentrate its power and resources in the so-called Global North without undermining its efforts to achieve equality and global justice. Many, including my own organisation, are starting to challenge the neo-colonial architecture of civil society, one in which money, profile and power remains concentrated in rich countries. 17 Indeed, one could argue that global civil society has been less transformed than global economic or geopolitical landscapes. That will have to change.

The process of moving south has started in earnest and is unlikely to stop. Action Aid International moved its global headquarters to Johannesburg and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative moved to New Delhi. Amnesty International is in the middle of a controversial process of decentralising some of its activities out of London and into the ‘field’, and Oxfam International has also recently announced that it will move its headquarters from Oxford to either Bangkok or Nairobi. Many NGOs are taking advantage of technology and an expanded global labour market, and working through regional nodes.

The long-term impact of this shifting landscape is difficult to predict. On the one hand, globalisation seems to be favouring a small, if growing number of ‘world cities’ – rather than diminishing the competitive advantage that these cities have enjoyed, advances in technology and the expansion of the world’s economy seems to be benefitting them. On the other hand, NGOs naturally look warily on cities like London, with their colonial histories and privileged elites and are increasingly interested in exploring news ways of organising themselves and new locations for their workforce. London’s future role in global civil society is far from certain.


If my experience in Johannesburg is anything to go by, it will take some time before the cities in the Global South catch up to London. Indeed, my own organisation, which moved its headquarters from Washington to Johannesburg ten years ago, has recently opened an office in London because we wanted to take advantage of the talent pool, media houses, potential funders and proximity to continental Europe. And I write this essay as I am preparing for yet another trip to London (I visited seven times last year) to brainstorm with experts on a new project and to meet donors. Neither are present in large enough numbers in Johannesburg.

The challenge will be to prevent the trickle of civil society organisations moving away from the city from becoming a flood.

So, for now, London continues to be a hub – arguably the most important such hub on the planet – for global civil society; a centre of activity, resources and thought-leadership. But, for those who have a stake in preserving this role – including the incoming Mayor of London – the challenge will be to prevent the trickle of civil society organisations moving away from the city from becoming a flood and, in a shifting landscape, to consolidate London’s position as an undisputed capital of global civil society. The Mayor has plans for securing London’s role as a centre of tourism, overseas inward investment, and higher education. Why not develop a plan for maintaining and building upon London’s role as a centre for global civil society?

  • 11 H. Anheier, M Glasius and M Kaldor, The Global Civil Society Yearbook: Lessons and Insights 2001– 2011, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012
  • 12 UK Civil Society Almanac 2014, NCVO, 2014
  • 13 At a glance – the voluntary sector in London, London for All, London Voluntary Service Council, 2013
  • 14 UK Civil Society Almanac 2014, NCVO, 2014
  • 15 UK Civil Society Almanac 2014, NCVO, 2014
  • 16 Drew C. and Sriskandarajah, D., Brits Abroad: Mapping the scale and nature of British emigration, Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 2006
  • 17 See, for example, an open letter questioning some of the dynamics within civil society network/2014/aug/11/civicus-open-letter-civil-society-professionalisation