Purdue University Graduate School
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posted on 2020-06-16, 23:00 authored by Bi ZhaoBi Zhao

Does increased participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) improve the democratic quality at intergovernmental organizations (IGOs)? Multilateral institutions and global governance mechanisms have emerged during the past few decades to tackle global challenges, such as climate change. However, policy making institutions such as IGOs are often viewed as lacking democratic legitimacy. The decision- making process remains tied to nation-states represented often by non-elected delegates, yet the decisions affect people who do not have a say in the process. One remedy proposed by global governance scholars to close such democratic deficit is to include a variety of stakeholders such as non-governmental actors. I challenge the conventional wisdom that assumes the democratic potential of these actors, and unpack the “blackbox” of NGOs to assess their internal politics.

To assess their role in global governance, we need to understand the substantive participation and patterns of interaction among the NGOs at the governance institutions. I construct a multilevel theoretical framework from a social network perspective to understand their participation and interaction. The theoretical framework is based on transnational social movement theory and social network theory.

I draw on the example of women’s groups working at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) annual conferences. Employing both quantitative statistical analysis and network analysis, I demonstrate an evident increase in women’s groups that participate substantively at the UNFCCC. How- ever, the growth is accompanied by inequality in participation. Not all groups that attend the UNFCCC participate in collective advocacy or network actively. The variation is associated with the capacity and social embeddedness of a given organization. Furthermore, the community working on women’s issues has become fragmented over- time. The fragmentation is a result of NGOs’ different strategies and understandings of their role in global climate governance. The institutional context of UNFCCC has also contributed to the fragmentation. Overall, these civil society actors contribute to the democratization of the UNFCCC process by adding new voices, establishing new issue linkages, and raising awareness for women’s rights and gender equality. At the same time, however, the internal inequality and the power imbalance could further exacerbate the democratic deficit in the global climate governance process.

I have independently collected data on over 800 actors at the UN climate conferences. I have also conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews with civil society representatives at the UN climate change summits in 2017 and 2018. The findings contribute to the understanding of democratic legitimacy in global governance of large-scale, transnational challenges by analyzing both macro-level network relation- ships among actors and the micro-level mechanisms among network members.


Purdue Research Foundation


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Political Science

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Ann Marie Clark

Additional Committee Member 2

James McCann

Additional Committee Member 3

Manjana Milkoreit

Additional Committee Member 4

Thomas Mustillo