Global Policy Forum

Taking NGOs and Activists Seriously


By C. Gerald Fraser

Earth Times
August 24, 2000

Times Square--a legendary quarter-mile, about five feverish blocks long. An asphalt canyon with two parallel thoroughfares whose vehicular traffic--cars, cabs, buses, bicycles, and trucks--bolts southward on a summer day as pedestrians--the ambitious, the curious, and the homeless--tread sidewalks too narrow for their number.

Those on foot consume corporation-sponsored sounds, colors, and blinking images that ricochet off the senses: Drink this. Buy this. Wear this. MTV, NASDAQ, Conde Nast, Virgin Megastore, ABC-TV, ESPN, World Wrestling Federation, Disney, Sony -all right here. And on the sidewalk that abuts the construction site of "Reuters International New York Headquarters," the neighborhood's eternal spectacle included, one afternoon, a vagrant, hair unkempt and naked to his waist, who sat on a box and held a sign on his lap: "One dollar to tell me off."

Yet, in the heart of Times Square, at 1501 Broadway on the 27th floor, somber proceedings took place recently at the world's fifth largest public relations agency, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide. Oblivious to street-level tumult, a half dozen "respected leaders" discussed nongovernmental organizations at a conference entitled, "Taking NGOs Seriously."

Why in mid-2000 the concern with groups traditionally dismissed as "do-gooders?" One answer may be that the aborted World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle last November inspired many institutions to consider steps necessary to squelch NGOs. Giant corporations had a wake-up call driven home to them when the do gooders and labor unions shut down the conference of the world's most powerful nations. The corporations seem now to have concluded that by whatever means necessary, honey or vinegar, nongovernmental organizations have got to be dealt with. Another high-powered public relations agency, Burson Marsteller, according to documents on the Internet, is gearing up to help corporations cope with NGOs. It has published a "Guide to the Seattle Meltdown: A Compendium of Activists at the WTO [World Trade Organization] Ministerial." In a letter to corporate clients, the agency said the activists's "victory" at the WTO meeting will lead to "heightened visibility" and "enhanced fund-raising capability." The "guide" also said: "Seattle was not an anomaly and the consistent anti-corporate message of virtually all groups who participate there in November is not a temporary phenomenon. Many have traditionally highlighted alleged corporate misconduct in mass mail fund raising campaigns. More recently, some environmental groups have resorted to targeting corporations for contributions in return for suspending public ire." The list comprised the names of 49 NGOs (but did not specify the groups "targeting corporations").

And a significant corporation-friendly entity, Britain's authoritative Financial Times, printed a headline over its July 11 "Management Viewpoint" column that said: "Be prepared for the NGO threat," and the subhead added, "Companies should be more assertive when dealing with lobby groups."

Or, as Michael K. Deaver of the Edelman agency said: "Companies that want to protect their global reputation?and stock price?need to learn NGO concerns and begin a conversation with them. It needs to be done one-on-one; this process is too important to be left to a company's trade association." Deaver, an Edelman vice chairman was formerly President Reagan's White House deputy chief of staff. In addition to their rout of the WTO, another reason for taking them seriously is that there are 26,000 international NGOs, four times as many as there were 30 years ago. In the US, according to the Economist magazine, there are two million NGO members. And they are making a difference.

The Worldwatch Institute's Curtis Runyan, an observer of NGOs, said, "Many groups have proved more adept than governments and business at responding to social and environmental problems. In Bangladesh, for example, a child is more likely to learn to read with the assistance of one of the 5,000 NGOs working on literacy programs than through a state school or organization."

Runyan cites as an example of NGO effectiveness, the 200-NGO-member Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. In 1988, using data collected at Greenpeace's Antarctic monitoring station, the coalition scuttled ratification of a treaty that would have permitted mining in that region. The NGOs wanted, and got, a world park.

For its recent meeting in New York, the Edelman agency assembled five men and one woman it termed "respected leaders." They constitute Edelman's "International Advisory Board" which meets at least once a year. The six are: Thomas McLarty, a former chief of staff for President Clinton; Ann McLaughlin, a secretary of labor under President Reagan; Robert D. Hormats, a Goldman Sachs vice chairman; Horst Teltschik, a national security advisor to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl; Douglas Hurd, a United Kingdom foreign secretary under Margaret Thatcher and John Major; and the chairman and chief executive officer of the Bank of East Asia, David K.P. Li.

The board invited Barbara Shailor, director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO, and Tony Long, director of the World Wildlife Fund's European Policy Office, to represent NGOs.

Coinciding with the meeting, Edelman announced results of a June 2000 telephone survey of 500 US and 100 European and Asian "opinion elites," ages 35 to 64. In a news release on the survey, Edelman said: "The consensus was that NGOs have filled the information vacuum that exists due to low trust and confidence in government and business, therefore giving NGOs greater credibility."

Edelman's release also said, "One of the most poignant facts that the survey illustrated is that NGOs dominate over government, corporations and the media in terms of trust when dealing with the issues of environment, human rights and health care."

"By exploiting ‘politically correct' thinking, NGOs are perceived by consumers to be fighting a crusade. Their effectiveness stems from taking their message directly to the consumer, by having a clear agenda and by moving at Internet speed," says the Edelman release.

At the Edelman meeting, as reported on the Internet, Edelman's McLarty, recommended that corporations sustain engagement with NGOs "before the crisis is critical," and seek out NGOs, particularly the "under-represented" ones. Comments sometimes had a preachy tinge. McLarty, for example, suggested NGOs be open and transparent, "declare victory gracefully," and respect democratic institutions. Teltschik said, "NGOs are proof of defects in politics. If you overcome those defects, NGOs will lose influence and power, they will become reasonable and more ready to compromising. We can't accept very often their self-righteousness."

And in a dig at NGOs operating in their biggest arena, the United Nations, Britain's Hurd remarked that a United Nations official said the UN "was now having to distinguish more clearly between those NGOs who want to make a point and debate and those NGOs who want to make a difference in policy."

In the partly verbatim Internet report of the conference none of the "respected leaders" alluded to the fact that corporations are profit-driven and NGOs are issue oriented. While board members discussed how to confront NGOs, Tony Long of WWF explained that NGOs talk about implementation. "Free market principles are showing themselves incapable of properly valuing and accounting for the cost of natural resources, for environmental pollution, and for ecological services provided by nature to societies." And he added that trickle down theory "is not borne out by the facts." Long's WWF, known as the World Wildlife Fund in the US (with two million members) and elsewhere as the World Wide Fund for Nature, is the world's largest conservation organization with 3,000 employees and representatives in 100 countries.

Shailor, of the 13 million member AFL-CIO, discussed NGOs as "respectable" and "extreme." By definition, NGOs are "anti-corporate," she said. "We need to be able to find a way to work with you."

Steve Lombardo is president and chief executive officer of Strategy One, Edelman's research arm, which was responsible for the NGO survey. He believed "NGOs are powered by media coverage." He said, "NGOs have taken their case straight to the consumer. Corporations need to change to win. They need to adopt strategies and tactics that are similar to NGOs. They need to have a frank and open dialogue with NGOs and consumers. NGOs are seen as bringing credible information, not out to make money?on a mission. They play offense all the time." Runyan, of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, in a telephone interview, agreed that "NGOs can affect public opinion and how corporations are perceived. The public hasn't quite figured out," he said, "how to control corporations and governments aren't willing to do it."

He has also said, "I would hope that corporations would be more vigilant in opening dialogue, if that's what they're calling for. If they're talking about transparency and open debate, they should be doing that. All too often the issues that NGOs are fighting about are issues that have been obscured by corporate policies: not informing consumers that their clothing is coming from sweatshop textile labor, or that the diamonds they are buying are coming from rebel encampments in Sierra Leone [and] tearing the country apart. Transparency is one of the most powerful consumer tools."

A senior associate at the Carneige Endowment, Ann Florini has observed NGOs for several years. She said, "no major corporation can think they will avoid contact with NGOs." Florini believes that corporations have to recognize "the triple bottom line: You don't just make money for your shareholders, you also have environmental and social responsibilities that it is reasonable for society to hold you to. I think there is a strong feeling in the NGO community as a whole that government regulations, both national and international, don't go nearly far enough in pressing corporations to meet the standards that they ought to be meeting." Florini cited McDonald's, the ubiquitous fast food behemoth, as a corporation that has worked closely with an NGO, the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF persuaded McDonald's to switch to less environmentally-unfriendly packaging, she said, and EDF has gone out of its way to find corporations to work with.

"I think just about every corporation that sells any kind of product to the public is liable to find itself the target of a campaign for meeting social and environmental standards," she said.

Echoing a theme of the Edelman meeting, Florini said NGOs's sole source of power is the credibility of their information. Corporations need to work with responsible NGOs to protect themselves from nut cases, Florini says. If corporations can figure out who is responsible they can deal successfully with NGOs. She noted, however, that some corporations are fighting NGOs, forcing them into court by lawsuits, "slap suits," which are intended primarily to harass.

Perhaps to insulate themselves from such legal attacks, the NGO community is shaping up, Florini said, adopting self-monitoring procedures and codes of conduct. Codes are becoming prevalent especially among the humanitarian NGOs, such as CARE, working on major relief and aid projects.

Florini has written a book on NGOs, "The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society," to be published in October. What is Edelman's next move? A spokesman, Martin Pearce, told the Earth Times the subject of NGOs is "very useful for our clients" and said, "We had quite a few requests to do subsequent sessions in European countries this fall at some point. We do believe it's a topical issue; you hear more and more about it every day."

More Information on Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs


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