Global Policy Forum

Activist Groups Gain Influence in Global Body


By R.C. Longworth

Chicago Tribune
December 1, 1999

They call themselves the "third sector" of global government or, in their loftier moments, "global civil society." The first two sectors, business and government, call them pests. Their generic name is non-governmental organizations, or NGOs for short. As the demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle this week show, some formerly marginal NGOs have burst into the global economy in a big way and are becoming a serious force in the way the world is run in the global era.

All this is new, a child of the post-Cold War world and the communications revolution. It's a work in progress, but as the global society takes shape, NGOs are in the thick of it. At stake is a battle to write the rules that will govern the new global economy. This economy is powered by global markets, global corporations and global communications, all of which have escaped the laws and frontiers of individual nations.

This process is shifting power to international organizations such as the WTO and the International Monetary Fund. Until now, the rules of these organizations have been set, often in private, by governments and by the global corporations themselves. The usual democratic instruments-- parliaments, political parties, the press and courts--are national in character and cannot follow this new governance as it expands over the world.

The emerging NGOs--mostly small, nimble and at home in cyberspace--can and do jump national borders. In the past two or three years, they have learned how to become a potent voice in the framing of this new global government. "What has changed since 1990 is that we are in the economic political mainstream," said Charles Arden-Clark of the World Wide Fund for Nature, an environmental NGO. "International organizations are learning they have to talk to us at the beginning (of negotiations)."

The Seattle demonstrations involve tens of thousands of people from at least 700 organizations, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. An estimated 30,000 NGOs operate internationally. Some are huge: Amnesty International has a bigger budget than the United Nations human-rights monitors. Most are small, little more than two economists and a filing cabinet. But they all have computers and modems and have become expert at using the Internet to form ad hoc coalitions that can leverage their strengths.

In the '90s, NGOs working together have played major roles in writing the international treaty banning land mines, in turning global warming and Third World debt relief into major issues, in establishing an international criminal court, and in defeating attempts by the 29 leading industrial nations to frame ground rules for global investment.

Some NGOs, such as Doctors Without Borders, deal with health issues, or like Human Rights Watch, fight political and legal battles. But an increasing number focus on economic causes, such as labor, poverty and the environment. The WTO, the international organization overseeing world trade, is a lightning rod for their concerns about the global economy.

NGOs sometimes are called non-profit organizations. Both names tell only what they aren't. They aren't part of government, nor of business. They are private organizations, usually devoted to a single cause, funded by contributions, often from foundations. Some big foundations, such as Ford and the Chicago-based MacArthur, have become powerful behind-the-scenes figures in the global economy through their targeted funding of NGOs. "What the Ford and MacArthur program officers think is important has huge importance for us," said John Cavanagh, director of the left-leaning Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, which relies on funding from "30 or 40 foundations" to fulfill its mandate "to work on behalf of the poorer half of humanity, to help build a global civil society." "Something new is being born," said one of those program officers, the Ford Foundation's Larry Cox. "There is a new global movement. We are right now having to work out global principles that transcend nations."

All this is part of "a shifting economic and political architecture worldwide--as most visibly manifested by the end of the Cold War, rapid economic globalization, the increasing power of international corporations, and the proliferation of cheap communication technologies," wrote Curtis Runyan, assistant editor of World Watch magazine. In this process, the Internet has been crucial. The same communications technology that created global markets and global corporations has empowered the NGO-led backlash.

Critics charge that NGOs are anti-business, anti-globalization, anti-capitalism and anti-almost everything. The fiercely pro-trade British magazine, The Economist, scornfully lumped them together as a "rag-bag." Some NGO members, like the more raucous demonstrators who touched off the clashed in Seattle on Tuesday, might fit that description. Others are more sedate. But others have become a true third party in global governance. The NGOs who helped write the land-mine and international court treaties are examples.

The UN has accredited 1,500 NGOs, and the World Bank has a set it recognizes. Both bodies keep these NGOs briefed on issues under debate and often ask their advice and their help in areas, such as the environment, where the NGOs might have expertise. The IMF and WTO remain uncomfortable with NGOs. The WTO has begun informal briefings for NGOs at the trade organization's headquarters in Geneva, but both sides admit that mutual suspicion has prevented much genuine cooperation.

NGOs can be constructive and destructive, according to Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies. Most believe the WTO has too much power and want to restrain, reform or destroy it, he said. But other NGOs, such as the ones that are helping to create an international criminal court, recognize the power of the global economy and want to build a new web of global environmental, labor and economic regulations to replace what they see as outmoded national codes, he said.

NGOs cut their teeth on political issues, such as voting rights and torture, and political groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have become the biggest and best-known NGOs. "But now the debate is changing," said Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "The original focus was on state-sponsored violence, on civil rights regarding torture, disappearances and the like. This is still important. "But now we're in a post-Cold War world, with issues relating to workplace or economic rights, such as sweatshops, abuse of children and mistreatment of women. With a growing global market and growing disparity, and with global companies going to poorer countries, these issues will continue to rise," Posner said.

Critics of NGOs point out that they are non-elected organizations, beholden not to voters but to their financial backers, and so are no more democratic than the WTO and other global organizations. Defenders such as Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch for Public Citizen, argue that NGOs often insist that the global economy abide by national laws and regulations, forged in the democratic process. "On a global scale, democratic accountability is lost," said Wallach, whose Washington-based consumer organization was founded by Ralph Nader. "The true role of international rules is to ensure that nation-states remain robust."

Link to Introduction on NGOs
More Information on the Growing Importance of NGOs


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