For a new deal

The role of non-government organisations (NGOs) in the international arena is changing. They have to devise new strategies to consolidate their position

 
By Peter Wahl
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- the early 1990s saw the rise of non-government organisations (ngos) to the level of a political actor in the international system. This was linked to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Develop-ment (unced) at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But with neo-liberal globalisation taking centre stage, the process initiated at unced died a premature death.

However, in the past five years, relations between ngos themselves and with the world at large - especially governments and international agencies - have changed. ngos are adopting new roles and attempting to devise fresh strategies, but they are not very clear on how to go about it. Assessment of the current scenario, however, is imperative.It is not in the long-term interest of ngos to continue with 'business as usual'. By offering some insights I want to provoke a discussion that could lead to better self-understanding.
Some gains and a setback ngos were disappointed with the Rio conference, but pinned their hopes on the follow-up process. In spite of some fundamental problems with Agenda 21 outlined at Rio - such as the promotion of transnational corporations to 'agents to sustainability' - there were some hopes. The concept of sustainable development seemed to have gained world-wide acceptance and the end of the cold war appeared favourable for a new international order. It was hoped that other con-ferences, being held in Vienna, Copenhagen, Cairo, Beijing and Istanbul, would come up with a productive agenda.

That was not all. The establishment of the Global Environment Facility seemed a right step towards financing environmentally conscious development. Moreover, 'civil society' was accepted for the first time as a partner in decision making. Lastly, it was expected that the conventions on climate change and on biodiversity would lay the foundation of a string of international treaties that would solve the global environment and development problems.

There is a broad consensus now that the Rio process failed. To be sure, un diplomats still hold conferences with ngo participation. But even politicians, who usually stress achievements, admit the failure.

Today, environmental issues have taken a backseat on the agendas of governments. The North-South divide has widened. Poverty, social polarisation, mass unemployment and other social diseases have made a comeback in industrialised countries. The institutional framework for a system of global governance that the un initiated has weakened and the flow of public finances has shrunk dramatically. The process of 'neo-liberal globalisation' (or the new globalisation), quite the opposite of the paradigm of sustainability, has become a force in the 1990s.
The new globalisation Global economic players are becoming free from economic and democratic control. The un is more and more disem-powered, while international institutions like the World Trade Organisation (wto) and the International Monetary Fund (imf), and the Group of Seven industrialised countries have become stronger. Regulations like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (gatt) have become firmly entrenched. These institutions are not democratically controlled and serve as catalysts for the new globalisation.

The new globalisation is ushering in an era of capitalism that will change the planet probably as dramatically as the first industrial revolution. It is characterised by:

Deregulation and liberalisation at national and international scale, the triumph of the imperatives of profit-making;

Erosion of the capability of national states to regulate and control their economy and to solve social problems;

Dramatic increase in the economic and political power of global economic players, in particular transnational corporations and the new finance markets.

All these features are quite incompatible with sustainable development. So, victimisation of the process initiated at Rio was inevitable. The challenge now is to control the destructive dimensions of market forces and develop just and environmentally sustainable alternatives. In short, we need an alternative globalisation.

The rise of NGOs
ngos did their best to push the unced process in the right direction. It became clear, however, that they were not in a position to influence the process to a significant extent. This is not surprising, considering the circumstances that allowed them to rise to the level of an actor in the international arena. ngos, after all, are not a new phenomenon. How is it that they became so prominent on the international scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and not five or ten years earlier?

The genesis of the international career of ngos can be traced to a number of factors. The decline of the so-called new social movements - including the environmental and the feminist - played an important role, particularly in western countries. Most ngos were directly or indirectly born of these movements. Those which had existed before the late 1960s were also considerably influenced. The ngos of the 1990s benefited from these movements. However, there was also a trend of structural and political detachment from these movements, in particular, towards professionalisation. This led to loss of their social basis and democratic legitimacy. The price that ngos had to pay was loss of political power.

'Borrowed' importance
The dominance of the neo-liberal paradigm in the 1980s, particularly its anti-etatism, favoured the growth of 'private organisations' (as ngos are called in a neo-liberal perspective). The concept of the welfare state having been dismantled, neo-liberalism assigns 'private organisations' roles that were performed by the state in non-profitable areas. It is clear that the neo-liberal sympathy for ngos is their utility in this respect. ngos have lean managements, lean production, low costs and other advantages that fit with neo-liberal ideology. ngos, then, are subsisting on 'borrowed' importance.

The complexity of global problems and the decreasing ability of the traditional political system (state, parliamentary system, political parties) to cope with these problems led some reform-oriented governments and international organisations (like the un Development Programme) to look for allies. The Brundtland report and Agenda 21 are perhaps the most representative expressions of this tendency. The search for allies led to the discovery of civil society and ngos. These agencies and governments, therefore, contributed considerably in financing ngo presence at Rio. Although their views converge with many ngo positions, the strength that ngos gained from there is borrowed too. ngos have felt this, among others, from the decrease in financial support after the Rio conference.

Weakness and dependency
The disruption of the communist bloc was not only the end of the communist movement. As such, it also affected forces related to socialists, marxists and all others shades of the poli-tical left. The resulting political vacuum was, to a certain extent, filled by ngos. They were perceived as an opposition which had moral integrity, carrying the seeds of social change.

ngos in the international arena are both promoters and products of globalisation. Their networking, the use of techniques like electronic communication and the Internet, the very concept of international civil society are part and parcel of globalisation.

Except for the first factor - their link to the new social movements - the political weight of ngos is not sui generis. Whereas the state still has considerable power (laws, the police, the military) and market forces have become more powerful than ever before, the main resources of ngos are their claim to moral integrity, their acceptance by the public or certain target groups, and expertise in their field. But these resources can only be tapped if they are mediated by a third party, the media. This constitutes another factor of borrowed strength or dependency.

Consequently, to define civil society simply as a third sector between the state and the market is an overestimation. ngos were pushed and pulled into a position that they would have never attained if they had relied on their own strength. Their position is, therefore, very fragile. It would be an exaggeration to speak of a crisis for ngos , but their sustainability cannot be taken for granted either. Even if they do not live up to media and others' expectations, ngos need a realistic view of what they can and cannot achieve.

This does not mean that ngos are superfluous. They have an important role to play, particularly in making the inter-national system more transparent and democratic. But they have to explore the possibilities and limits of their acti-vities. Moreover, ngos will not become politically more powerful overnight. Even if they consolidate their current position, they will remain secondary actors. There is some scope to manoeuvre, and that requires change in strategies.

Adjusting strategies
The idea of adjustment of ngo strategies is not new. Big tankers such as Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (wwf) and Oxfam International have already started the discussion and taken pragmatic decisions. Their main answer to the new challenges is adjustment of structural efficiency.

transnationalisation: Large organisations believe that they can increase their influence through reform and expansion of their structures. Oxfam International, for instance, is going in for international expansion through integration with existing and successful organisations outside the uk. Thus the Netherlands Organisation for International Development Cooperation (novib), one of the most important and inter-nationally prominent among Dutch ngos, became a member of Oxfam International. Where no appropriate national organisations exist, Oxfam sets up new structures with the political and financial support of the family. This was done in Germany and Canada.

Greenpeace is also setting up affiliates in strategically important regions. Outstanding examples are the establishment of Greenpeace offices in Moscow and Beijing. The same strategy is followed by the wwf , Medecins Sans Frontieres, and others. Several us ngos like The Nature Conservancy (tnc) have set up affiliates in developing countries, especially Latin America. The German umbrella environment organi-sation, dnr , is planning to create a new international network. One can see a clear trend towards establishment of non-governmental transnationals.

political shifts: Some big ngo s have decided to inten-sify cooperation with government institutions and economic actors. wwf , for example, has set up a strategic alliance with the World Bank, with the objective of putting 10 per cent of the world's forest under protection by the year 2000. Greenpeace International is cooperation with and supporting enterprises that make environment-friendly technology, whereas the traditional type of Greenpeace action - limited violation of rules - is reduced.

When ngos started to intervene in international decision making they wanted to change governments and other players. They were not very successful. Now the question arises whether, how far, and in which direction ngos have themselves changed through international participation. Large mainstream organisations appear to be moving towards more moderate political positions, though there are exceptions. Oxfam International, for instance, is sharpening its political profile. And the Third World Network, the only organisation of the South with a global impact on the ngo community, continues to articulate its critical position with regard to governments and business.

A brave new world?
These tendencies among big ngos reflect some important developments in the international ngo community. Differen-tiation has begun. Major international ngos are strengthening their positions and following individual interests as organisations. A horizontal structure is being replaced with a hierarchy of big actors. The principle invoked by ngos, 'diversity is our strength', is being replaced with 'efficiency is our strength'. Lastly, the attempt to develop a political culture of real partnership, equality and respect of diversity, as was tried in Rio (expressed in, say, discussions on a code of conduct for ngos) is being replaced with uniformity along the criteria of western-defined professionalism and efficiency.

This means that:
There will be more competition between ngos, politically as well as in the search for resources;
The informal but nevertheless real pattern of dominance in the international ngo community will be highlighted. Southern ngos in general, and smaller ngos in the North, in particular, will lose influence;
The constitution of a new actor at a global level might lead to 'survival of the fattest';
The issue of democratic legitimacy, which ngos have yet to address at the national level, will become more important at a global level.

All this underlines what Gramsci had already considered in his definition of civil society: it is not a brave new world where the do-gooders and the better part of humanity come together. Rather, it is a field of struggle over concepts, values and interests for moral, intellectual and political hegemony. To take issue with this reality should not mean isolating oneself from the game, but joining it.

Lessons to be learnt
The chances of winning something in this game will depend on the ngos' capacity to learn from the failure of unced and their role in it. Some of the lessons that can be learnt from the unced experience are as follows:

tackling the new glo-balisation: Given the negative effects of neo-liberal globalisation on sustainable development it is not possible to ignore this fundamental and powerful historic process. If those who advocate sustainable development want to get out of their defensive position, they must start by launching a broad debate on globalisation.

But this runs against an essential characteristic of ngos: single-issue orientation. Concentra-tion on one or a few issues is one of the comparative advantages of ngos. Globa-lisation, however, is a much broader phenomenon, whose analysis requires broader expertise and will involve new political choices. Therefore, there will be a certain reluctance to address globalisation. But there is no alternative. ngo s will have to address it. need for economic expertise: Closely linked to the necessity for a debate on globalisation is the need to increase the economic expertise within the international civil society. Globalisation is basically an economic process. There are, however, few ngos which have expertise in, say, the mechanisms of the international financial markets. Few deal with the operation of transnational corporations under the conditions of world-wide deregulation and liberalisation.

Increasing economic expertise might also lead to a more realistic view of major economic actors and their rationality.

searching appropriate fora: A debate on globalisation and an increase in economic expertise might help get a clearer picture on which institutions to concentrate on for monitoring and lobbying. It has been relatively easy to have access to un conferences, but the imf and the wto bluntly refuse ngos even a minimal participation. It is obvious that these institutions have more influence than the un . So, greater efforts are required in addressing these institutions.

Despite its shortcomings, however, the un is still a better framework for the establishment of a democratic system of global political regulation than the Bretton Woods institutions and the wto. So a double-track strategy is needed.

consensus and conflict: Consensus-building for sustainable development was an important feature of the unced process. There are many valid arguments to continue these efforts. But there is also a trap in which ngos should not fall: seeking exclusively for consensus. Historical evidence suggests that major social problems and changes were the result of social struggle. Consensus in these cases was always the result of conflict.

Moreover, discussion of countervailing power will create the basis for a consensus on future development. This issue should at least be on the agenda of ngos.

autonomy and independence: Govern-ments often want to co-opt and instrumentalise ngos. It is difficult to say how far they have been successful. However, involvement in negotiations not only gives an opportunity to ngo s to influence international decision making, but vice-versa, influences ngos in their political positions, methods and attitudes. Autonomy and independence are, therefore, decisive issues for a reflexive discourse in the international ngo community.

Part and parcel of political autonomy is financial independence. Very often discussion of this is taboo, particularly if financial support from governments is involved. But it should ideally be kept on the agenda as a permanent concern.

alliances: Both their structural weakness and political aspects of issues suggest that ngos should look for allies. They should strengthen their links with new movements. This means more intense communication and greater partici-pation in national and international debates. Moreover, the reappearance of the social question in the industrialised countries - demonstrations against unemployment and privatisation in several European countries, for instance - indicates that the old social movements are not dead, but might emerge revitalised. Defining relations towards these movements would be another important issue.

Some suggestions
To conclude, cooperation between ngos that have common interests should be intensified. Without their contribution the pluralism of international society will not be reflected. Many attempts to strengthen cooperation among ngos have failed. The reason was not only lack of a continuous resource flow, but also lack of common interests, goals and visions. But cooperation will only gain stability, continuity and political effect if there is a core of organisations, and, within the organisation, a core group which is committed to the process.

Certain traps should be avoided. There is no need to create more organisations and networks. What is needed is intelligent use of synergies and informal concertation of activities.

Peter Wahl is executive director of the World Economy, Ecology and Development (WEED) Association, Bonn, Germany.

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