In a global world without global government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have stepped in to fill the gap. But there is now a backlash against their unaccountable power. Have they become too big for their boots?by Michael Shaw-Bond / April 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
When 122 countries agreed to stop using and selling land mines in December 1997, the success was attributed not to the work of tireless government officials, but to the 1,000 or so non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in 60 countries which had lobbied ministers on the issue for years. At the signing ceremony in Ottawa, Jody Williams, the campaign‘s coordinator, remarked that NGOs had come into their own on the international stage. “Together,” she said, “we are a superpower.”
Her words have a significance far beyond the land mines treaty. They encompass a shift in the balance of power in international politics, unimaginable 30 years ago. Where once global politics were dictated exclusively by elected governments, now elected governments must compete with “civil society”—interest groups accountable only to themselves but often with significant financial resources, the management structure of a multinational company and a media image that governments can only envy.
Should we be worried about this shift? Is it safe to grant a mandate to change the world to unelected organisations which operate under the banner of democracy, but which answer only to their directors, fundholders or members, and are far less transparent than most political parties? The same question is asked by NGOs of multinational corporations. But are the champions of the oppressed in danger of mirroring some of the sins of the oppressor? More important, how responsible have NGOs been in wielding their newly-won power?
Filling the global gap
The turning-point in the fortunes of NGOs was the UN earth summit in Rio in 1992, where environmental pressure groups were directly involved in drawing up a treaty to control emissions of greenhouse gases. They had access to the official working groups and served on government delegations, and through lobbying and use of the media they greatly accelerated the negotiating process. For the first time, NGOs had moved from the spectators gallery to the decision-making table. Since then they have had considerable success: they have forced the World Bank to review its funding strategy; helped to create the post of UN high commissioner for human rights; scuppered the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (which aimed to liberalise foreign investment and immunise it from the interests of national governments); helped to derail the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Seattle last year; and, at the end of 1999, helped to win a pledge from Britain (with other lenders expected to follow) to write off the debts of the world’s 41 poorer countries. In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, representatives from 15 NGOs were for the first time invited to take part in debates on globalisation.