The Web


Home > Business > Special

NGOs and international civil society

Deepak Lal | October 22, 2003

The international anti-globalisation movement of non-governmental organisations increasingly threatens the poor in the Third World, as I have argued in my previous columns.

But, who are they? How have they gained influence? Are their claims to represent an international civil society valid? What is their agenda? These are the questions I try and answer in this column.

The international NGOs are pressure groups. But unlike their domestic analogues dealing with sectional interests, they deal with specific international causes, whose resonance comes from some form of moral claim. Their agenda is a Left Wing one, to extend the US New Deal Regulatory System to the international arena.

Margurite Peeters of the American Enterprise Institute has argued that they have hijacked the economic and social programmes of the UN. "The new model defies traditional values, national sovereignty, the market economy, and representative democracy.

It demands radical changes in individual and social behaviour and perceives culture as the last frontier of global change. The standard denounces as unethical the principles of modern industrial civilisation, individualism, profit and competition."( Peeters: Hijacking Democracy, AEI)

Of the several thousand NGOs currently accredited with the UN system, only several hundred are from developing countries, most are from the US. Most of these are environmental groups. They have large bases around the world. They are also very rich and bring large resources for lobbying and litigation.

Thus, of the more well known US environmental NGOs, Greenpeace (US) has assets of nearly $ 15 million and an income of $ 9 million, while Greenpeace's global income is $ 101 million; the National Audobon Society has assets of $ 109million, and income of $ 106 million; the National Wildlife Federation has assets of $ 69million, and income of $ 102 million; the Sierra Club's assets are $ 52 million with an income $ 73 million; the World Wildlife Fund has assets of $ 89 million and income of $ 320 million.

These resources dwarf those of many poor countries to counter the lobbying and litigation in which these environmental NGOs engage. Furthermore, given their large size these NGOs are increasingly bureaucratic organisations, whose interest lies as much in creating scares to maximise their income and thereby the salaries, perks and size of their bureaucracies.

Their influence derives from their colonisation of the UN and increasingly its specialised agencies, including James Wolfhenson's World Bank. They gained entry into the international system through Article 17 of the UN charter, which provides for the ECOSOC to consult with non-governmental organisations but in an arms length fashion.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the UN shifted its focus from its traditional role of maintaining the peace to economic and social issues with a greatly expanded role for ECOSOC. It moved to center stage with the mandating of nine conferences in the 1990s by the UN General Assembly, to produce a 'global consensus on the priorities for a new development agenda.'

Conferences were held on education, children, environment and development, human rights, population and development, social development, women, human settlement and food.

Many of these touched subjects where the cosmological beliefs of many poor countries conflicted with those of the rich countries, most notably in the women's conference in Beijing and that on population and development in Cairo, where the Islamic and Catholic countries opposed the pro-abortion agenda of the West.

In each of these conferences the NGOs provided a parallel forum in which they networked with conference organisers, becoming an integral part of the 1990s conference process, and being transformed from arms-length consultants to full participants in the development and implementation of UN policies and programmes.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan enthusiastically endorsed this embrace of the NGOs. The UNDP though not as yet the UN secretariat -- has endorsed the NGOs demands for the UN constitution to be changed so that they have equal status with governments!

By analogy with domestic politics, NGOs and their apologists claim that they represent the world's citizens and thence an international civil society. But this claim is patently false. There are no world citizens as there is no world polity. There are only citizens of nation-states to whom -- at least in democracies -- their governments are accountable.

The chief characteristic of a state is its monopoly of coercive power. In democracies this power is granted to governments responsible to the electorate. Granting any private interests a direct voice in how coercion is to be applied, subverts constitutional democracy. The making of domestic and international law must properly be the sole responsibility of national governments.

The NGOs along with other pressure groups do compete to influence national politics. But if their claim that they represent 'civil society' were true, those who embrace their ideas would be in power in national polities. They clearly do not, except in some countries of Northern Europe.

So leave alone representing a fictitious world citizenry, they are clearly not even representative of their own polities. Hence their attempt to hijack the bureaucratic international institutions to subserve their partisan and wholly unrepresentative ends.

Moreover, even the NGOs moral claim that they represent the views and interests of this fictitious world citizenry is false... Thus as Shaffer has noted: " While northern environmental NGOs may be 'internationalist' in orientation... they do not represent a 'global civil society'.

They have a specifically northern perspective, and often, even more specifically, an Anglo-Saxon one. Their representatives were raised and educated in the North. Almost all of their funding comes from contributors from the North. They obtain their financing by focusing on single issues that strike the northern public's imagination" (The WTO under Challenge, Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2001).

The underlying theory behind the NGOs claims, and source of their popular appeal, is the wholly illiberal theory of participatory democracy. The western notion of a liberal democracy is based on representative democracy.

From the Founding Fathers of the American republic to liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant, direct or participatory democracy on the model of the Greek city-states has been held to be deeply illiberal. Subject to populist pressures and the changing passions of the majority, it can oppress minorities.

The great liberal thinkers have therefore been keen to have indirect representative democracy hedged by various checks and balances, which would prevent the majority from oppressing the minority.

The ideal of representative democracy was best expressed by Edmund Burke in a speech to his constituents in Bristol: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays it instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion...You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament".

But in both the US and UK there has been a gradual move towards direct democracy. With the weakening of party loyalties, politicians increasingly rely upon 'focus groups' to discover and pander to public opinion. This is most evident in California: taxation and public spending are now decided not by elected representatives but by plebiscites.

The opening up of the legislative process to greater scrutiny and accountability has paradoxically left these systems more open to influence by pressure groups, with well-funded interest groups increasingly hijacking domestic politics. Where 'the people' do not have the time or inclination to daily monitor legislators and legislation, small well organised pressure groups can make governments bend to their will.

Participatory democracy is leading not to majority but minority rule. The transference of such a system to the international arena by an NGO takeover needs to be fiercely resisted by developing country governments.

Article Tools

Email this Article

Printer-Friendly Format

Letter to the Editor

People Who Read This Also Read

LIC plans: What's in it for you

Expats over 60 to be fired: UAE

Special: Back to school

Powered by

More Specials

Copyright © 2003 India Limited. All Rights Reserved.