Olivier Hoedeman (by way of <evel@xs4all.nl>) on Sat, 6 Feb 1999 01:15:23 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> NGO-Multis, McGreenpeace and the network guerilla


On some recent trends in international civil society

By Peter Wahl

Shortened translation of an article published in the German
quarterly "Peripherie" No 71- 1998

The full German version can be downloaded from the WEED
homepage (www.weedbonn.org)


**    The democratic ambivalence of NGOs

**    The grassroots phase

**    Grassroots democracy is falling apart

**    The NGO transnationals

**    The Network Guerrilla

**    Elements of an emancipatory strategy in the

The involvement of NGOs into international negotiations is
reaching a new stage. On the background of an increasing
hegemony crisis of the neo-liberal paradigm there are
increasing attempts by international institutions and
national governments to increase acceptance of their
policies. Even institutions like the WTO the Commission of
the European Union which were by now resistant towards
participation of NGOs are now seeking a "dialogue with civil

This constitutes new challenges for NGOs, as the "offensive
of smile" is ambiguous. The question is whether such a
dialogue ends up in co-option and instrumentalisation of
NGOs or whether it could contribute to the development and
strengthening of alternatives. Simplistic answers either in
one, or in the other direction will not be possible.
Probably a case by case approach will be necessary. However,
there is a need for an analysis of the different actors -
including the NGOs - in the context of the present
historical conjuncture and an in-depth strategy discussion
among NGOs. The following reflections want to contribute to
such a discussion.

The democratic ambivalence of NGOs

Many sociological studies have been dedicated to the
phenomenon: the rise of Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to
be the new stars in the skies of international civil
society. Against the background of the increasing erosion of
democracy in the context of neoliberal globalisation, the
majority of those studies focus on key question whether NGOs
are able to help forming the emerging system of multilateral
regulation according to democratic structures - and if they
can, how?

In contrast to far-reaching expectations assigning NGOs the
role of a "fifth pillar" (next to legislature, jurisdiction,
executive and media) within a system of "global governance"
(MESSNER 1998), the potential of NGOs to promote
democratization seems to be restricted to create
transparency, publicity and counter-publicity and to feed
public debates with alternative expertise. As alternative
elites NGOs could constitute one element next to others in
an international system of "checks and balances" of
different interests. Further expectations, however, are
unrealistic - at least for now. (WAHL 1996)

According to numerous authors, it is not even desirable to
assign NGOs a more outstanding role because from a
democratic point of view there is also a dark side to the
NGO-phenomenon: the lack of democratic legitimacy compared
to governments based on fair and free elections. There is a
broad consensus that NGOs have restricted legitimacy and
therefore operate in a vacuum of legitimization. (MESSNER
1998). Elements of their restricted legitimacy are however:
feedback by members, the potential to mobilize donors and
supporters of political campaigns, roots in social movements
and acceptance proofed by opinion polls. Nevertheless, it is
obvious that this cannot substitute the legitimacy of
parliaments and governments which are democratically elected
by the sovereign.

On the other hand, the lack of legitimacy should not be
overrated. Serious NGOs never claimed to substitute
governments or change the system of a representative
democracy simply into a partizipative democracy.
Nevertheless, the participation of NGOs - and not only NGOs-
could be a democratic element complementary to the
mechanisms of a representative democracy. Besides, the
argument of lacking legitimacy is often used to generally
deny NGOs any right of participation. However, in reality
the rules of representative democracy do not work in the
ideal way as they are presented in the school-books neither,
and they are challenged by vested interests - in particular
powerful economic interests. Therefore NGOs, whether
scarcely legitimized or not legitimized at all, are
certainly not the predominant threat to democracy. NGOs
needn't be defensive as long as for instance small group of
business without any democratic legitimization whatsoever,
are able to influence important political decisions and
affects society far more effectively than all NGOs combined.

Another problematic aspect of NGOs with regard to democratic
principles are the internal structures of NGOs. On one hand,
the ties to members are an element of (restricted)
legitimacy, on the other hand this kind of legitimacy is
only given when the membership is very large. Most NGOs
however, have no more than a few hundreds of members, many
have less or no members at all.


The grassroots phase

The preparatory meetings for the UN Conference on
Environment and Development 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (UNCED) -
there were four so-called PrepComs (preparatory committees),
each of which being a conference with some hundred
participants - and UNCED were the first time for NGOs to
have a major appearance at a world conference.


The situation was new both for the governments and the NGOs.
The NGO community was more or less unstructured at the time
and underwent a long and difficult process of
self-organisation trying to build a horizontal network based
on grassroots elements. The idea was to enable as many NGOs
to participate and to be heard.


All in all the process strongly resembled to similar
processes of self-organization in the early phase of the
student movements in the late 60s. Evidently there was a
strong need for a democratic regulation of the internal
relations of the NGO community, as shown by the discussion
about the draft of an NGO "Code of Conduct". (ROY 1992)

Even the problem of the different access to resources was
taken into consideration (at least regarding the
North-South-relation). For example, the treaty on NGO
cooperation and division of resources, which is part of a
package of around 30 alternative texts to the Agenda 21,
intended to "share at least 1 % of our annual budget with
other members of the NGO community"


Grassroots democracy is falling apart

In the course of the Rio process this approach was more and
more abandoned. Instead, a more pragmatic approach was
pushed through, which did not reflect the NGO community's
internal problems with democratic principles any longer.


The crucial point however was that the dynamics of political
and cultural diversities were underestimated. In opposition
to the slogan "diversity is our strength", diversity was
perceived as weakness and as annoying. The contradicting
interests, resulting from a variety of identities, could not
be conciliated, for example according to a model of
democratic parliaments on a national level, with an
institutionalized majority and opposition. Contradictions
exist between:

**    NGOs from the North and the South NGOs from the North
and the South

**    "moderate" and "radical" NGOs "moderate" and "radical"

**    NGOs oriented towards lobbying or towards movement
NGOs oriented towards lobbying or towards movement

**    Anglo-Saxon and romanic political cultures Anglo-Saxon
and romanic political cultures

**    rich and poor NGOs rich and poor NGOs

**    large and small NGOs


This is why numerous NGOs gave up international cooperation.
Others continue to operate, but they have to do so in an
unstructured sector, characterized by almost anarchical
and/or market conditions concerning democratic procedures.
In the absence of a democratic set of rules, informal
hierarchies and asymmetric, competitive and hegemonial
structures emerged comparable to an unregulated market.

As a result, some NGOs which continue to operate on an
international level, focus on strengthening their own
organization and position. Political and/or thematic
alliances continue to exist between NGOs or NGO networks,
but they are pragmatic, temporary and restricted to single
issues as well as restricted to a manageable number of
partners, which are carefully selected.

The NGO transnationals

After having failed to create an international network in
accordance to grassroots principles, a number of large NGOs
decided to transnationalize their structures or to speed up
this process in cases where it had already started before
and they began to operate as "global players" in order to be
able to act in different places at the same time worldwide .


A number of large environmental organizations in the U.S.
have acted as the avant-garde of transnationalization. Above
all, THE NATURE CONSERVANCY (TNC) systematically founded
branches in different Latin-American countries. (GUDYNAS
1994). These branches are managed by a local staff while
receiving funds and know-how from the headquarters in the
(WWF) from the very beginning were designed with the
intention to establish a net of international branches.
Especially GREENPEACE operates very systematically in this
respect and proofed to be strategically far-sighted by
opening offices in Russia and China. Since the organization
does not depend on members, it is quite easy for GREENPEACE
to establish branches controlled by a central office that
can provide the necessary financial means and build a
homogenous "corporate identity" worldwide. Like no other NGO
GREENPEACE resembles an economic "global player". GREENPEACE
turns into "MacGreenpeace".


The THIRD WORLD NETWORK (TWN) is another very special
example of a transnational NGO. The TWN is the only real
transnational NGO which was founded in a developing country
(Malaysia), managed to establish itself in other developing
countries, both in Latin America and Africa, and above all
operates very successfully. The TWN strongly builds its
expansion strategy on prominent figures from the relevant
countries, often scientists. For example, the organization
of the Indian winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, Vandana
Shiva, is member of the TWN. The reputation and authority of
these personalities in combination with qualified analyses -
and not to forget the bonus of being from the South -
enabled the TWN to play a leading role in the international
NGO-community, many times winning conflicts with large
transnational NGOs from the North.


The Network Guerrilla

On April 30th 1998 the Financial Times published an article
under the headline "The Network Guerrilla". The article
dealt with the international NGO campaign against the
Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), which has been
negotiated in the OECD for three years. The campaign against
the MAI demonstrates the initial stages of a new development
in the way NGOs operate, possibly turning out to be an
alternative to the transnationalization of large NGOs which
is quite problematic from a democratic point of view.


Even if the failure of the negotiations on the MAI in the
OECD is not only, not even primarily, due to NGO protests,
the MAI represents a classical case of the potential of NGOs
to create transparency and publicity around international
negotiation processes.


The victory of the NGOs in the battle for public opine
regarding the MAI - even if only preliminary, shows an
interesting trend in the NGO community: The MAI does not -
unlike international agreements on environmental or
development issues - belong to the so-called soft issues on
the international agenda, which were often pushed aside
after Rio, but it belongs to the "hard" economic issues. The
same is true for the institutional dimension. The OECD as an
association of the industrialized countries is an exclusive
"Club of the Wealthy", that follows a hard-line neo-liberal
course. With the MAI the NGOs did not get caught in the trap
of insignificance, like in the numerous politically marginal
committees of the UN they have participated in since Rio.

The anti-MAI-campaign has been very interesting also for
another reason: the success of the NGOs was not achieved by
large, transnational NGOs, but by a lose network of both,
small NGOs together with some large, transnational NGOs. The
latter, however, did not play a leading role in the
campaign. Against this background, the term "network
guerrilla" is well chosen and more than adequate, as it
reflects the efficiency of decentralized and flexible
structures with a high rate of non-formalized communication
and decision making. The success of the MAI campaign does
not confirm those NGOs that regard centralization and a
massive input of resources as important political tools to
reach their goals..

Nevertheless, the success of the MAI campaign cannot be
reduced to the organizational structure of the participating
NGOs. Far more important was that the campaign did not aim
at improving a project promoted by the government, but
classified the agreement as part of the globalisation
process and rejected it completely. Obviously it met a vague
but growing uneasiness of the public with the globalisation
process. This is the secret of its success. In France,
Canada and the U.S. the mobilization of the NGOs lead to
mass protests against the MAI.

The reaction of the other side shows that the
anti-MAI-campaign exceeded the usual single-issue character
of NGO campaigns and met the core of the present historic
situation. After suspending the negotiations on the MAI, the
OECD presented a study in which it expressed concerns about
the decreasing acceptance of the globalisation process among
citizens. It came to the conclusion that the "benefits of
globalisation" needed to be communicated more effectively.

Regarding the future strategy of NGOs the lessons to be
learned from the anti-MAI campaign are:

**    With the issues of neo-liberalism and globalisation,
NGOs have picked out a fundamental social problem as a
central campaign issue and have overcome their traditional
single-issue projects.

With the issues of neo-liberalism and globalisation, NGOs
have picked out a fundamental social problem as a central
campaign issue and have overcome their traditional
single-issue projects.

**    Refusing the MAI instead of "improving" it, did not
harm the image of the campaign in the media and the public,
at the contrary, the TUAC (Trade Union Advisory Committee at
the OECD) and others which had taken a "moderate and
constructive" position have to acknowledge that their
strategy remained below the possibilities,

acknowledge that their strategy remained below the

**    NGOs are politically successful when their issues move
and mobilize the public

NGOs are politically successful when their issues move and
mobilize the public

**    Lose networks turned out to be efficient; centralized
and hierarchical structures were not necessary, and maybe
even would have been counterproductive.

Lose networks turned out to be efficient; centralized and
hierarchical structures were not necessary, and maybe even
would have been counterproductive.

**    Small and flexible NGOs played an important role

Elements of an emancipatory strategy in the international
NGO community

The trend towards a centralized and hierarchical organized
transnationalization of NGOs on the one hand and the success
of the MAI campaign under a complete different setting on
the other hand, made evident that there are processes of
differentiation and formation taking place in the NGO
community. At the same time these changes seem to take place
against the background of a decreasing acceptance of the
neoliberal project.

This situation bears the chance for a participation of NGOs
according to emancipatory interests. Prerequisite is a
thorough debate on the strategy, taking the following
aspects into consideration:

1.     The economical determinants of the globalisation and
their neoliberal orientation have to be put on the NGO
agenda. This may sound trivial, but NGOs taking advantage of
being single-issue oriented, have difficulties with thinking
and acting on more complex issues. Since many of them
emerged in the post cold war period of 1989/90, they are
characterized by the ideological perspectives of this era.
This includes a strong anti-ideological affect, which is
highly suspicious of anything exceeding a single issue

2.     Nevertheless under the conditions of globalisation it
is evident that "knowing only something about rainforests
means to know nothing about rainforests."

3.     Placing the process of globalisation on the political
agenda requires economical expertise. What we need is a
political economy of globalisation and NGOs need to
participate in the necessary discussions.

4.     NGOs have to overcome their blindness vis a vis of
power which in combination with their ignorance of economic
interests lead to the illusion that good arguments presented
in lobby meetings could bring about decisive changes.

NGOs have to overcome their blindness vis a vis of power
which in combination with their ignorance of economic
interests lead to the illusion that good arguments presented
in lobby meetings could bring about decisive changes.

5.     It is important to focus on the most powerful
institutions of international regulation. NGOs have to stop
focusing on the UN-system and on participation in
meaningless committees. Instead they need to turn to high
politics and influential institutions such as IMF, World
Bank, WTO, OECD etc.

6.     Our political culture has to be more combative and
controversial. All important historical changes were the
result of controversy and battles, which later were
consensually consolidated in historical compromises. In the
future we have to work with both combative and consensual

7.     Autonomy and independence, including financial
independence, are indispensable, if NGOs with emancipatory
strategies want to be successful in the future.

8.     This means that NGOs need to develop effective
strategies against the strategies of co-option. The attempt
to lull the public as announced by WTO and OECD is going to
be the next challenge.

9.     The current success of NGOs should not lead to the
misunderstanding that they are the spearhead of emancipatory
change. In the long run NGOs won't achieve anything without
allies. NGOs are the most overestimated actor of the
nineties (WAHL 1996), but themselvesl, they should not take
over this overestimation. Alliances with other actors are
indispensable. This means above all to reactivate and
intensify the ties to the social movements which have given
birth to the NGOs. This is not about nostalgia and going
"back to the roots" of the innocence of non-professionalism,
but about shaping and strengthening a dialectic link between
social movements and NGOs. NGOs should consider themselves
as the infrastructure of social movements. Both, traditional
social movements and their organizations, such as the trade
unions, and new social movements together with parts of the
academic sector should be included in the concept of
alliances of emancipatory NGOs. In certian circumstances
this can also include tactical alliances with a government
or parts of it.
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