Challenges of Development

The expanding reach of nongovernment aid

International Herald Tribune/August 14, 2002
By Barry James

Although the decade between the World Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and its successor in Johannesburg later this month is marked by the failure of governments to prevent the degradation of the environment or to rescue humanity from poverty and hunger, the last 10 years have seen an enormous upsurge in civic groups concerned about these critical global issues.

The groups are broadly known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. They will participate in a giant Global Forum parallel to the World Summit for Sustainable Development, seeking to put pressure on government leaders, and will account for a large proportion of the more than 60,000 people expected to be drawn by the event, which runs from Aug. 26 to Sept. 4.

"As citizens, we have a lot of power and influence that we can use for the benefit of society," said Serryn Janson, international director of the worldwide program of the Earthday network. "Our lack of coordination is a problem, but that reflects social chaos."

She said many NGOs would use the summit conference as "a trigger point to Create networks around critical issues," to prevent these issues from falling into "a black hole" once the conference is over. "There is a lot of disillusion about the process," she said. "But change has to come from the bottom up, not the top down. As citizens we have a lot of power and influence that we can use for the benefit of society."

The groups form part of what is broadly referred to as "civil society," To distinguish it from governments or international governments. The Voluntary organizations flourish best in open societies where citizens contribute to the common good on their own time and with their own money, independently of the actions or desires of the state. That is why independent NGOs always have a tough time in totalitarian countries, and still are considered subversive in China.

Some, like anti-slavery organizations or women's suffrage groups, have Been around for more than a century. Most have sprung up in recent years to deal with the issues of environment, development, poverty and human rights that will discussed at the summit meeting.

The Union of International Associations in Brussels counts nearly 17,000 internationally operating organizations and thousands more of a national, religious or single-issue nature. The United States has about 2 million voluntary organizations, most created since the 1970s, and about 100,000 associations have sprung up in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. Some of the groups are concerned with single issues, others are multifaceted organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature, which has 5 million members.

The NGOs have gained influence with the spread of information technology. Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in heading an International coalition to ban land mines, said her main weapon was e-mail. There are thousands of Web sites devoted to environmental and development issues. One of the biggest global organizations, Friends of the Earth, is heading a coalition of groups at the summit meeting demanding that multinational corporations be regulated to prevent environmental and social abuse. Since the business lobby rejects any such controls, there could be a showdown.

According to Worldwatch Institute, the environmental and societal Research organization, "it is clear that the Earth Summit ushered in a new era of global transnational citizen activism that is radically transforming the landscape of international diplomacy."

"Once the staid province of diplomats, UN negotiating sessions now attract a diverse and colorful crowd of participants-from NGOs and business representatives to farmers and local officials," Worldwatch noted. "Innovative new forms of global governance have emerged since Rio that tap into the dynamism of these different groups."

Volunteers from civil organizations like the International Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders are often ahead of national or UN forces in getting aid to conflict zones, and they often lose lives in the process. Kofi Annan, The secretary-general of the United Nations, calls the NGOs "the conscience Of humanity."

But the organizations are often criticized, too. Their role in Nearly three-quarters of official aid projects arouses concern among some Developing countries that rich countries are relying on the volunteers to wriggle out of intergovernment agreements. The international NGOs are sometimes criticized in poor countries as being a new way for the rich countries to perpetuate their influence. Critics in the developing countries say the organizations create dependencies, and distort economies by hiring the best local staff at salaries government and business cannot afford to pay.

Nor is the NGO movement immune from scandal, blame and sectarian taint. A Report earlier this year said humanitarian workers from about 40 organizations had used their power and bribes of food to obtain sexual favors from minors among refugee communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

American religious or missionary charities have been widely criticized For cultural insensitivity. Some NGOs are criticized for using most of their Income on pay for senior staff, and for selecting missions according to Their profitability. Three organizations affiliated with the Unification Church, Which is headed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, have been granted NGO status by the United Nations. Another Moon group, the World Association of Non-Government Organizations, falsely poses as the world voice of the voluntary associations.

While Friends of the Earth demands regulation of the big corporations, the NGOs themselves are unregulated. Apart from a Council of Europe convention signed by only a few countries, they are covered by no international law. But Adlai Amor, the spokesman for the World Resources Institute, said the NGOs do a pretty good job of keeping an eye on one another. The scandal in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, for example, was uncovered in a joint report by the Save the Children Fund and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Given their diversity, it would be difficult to devise regulations that Fitted all the NGOs. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, For example, is partly an intergovernmental body. At the other end of the Spectrum are groups that are radically anti-establishment. Some of the organizations are the acknowledged scientific leaders as well as agitators in their field. The Climate Action Network, for instance, has been an important voice in international climate negotiations.

Some governments will include NGOs among their delegations, and the bigger Civil associations will be closely associated with the summit meeting through Formal partnerships with the United Nations or its agencies. But most of the Smaller NGOs will be at the Global Forum, on the opposite side of Johannesburg from the main conference - kept at a distance from the government leaders, who will be isolated behind an impenetrable security barrier.

Nevertheless, the NGOs have an influential role because they are frequently More effective than big international organizations on the ground in their Own countries in combating environmental and social threats.

"Some NGOs are inside the tent and directly influencing the process," said Seymour of the World Resources Institute. "Others are outside the tent, but they exert influence through their publications and in hallway interventions. They will be an important element in how the conference is spun to the general public.

There the NGOs are going to play a critical role."

Trade unions, as well as NGOs, deal with issues like poverty eradication And development, and the two are natural allies in opposing sweatshop and Child labor, and in some cases the expansion of multinational corporations, whose power has grown enormously since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the onrush of globalization.

The NGOs sometimes take on the role of unions where these are corrupt, inefficient or under government control, or left powerless by the freedom of capital to move around the world without restraint and without contributing to the good of society. In Canada, four unions have created their own NGOs to support development work, and unions play an important role in national development programs in several European Countries.

The NGOs and the unions often share common environmental aims. For example, the Vienna-based International Friends of Nature, founded in 1895 to enable workers to spend their leisure time in a healthy, natural environment and present in 20 countries, is closely associated with both the environmental organizations and the trade union movement.

While many NGOs are willing to participate in partnerships with business And international or government organizations, others are viscerally opposed to What they see as a corporate takeover of the development process and Creeping privatization of "common goods" like water and health services.

This means that Johannesburg is probably going to see the same kind Of anti-globalization protests that have dogged other international meetings In recent years. In addition, South Africa has some of the world's liveliest NGOs, and they are likely to be vociferous in protesting problems that not only will be discussed at the summit conference, but which can be found in abundance on the very doorstep of the meeting, such as access to clean water.

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