Action on the FRONT LINES.

Author:Runyan, Curtis
Position:Non-governmental organizations

Nongovernmental organizations around the world are proliferating at a phenomenal rate. Can these groups make up for government and corporate shortcomings?

For months, the city of Seattle, Washington has been bracing itself for the World Trade Organization. The WTO - one of the planet's most powerful and most controversial but least visible and least accountable organizations - is preparing to launch its latest round of free trade negotiations here on November 29, and officials have been racing to check security and procure accommodations for the more than 5,000 trade ministers, dignitaries, and delegates expected to pour in from more than 150 countries. But behind the scenes, several coalitions of activist groups have been preparing to greet those delegates with what maybe the largest protest against free trade the United States has ever seen.

These coalitions - bringing together environmentalists and AIDS activists, farmer advocates and labor unions - are organizing rallies, marches, press conferences, concerts, and teach-ins. Together with thousands of national and international groups, they have been intensely lobbying the world's governments to heed their concerns. Peace activists such as the War Resisters League protest that military spending has been exempt from WTO rules, leading to dangerous arms buildups in developing countries. Groups like Consumers International protest that the current trade rules allow multinational corporations to strong-arm governments into ignoring consumer protections. Labor organizations, from steel workers to longshoremen, worry about a loss of jobs and a weakening of workers' rights. And environmental groups warn that as things arc going, national environmental standards and international treaties, such as those protecting biodiversity and the ozone layer, could be outlawed. All of these groups and more - the Zapatista-originated Peoples' Global Action is bringing caravans of indigenous people from around the world - will be gathering in Seattle whether they were officially invited or not, to try to influence the WTO's agenda. (See "Challenging the WTO," page 22.)

If recent efforts are any indication, they may actually succeed, at least to some degree. Last year, 600 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world joined forces - using the Internet to rally international opposition - to shut down preliminary, closed-door negotiations among the world's richest 29 nations gathered in Paris to establish a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The protesters, including many of the same groups that will be waiting in Seattle, were concerned that the MAI - aimed at eliminating barriers to the flow of investment money across international borders, just as the WTO wipes out barriers to free trade in goods - would spark a global "race to the bottom" in environmental and labor standards for investing.

"We honed our skills on MAI and, in the next round of WTO talks, we'll hone them further," said Charles Arden-Clarke of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The WTO and other international institutions "are learning that they have to talk to us at the beginning. If they come up with an agreement without doing this, NGOs can swing votes back home."

Arden-Clarke's remark isn't just bluff. The past few years have seen a remarkable growth in the number and prominence of such groups and their ability to precipitate change. They have cajoled, forced, joined in with, or forged ahead of governments and corporations on an array of actions as disparate as the decommissioning of nuclear reactors, brokering cease-fires in civil wars, and publicizing the human rights abuses of repressive regimes. These not-for-profit organizations are now influencing decisions and helping to set agendas that were once the exclusive business of corporations, governments, or "intergovernmental" bodies like the United Nations or the World Bank. Johns Hopkins University's Lester Salamon, who has closely tracked the development of the nonprofit sector, believes that we are in the midst of a "revolution" of NGOs: "a massive upsurge of organized private voluntary activity in literally every corner of the world." Many NGOs have sprung up in response to inaction and oversights of both governments and corporations on pervasive issues such as environmental degradation, human rights abuses, poverty, and inequality.

It may seem naively utopian to expect groups of like-minded individuals working all over the world, without any centralized coordination, to be able to offer the solutions to these dilemmas. Compared to well-funded corporations and governments, NGOs - many of which operate on shoestring budgets - are at a distinct disadvantage. But corporate and government leaders often are more a part of the problem than the solution. "People don't expect politicians to do anything - I don't expect politicians to do anything," said Tim Wirth, a former U.S. Senator and Under-Secretary of State who is now head of the nonprofit UN Foundation. "That's why more and more people are moving toward grassroots activities." Through their international connections and networks, NGOs are giving local concerns global platforms - connecting the hundreds of millions of people who belong to grassroots, community organizations that are working in small but significant ways to change the status quo. This chaotic "third sector" is charting a new course deep into the waters long ruled by nations and corporations. And increasingly, its swelling numbers, size, complexity, and effectiveness are compelling the two traditional sectors to change.


On the night of October 2, 1968, thousands of students gathered in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Plaza to protest the army occupation of a local university and to demand protections against police abuse, the release of political prisoners, and the "right to associate" - to form activist groups without fear of repression. Within hours, army troops and police moved in and ordered the protestors to disband. A gun shot echoed through the square and a flare lit the sky, and seconds later the soldiers began shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. The massacre killed an estimated 300 to 500 young people and wounded 2,000 others.

Ten days later, the Olympic Games began in Mexico City - devoid of almost any international condemnation of the murders. Indeed, the Mexican government denied that any such attack had ever occurred. One reason this massacre did not provoke the kind of international outrage that would explode 21 years later after the very similar Tiananmen square crackdown in China was that, as Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink write in their book Activists Beyond Borders, "the international human rights network, and the human rights consciousness and practices that it created, did not exist in 1968. . . . Because there was no credible independent source, the Mexican government was able to control information about the event." To this day, the Mexican Defense Ministry's files on the killings - including five hours of 35-millimeter film shot at the square on the night of the massacre - remain locked away "for reasons of national security."

In the 30 years since that night in Mexico City, the role of NGOs across the globe has metamorphosed and amplified. These groups have developed wide-ranging, international networks, fundamentally shifted public opinion on such issues as human rights and the environment, and developed a growing level of independence from and influence over governments. The trend toward citizen action that was sparked by groups like the Red Cross in the nineteenth century has accelerated hugely in the last few decades of the twentieth. What we're seeing now is a web of networks and contacts that connect thousands of small, grassroots organizations with international coalitions. These coalitions, in turn, are increasingly included in negotiations over international treaties, and can bring pressure to bear on national governments and corporations alike.

The environmental movement is an important case in point. A hundred years ago, protecting nature was not a prominent political concern. If you had asked about the environment in a particular region, you would probably have been referred to a weather forecast in a farmers' almanac. There were almost no treaties, conferences, or international debates on the subject. The first international nature groups were just forming in the 1890s - the International Union of Forestry Research and the International Friends of Nature.

By 1990, however, rough estimates indicate that there were more than 100,000 NGOs working on various aspects of environmental protection - and most of those were started as recently as the 1980s, estimate researchers Thomas Princen and Matthias Finger in Environmental NGOs in World Politics. In addition, environmental groups - especially the international organizations - experienced a boom in memberships. For example, between 1985 and 1995, the number of members supporting the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) grew from 570,000 to 5.2 million.

More generally, in 1909 there were 176 international NGOs (groups with offices and constituencies in several countries), according to the Yearbook of International Organizations. As of the yearbook's 1996 count, that number had grown to more than 20,000. ([ILLUSTRATION OMITTED], page 16.) And the number of NGOs operating within countries has grown even more quickly. In 1960, the average country had citizens participating in about 122 NGOs; by 1988, that number had grown to 485. Half of all NGOs operating in Europe were founded in the last decade. And in the United States, where the number of NGOs is now estimated to be 2 million...

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