Local and global: international governance and civil society: it is inconceivable that any Northern donor or international NGO could begin to match the diversity of experience and knowledge already extant within the Third World.

Author:Fisher, Julie
Position:Concepts of Governance

In a world increasingly beset by famines, wars, genocide, AIDs, environmental deterioration and continuing population momentum in the poor countries, the failed state has become the Achilles heel of the emerging international community. For every failed state there are many more "weakly institutionalized" governments, which can, curiously, also be described as semi-authoritarian. (1) International governance, if it is not to become Olympian at best and tyrannical at worst, can only be built on what happens at the national level. To be accountable and strong, the national level must intersect, at least indirectly, with the efforts ordinary people make in their own communities. So, in a way, the local and the global are intimately connected, not just because people plant trees or recycle, but because all politics, to paraphrase Tip O'Neill, is ultimately local.

The good news is that in much of the developing world, failed states co-exist with civil societies, which have expanded dramatically since the 1970s. What Salamon et al calls this "global associational revolution" (2) is particularly evident in Asia, Africa and Latin America. By the late 1990s there were an estimated 50,000 intermediary grassroots support organizations (GRSOs) that worked with hundreds of thousands of community-based grassroots organizations (GROs) in the developing world. (3)

Coinciding with the later years of this phenomenon has been an explosion in transnational alliances on everything from human rights to land mines to corruption. Often these two macro trends interact. El Taller, for example, is a practitioner researcher alliance that also provides staff training for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from many countries.

More formal international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have also proliferated in numbers and probably now exceed 25,000. (4) Even though official international organizations, INGOs and international peacekeeping forces are increasingly cooperating with each other and with indigenous NGOs these global actors had to contend with more than 40 complex human emergencies in 1998 alone. (5)

The relationship between civil society and the state may in the long run help determine whether a particular country will contribute to or undermine collective efforts, however inchoate, to enhance stability, democracy and living conditions at the global level. By civil society, however, I do not just mean a collection of NGOs. Indeed, as Perez Diaz defines it, civil society includes "markets, associations and a sphere of public debate." (6)

Why markets? Because a significant percentage of non-profit NGOs in the developing world promote for-profit activities, such as micro-enterprises and community-based enterprises. In some countries more traditional business associations are emerging, and some scholars even include businesses in their definitions of civil society, arguing that they form part of the intermediary realm between the citizen and the state.

Why a sphere of public debate or deliberation? Because public talk of all types--in the media or through public meetings or deliberations--can knit together the pieces of civil society and provide citizens with a public voice that can enhance governmental accountability. The Inter-American Democracy Network has trained over 100 NGOs to work with local communities, name and frame their own issues and moderate forums that can assist ordinary people, through deliberative talk, in governing themselves.

Both this broader view of civil society and the inclusion of community-based GROs help counteract the assumption that the growing numbers of intermediary NGOs or GRSOs will, by themselves, somehow enhance democracy, prosperity and stability. Still, even larger NGOs that "behave like governments" may be a step forward in situations of violence and chaos.

While keeping the broader definition of civil society in mind, this paper focuses on NGOs, including GROs, GRSOs and their networks. This discussion begins by focusing on the impact of the varied regional contexts in Latin America, Asia, and Africa on NGOs and then proceeds to a more detailed discussion of the impact of national context, including type of regime, political culture, and state incapacity and instability This is followed by a discussion of the indirect impact of the political context on NGO proliferation. Although the discussions of context incorporate information about government policies towards NGOs, the next section focuses in more detail on NGO government collaborations. The final section deals with accountability, its relationship to autonomy and the impact of autonomy on government.


Relationships between NGOs and governments in the Third World clearly differ from those in developed countries. In the United States, for example, Salamon points out that voluntary organizations emerged during the 19th century, when charity and paternalism were predominant social values. (7) It was only later that the U.S. government made the provision of services a right rather than a privilege, and assumed responsibility for some of the groups and problems that charities left out.

In the Third World, the rise of NGOs has strengthened and enlarged the independent sector at a different historical moment, precisely because of government failure to address those issues where governments have historically held a comparative advantage in Europe and the United States. Moreover, GRSOs are being established not by wealthy elites, but by intellectuals and professionals. There are also regional differences among NGO-government relationships in the developing world.

Civil society in Latin America is more consistently autonomous in relation to the state than it is in Africa or Asia. Even before the NGO explosion, Latin American political systems were broad, heterogeneous and buffeted by the demands of the middle class. Even if governments want to control NGOs, the very strength of civil society--including NGOs, private businesses and labor unions--makes it difficult for them to do so.

Growing NGO capacity and the rise of international forces advocating structural adjustment and privatization, have pushed weak states, which are fearful of social unrest, towards partnerships with NGOs. The Bolivian Social Emergency Fund, for example, channeled $14 million through GRSOs between 1986 and 1991, leading to greatly reduced taxes on NGOs and a governmental commitment not to shut them down without three years notice. (8)

Latin American NGOs have been instrumental in helping reshape the political systems in which they operate. Even under the military dictatorships that emerged in Brazil, Chile and Argentina during the 1960s and 1970s, nonpartisan NGOs were carving out "political space" not available to opposition political parties. (9) Indeed, where major parties represent the upper and upper-middle classes, as in Colombia, being partisan negates the commitment of GRSOs to the poor. As one GRSO leader put it, "Parties are nominal national entities, but at the local level do not represent the people." (10)

Sometimes, of course, NGOs' ability to act independently may erode, as during the Sandinista period in Nicaragua. (11) Strong countervailing groups may also dilute their impact. Peasant organizations in Honduras, for example, have historically had more impact on agrarian reform policies than in El Salvador, where landowners are politically strong. (12)

Unlike Latin America, NGO--government relationships in Asia are "largely determined by the government and its agencies," regardless of whether ties to governments are dependent, adversarial, repressive or collaborative. (13) Even when governments ignore NGOs, the withdrawal of recognition and legitimacy can be a powerful policy in itself. This situation is perhaps most extreme in China, where there are only a handful of autonomous NGOs.

In recent years, however, Asian governments have increasingly recognized the advantages of cooperative, if not collaborative, development strategies, 14 and in many countries registration procedures have become simpler. For example, in Bangladesh government acceptance of NGOs increased because of a child survival program that reached 85,000 villages. Yet this generally rosy Asian picture often conceals co-optation. NGO policies in Asia are more likely to be schizophrenic than policies in Africa or Latin America. Security departments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Singapore consider GRSOs to be a threat, leading many organizations to be wary of advocacy. Even in the Philippines, where the health department achieved credibility by seeking out NGOs with strong community ties, the military has continued to harass health programs run by religious NGOs. (15)

Relationships between governments and NGOs are particularly difficult to assess in sub-Saharan Africa, although African dictatorships generally repress NGOs; single-party states, such as Zimbabwe and Kenya, accept service-provider NGOs but tend to restrain those promoting empowerment, while multiparty democracies have a "sweet and sour" relationship with NGOs. (16) Perhaps the only safe generalization about Africa is that by the late 1990s, most governments were more aware of NGOs than they were ten years earlier. Co-optation has provided governments with positive publicity and allowed GRSOs to work in rural areas while distancing them from advocacy in capital cities. In fact, Fowler argues that tens of thousands of official administrative units throughout Africa provide governments with "camouflaged opportunities to control and manipulate NGO activities in order to ride herd on foreign contacts." (17)

Although NGOs can gain political independence with foreign financial support, they draw rapid fire if they raise issues of political legitimacy and human rights.

Ironically, by treating African GRSOs as opposition parties, governments...

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