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NGOs, TNGOs, TSMOs: Their actions, impacts and concerns

Literature Review: Directed readings course, Dominique Caouette

Por Catherine Willis

mayo 2005

This paper reviews literature on the impacts and functioning of transnational non-government actors (NGOs, international NGOs (INGO), transnational social movement organisations (TSMO)). Most of the texts presented deal specifically with these actors in relation to the neoliberal order and international economic institutions.


The emergence of transnational non-government actors

The literature surveyed presented several reasons for the emergence of international action by NGOs. The first is the increase in contentious international agreements and organizations at the closing of the century. Schultz and O’Brian, Goetz, Scholte and Williams have observed the all encompassing effects of the current neoliberal approach of international organisations and the intense resistance that it has created (Schultz 1998, 588). This has resulted in increased opposition to both the form and policies of multilateral economic institutions, (O’Brian Goetz, Scholte and Williams 2000, 2). Smith argues that one of the reasons for contention is that the positions that governments take in global institutions are subject to little democratic input and are isolated from public view (Smith 2002, 511); TSMOs then play a role in encouraging global political participation in order to democratise global politics (Smith 2002, 511).

Second, the increase in power of the international institutions has been accompanied by a decrease in opportunities to influence national governments. Ayres’s case study of resistance in Canada to the Free Trade Agreement reveals that the agreement constrained the Canadian government’s ability to intervene in the Canadian economy and respond to national demands (Ayres 1998, 123). NGOs also see new international economic regimes as detrimental to maintaining or raising national standards (Walker 2001, 57).

Thirdly, recourse to transnational action or international organisations occurs because it creates more opportunities for influence. This is elaborated upon in the work by Smith (2002) on human rights, by Williams (2000) with regards to the environmental movement and by Ayres (1998) on the FTA.

Lastly civil society has gained importance for international institutions because they have been encouraged by governments and international organisations under certain circumstances. International economic institutions (IEI) have been dealing with NGOs more often as they are more efficient at delivering services than states are and they are more aware of public opinion (O’Brian et al 2000, 2); foreign governments can also use them as a convenient an inexpensive foreign policy tool (Stiles 2000, 36)

Theoretical explanations

Several authors have elaborated models to explain the function of the non government actors within the international context.

Desmarais (2003) and O’Brian et al (2000) focus on the switch to a bottom up approach from a top down approach. Desmarais refers to globalisation from below as opposed to globalisation from above (Desmarais 2003, 11) while O’Brian et al refer to new multilateralism as opposed to old multilateralism (O’Brian et al 2000, 3); I will elaborate upon the latter. New multilateralism is a concept that does not yet exist in a final form, but is being created through the interaction of social groups around the world. What currently exists is complex multilateralism, which is a hybrid of new and old multilateralism. Within this system we can detect institutional modification by civil society actors. Moral suasion has begun to challenge power as a tool for influence. The results of these interactions are ambiguous because diverse participants have conflicting goals and motivations. As a result more social issues are included in policy, but at the same time powerful states have been reinforced to the detriment of weaker states.

Like states, MNC or business lobbies, NGOs, INGOs, and social movements seek policy changes that reflect their interests. Ayres uses the political process model to explain how changes in polity occur (Ayres 1998, 14). He argues that the fight for power between members and challengers of a polity and the political realities facing the polity gives rise to collective action; as such a social movement is a political phenomenon. Ayres illustrates through his case study how contention and mobilisation changed in relation to the political opportunities available (the same argument is presented also in the work of Stiles 2000, 34). He describes the three factors necessary for the mobilisation of collective action. First, a suitable structure of political opportunities must exist; this includes divisions within the elite, major changes in political alignment and the availability of potential partners. His case study reveals that the absence of domestic opportunities resulted in transnational collaboration. Second, there must be sufficient organisation and resources to take advantage of these opportunities; leadership, membership and communications networks are key. Lastly the solidarity and commitment necessary can be achieved through micromobilisation. This includes recruitment meetings, organisational meetings, encounters with allies and opponents, and discussions to share information and experiences. Micromobilisation is thus key to linking personal preoccupations with collective goals.

Boli and Thomas also address changes to world polity. They describe the development of world polity as a conflictive process which generates struggles as actors seek to establish themselves within this polity. They consider only the growth of the INGO population in the general development of world polity; their premise is that INGOs are representative of the fundamentals of world culture, so changes in INGO population reflect changes in world culture (Boli and Thomas 1999, 19). In their work they survey the variety of INGOs (as listed in the Union of International Associations’ Yearbook of International Organisations), their missions and membership in order to understand the composition of world culture. Despite the credibility of the source for its accuracy in listing INGOs (methods described in Boli and Thomas 1999, 20-22), it is the limitation to INGOs which is problematic for me. What of actors who reject the existing structures or neoliberal system and do not wish to function as INGOs? Boli and Thomas’ method excludes them from world culture. The case studies on the Zapatistas (Schultz 1998) and the Via Campesina (Desmarais 2003) illustrate this problem. The Zapatistas have catalyzed protest against neoliberal globalisation, which I would argue is an important aspect of current global culture. The Via Campesina, another influential movement has consciously distanced itself from INGOs in order to preserve their interests and way of working. The theory does not account for these actors and their contribution to world culture or the possibility that they are representative of world counter-culture.

The differentiation between various actors remains an important problem in this field. In most of the texts studied (the exception is Boli and Thomas) the actors considered are the NGOs GROs, INGOs and CSOs that contest international institutions (WB, IMF, FTA, WTO etc.); they exclude business actors. For example, O’Brian et al consider that NGOs and GSM differ from firms or business in that their primary motive is not to amass profit but to transform society. But business interest groups putting forward a neoliberalist ideal are trying to change society. Additionally as the work of Boli and Thomas reveal, one quarter of INGOs act in the economic sphere; these actors cannot be disregarded. This problem is also faced in Ayres work, he specifically studies the movements that oppose the FTA, while noticing the impacts of the “determined efforts of a well-organised and well financed pro-free trade transnational business community” (Ayres 1998, 121). It could be interesting to restudy the question by asking which political structures and which tactics resulted in the success of the business community instead of the community opposing the FTA. The current distinctions between the actors being studied are inadequate, especially since they oppose each other within the same system, their actions can both be regarded within the political process model or complex multilateralism. If they can be better differentiated by their means and opportunities then it is important to find out how these differ.

Actions for achieving transnational cooperation, mobilisation and solidarity

The means for collaboration between diverse actors from different countries is crucial to understanding how transnational mobilisation occurs. Smith studied the collaboration between actors in transnational networks though surveys completed by TSMOs and their affiliates acting in environment and human rights fields (Smith 2002, 509-510) and arrived with three important components for solidarity between transnational actors (Smith 2002, 514). First campaigns must be framed in a way that allows individuals or communities to understand that the problems they face are part of a fate shared by many groups. Second, the ways that local groups can influence global political events must be identified; lastly groups must believe that their actions will be among many others carried out by other groups. There were also problems witch arose and these will be dealt with further on.

Fox and Brown studied the question in relation to mobilisation against specific World Bank projects. They argue that social capital or trust must be created among actors in a coalition in order to solve problems horizontally. This involves convincing local actors that they can also be international actors; creating bridging organisations to help link various groups; participating in groups which could result in long term influence (ex. NGO working group within the World Bank); connecting coalition members to other stakeholders such as government officials; and building relationships of trust among individuals even when the organisations to which those individuals belong are not supportive (Fox and Brown 1998, 471-474).

Impacts of NGO action

Several of the papers illustrate the impacts of transnational action. Desmarais’s work illustrates the impact the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association’s action on the Indian government’s position in WTO negotiations (Desmarais 2003, 13-14). The association gained public attention which brought India’s position in the WTO into public debate and it managed to educate the public and many government officials on the impacts of trade. Despite the lack of specific policy results, they destabilised the trade negotiations and brought about increased awareness of their issues.

Generally it is difficult to relate actions to specific policy results and this is best illustrated in the work of Fox and Brown on the World Bank. Whereas the authors determined that northern NGOs created room from local NGOs to protest projects and that this did have impacts on projects, they could not related the impact to the intensity of the movements (Fox and Brown 1998, 497, 511). Impacts on policy were also observed but when the policies changes are not effectively implemented it is difficult to evaluate the success of the protest actions (Fox and Brown 1998, 535).

NGOs: Aggravating or diminishing the democratic deficit

Although it remains difficult to establish the exact influence of NGO action on change, it cannot be questioned that there is an impact. This has brought up a debate about the role that NGOs, INGOs or TSC should have on international institutions (II) and in international relations.

The participation of NGO in II has been criticised because they are not accountable or representative (Woods 2001, 96). The same criticism can however be brought against the II themselves that they are contesting (Price 2003, 590-591).

Woods’ (2001) research identifies several problems in this regard with the IMF and World Bank through an analysis of their structures and function. First, representation of members on the board is unequal; as it is based on financial contributions, it does not represent the interest of all members and stakeholders equally. Additionally, the heads of these organisations are chosen in a non-transparent process which excludes the participation of many members (Woods 2001, 84-86). Second, the board is quite distanced from daily functioning so staff and management actions are not regularly scrutinised (Woods 2001, 85). Lastly, while the roles of both of these institutions have expanded, but their accountability has not: “IEI (international economic institutes) now make banks responsible for policies that do not lie in the economic domain, which should be the domain of other domestically accountable agencies” (Woods 2001, 89). Although it has been argued that countries are not forced to accept IMF policies, its critics have argued differently “the political institutions of a country should determine the nation’s economic structure and the nature of its institutions. A nation’s desperate need for short term financial help does not give the IMF the moral right to substitute its technical judgments for the outcomes of a national political process” (Feldstein in Woods 2001, 90).

Price also questions the criticism of the accountability of NGOs by comparing them to multinational corporations, who do have a great deal of influence in international economic institutions (Price 2003, 590). Walter contributes to this argument by supporting the claim that government policies and negotiation strategies are being monopolised by corporate lobby groups in affluent countries and that this is the main reason for NGO objection to II (Walter 2001, 52).

The legitimacy of transnational activists (and NGO representing interests other than business), thus comes from the fact that they are addressing a democratic deficit (Price 2003, 589). Some authors argue that they are capable of providing objective expertise due to their apolitical nature; this claim is hard to justify because defending human rights, for example, is far from neutral (Price 2003, 589). It could be argued instead that their moral principles are their source of legitimacy. Legitimacy can also be claimed from the fact that they do not seek to replace governments, but to inform and persuade governments and businesses to modify certain policies or positions. The Zapatista movement is an example: they did not seek to overthrow to government but rather to create a more active civil society and democratic government (Schultz 1998, 605). Despite the questions of accountability and representation, it remains clear that NGOs speak for views and interests that are not represented in formal channels. James Bohman has argued that in political setting where there is no public, such as international institutions, NGOs and other institutions can function as the public themselves (Woods 2001, 98-99).

With regards to representation, it is worthwhile noting that IIs work with and are influenced by NGOs unequally; a few examples follow. At the WTO ministerial conference in Singapore, 65% of the registered NGOs represented business interests (Desmarais 2003, 15). Women’s organizations generally have less access to multilateral institutions because of the loosely structured nature of their organisations (O’Brian et al 2000, 33). The World Bank tends to fund more technical NGOs than political ones, as they are useful for service delivery (Stiles 2000, 42). This is problematic in itself as NGOs then take on responsibilities that should be the domain of the state and undermine state authority; this illustrates an aspect of complex multilateralism in which the less powerful states are weakened by the participation of non-government actors.

Scholte has put forward a theory to explain the access of civil society actors to IIs; he categorises them by the nature of their actions: conformist, reformer or radical (Scholte 2000, 261). Whereas conformists support the general direction and functioning of II and seek influence, reformers are critical and seek change, and radicals often call for serious overhaul of the institutions or their elimination. With regards to access to institutions it is the conformists who have the most. This selection represents the interests of the institution more than the representative nature of the organizations. Desmarais comments on this through in her work stating that organisations accepting the basic premise of globalisation tend to have greater access than the grassroots organisations that are highly critical (Desmarais 2003, 19). She compares two organisations, the International federation of agricultural producers, who is pro-liberalisation and participates actively in the WTO with Via Campesina, whose rights based perspective on agriculture run counter to the neoliberal ideologies and who are excluded from discussion. Scholte’s work with the IMF also reveals that various parts of civil society have varying degrees of access, academic and business interests being the most important (Scholte 2000, 266).

Despite this imbalance of represented interests, O’Brian et al (O’Brian et al 2000, 22) argue that the relationships between international economic institutions and GSM do nonetheless contribute to a democratisation of global governance. Woods has argued that INGOs have increased the accountability of II but have unfortunately undermined power and relative participation of developing countries and southern NGOs (Woods 2001, 99).

Walter argues the problem differently stating that despite limited benefits that NGO participation at the international level could bring, it fails to address a more fundamental problem of the gap between domestic policies and the procedures for ratifications of international treaties. The responsibility should fall to governments and not II to include all interests in their policy decisions: “National polities offer the best available means of deciding which groups have a legitimate input into the agenda setting process. The WTO is poorly placed to make such judgements” (Walter 2001, 68).

Accountability and democracy within movements

The accountability of NGOs and the balance of interests within coalitions are important but not easy to achieve. Many of the authors (Woods 2001, 99; Smith 2002, 508; O’Brian et al 2000, 27; Fox and Brown 1998, 441) site the North South division as a serious problem for transnational cooperation in this regard for many reasons.

Conflicts caused by resource inequalities along north south lines are common within TSMs (Bandy and Smith 2004, 237). Collaboration between grassroots organisations and INGO is often the most difficult because of extreme differences in resources and organisational styles (Bandy and Smith 2004, 238; Desmarais 2003, 27; Fox and Brown 1998, 441). Additionally identity conflicts over sex or race are common in cooperation between developed and developing countries (Bandy and Smith 2004, 238-239). Bandy and Smith discuss the various political opportunities that exist in different countries and the variety of approaches that actors choose in response: from legal to non-legal, or violent to non-violent action or radical to reformist approaches; the various approaches are often badly understood by partners in different countries (Bandy and Smith 2004, 239-240). Whereas northern actors usually have greater access to political agents and tend to negotiate more, southern actors have less influence and tend to take more radical approaches (Smith 2002, 521). It then sometimes is easier to identify ideological goals then to come to a consensus on concretes responses that should be taken (Smith 2002, 519).

Specific preoccupations and goals also vary within countries. Northern NGOs and transnational NGOs tend to have different preoccupations than southern NGOs. Whereas many GSMs challenge liberal economic approaches, northern groups tend to be preoccupied with the impacts of institutions on the environment, gender and labour; southern actors are more preoccupied by the way in which these institutions will aggravate the north south divide (O’Brian et al 2000, 21). In many cases Southern NGOs are direct stakeholders and they (or their members) live the problems that they are fighting. Northern or transnational NGOs on the other hand are generally not direct stakeholders and contribute more to creating a debate about international policies (Woods 2001, 98). The work of Fox and Brown illustrates this concretely with regards to World Bank projects. Local NGO and grassroots organisations face immediate consequences of WB projects and are therefore more preoccupied with project change than policy change; transnational or northern NGOs on the other hand seek policy change to affect future practices of the World Bank, but this does not assist those affected by the present projects (Fox and Brown 1998, 462).

The question of representation can also be addressed through the work of Boli and Thomas who analysed the type of citizens that are most likely to be active at the international level by their implication in INGOs (Boli and Thomas 1999, 74-76). They found that Europeans participated the most while Africans and residents of islands of pacific Oceania participated the least. They also found that within the sector of trade and economics developed countries were more represented by developed countries than developing countries. World citizens also tended to be individuals with more resources. Currently underrepresented participants are increasing their membership at a faster rate but there remains a problem of representation in INGOs. I would also question whether their inclusion in INGOs will result in a change in global culture or merely an adherence by a greater number to the dominant culture.

When interests are not balanced transnational collaboration can have many drawbacks: INGOs can magnify northern views (Woods 2001, 99); they can take power away from local NGOs; remove their potential influence within their own country; or change local agendas. So for some grassroots or southern NGOs the benefits of collaboration do not outweigh the risks (O’Brian et al 2000, 40). Fortunately this is a trend which appears to be changing. Northern advocates tend to loose credibility when they don’t support grassroots interests (Fox and Brown 1998, 456). INGO are also increasingly aware of the problem and can act to reduce the consequences (Woods 2001, 99). This is illustrated in the experiences of Via Campesina. According to Desmarais, Via Campesina had to battle not only economic actors but also INGOs that spoke on behalf of farmers (Desmarais 2003, 26-30). They actively set ground rules in order to preserve their interests during collaboration with other actors. As such they have prompted INGOs to question their roles, their accountability to those they represent and their legitimacy. Following this new understanding it became possible for Via Campesina to establish relations with NGOs.

Despite the difficulties the collaboration can be worthwhile. Each groups has its own set of strengths that can be a powerful tool for change when put together: grassroots organisations have good information about policy implications at the ground level; national NGOs have an understanding of government priorities and policies; INGOs have knowledge of global trends, a large number of contacts and know the best targets to direct action towards (Fox and Brown 1998, 442).

It is then crucial to understanding how collaborations that are fruitful for all participants can be formed. Fox and Brown argue mutual influence between coalition partners is more likely if the issues chosen highlight their interdependence (Fox and Brown 1998, 453). Bandy and Smith also elaborate on conditions conducive to coalition formation (Bandy and Smith 2004, 232-237). Skilled movement brokers are necessary (this is similar to what Fox and Brown refer to as bridging organisations or bridging people) to help negotiate and understand differences between partners, resolve conflicts, etc. Coalition forums encourage the construction of transnational civil society. The promotion of a flexible democratic organisational culture is ideal because it permits a diversity of actors and the pursuit of common goals. It also reduces the chances that weaker coalition partners will lose their power to foreign NGOs. At the same time it diversifies the movement by creating multi-issue frames that accommodate its many members and prevents the isolation of individual members. Lastly, it is more adaptable to changing circumstances. Finally, coalitions must be seen to make progress, in at least the intermediate goals such as resource sharing and popular education.

If INGOs and NGOs are key to creating a world polity and to increasing democracy in international institutions, then ensuring their accountability and responsibility is key, at least to their partners within movements and to those they claim to represent. If we understand the objective of NGOs and GSMs to be the democratisation of international or national policy it is interesting to ask how northern NGOs or INGOs can contribute by increasing the representation of under-represented movements, interests or groups; it then is also important to enquire exactly what northern NGOs or INGOs have to lose in this process.


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