Value creation and influencing economic and socio-political issues are no longer the exclusive reserve of organizations involved in international profit-making business. Non-governmental organizations’ impact in creating channels for political and economic empowerment can be traced to before the founding of the internet. Contrary to popular belief, for instance, some of the first internet service providers was created by a global electronic NGO network: International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA).
NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have multiplied in number and in capacity to influence political and economic decision-making process within countries, as well as on a global scale. Many economic and political shifts the world has seen in the last decade can be traced to the activities of NGOs working in those regions in collaboration with a young generation of disaffected, educated, and sometimes unemployed individuals willing to see socioeconomic changes in their communities and their nation. As NGOs influence and impact on global socioeconomic and political policies continue to grow, so will the challenges NGOs need to overcome in breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ which governments seek to impose on NGOs.
Sociopolitics and NGO Impacts
National and international sociopolitical movements have often placed a demand on governments and businesses to respond to unsatisfied economic and political interests of the populace. While governments have sometimes addressed these interests fully or partially in some cases, these interests have gone largely unattended to by businesses and governments in others, leading to violent reactions. Where local reactions have not been backed by NGO activities or ‘characteristics’, the agitations and interests of the people have been suppressed by force or threat. According to Peter Willetts in his article on NGO’s unique role in global governance, citizens’ growing loss of trust in institutions they rely on to protect the interests of social import has fanned a need for new mechanisms to foster social capital formation.
Many of these agitations have transformed the movements themselves to formal NGOs which present a more organized and recognized platform for the advancement of their interests before businesses and the government. More organized NGOs are able to advocate their interests and those of the communities they represent by conducting research and enriching existing databases, serving in the role of ad hoc advisory experts to policymakers, holding conferences, staging citizen tribunals, monitoring and recognizing the service of public office holders, and lobbying. At the UN, NGOs have the greatest influence on environmental policy, women’s issues, development and human rights, and can use the media and lobbying efforts on individual governments to set UN agenda, obtain UN endorsement of their policy goals, and contribute text to international treaties.
Challenges NGOs face
NGOs are seen as the logical purveyors of norms central to the decision-making process in matters where conflicts emerge between market-driven economic efficiency and ethically bound social efficiency considerations. However, indigenous NGOs within developing countries are less likely to have the resources to act independently at national and international levels and are therefore more relevant in pushing their agenda as members of an international NGO or transnational network. When governments like those of Zimbabwe, Singapore, Russia and Malaysia criticize NGOs as ‘meddling foreigners’ their aim is to limit the activities of indigenous NGOs and global NGOs operating within the state. Also, though NGOs have permanent formal participation rights in the UN General Assembly and at special UN conferences, receiving UN documentation and debate their own agenda before the UN, they as yet have no formal rights in the strategic policy-making bodies of global economic institutions such as the World Bank, the WTO and the IMF. Furthermore, the inability of NGOs to exercise their influence in a vote at the UN can be seen as a drawback and as an advantage: their lack of democratic legitimacy as a body which advocates its own interests does not detract from NGOs’ relevance as a major player in advocating and promoting democracy and global political processes in government.
Based on the foregoing, the following are recommendations for NGOs engaged in issues pertaining to global governance:
- NGOs must understand that they cannot effectively represent all the diverse interests of all their members and therefore cannot form an efficient collective assembly or policy-making and advisory body similar to the UN; NGOs must recognize their limitations.
- NGOs can improve on their efforts to enhance the free flow of information or political education among populations on local and national political issues, and economic policy making processes through new media. NGOs can organize political debates and events which bring political representatives closer to their constituents. This will stimulate a better understanding of the specific needs of communities, and illuminate the impact of policies, thereby promoting the effectiveness of government.
- Similar to the activities of the Commission on Presidential Debates in the US, NGOs can play an important role in giving voice to a broad constituency of people by ensuring that political debates cover all issues within a wider context and political aspirants address important economic policy issues vital to the interests of the populace prior to elections.
- While seeking global relevance, NGOs must remember to also focus on addressing the needs of the grassroots for development packages in the areas of formal education, food, and healthcare by providing the necessary funding and directed program assistance in rural communities.
NGOs have been known to not recognize challenges as barriers to how far their influence can reach. The elimination of the ‘sovereignty barrier’ under the 1987 agreement for the Convention against Torture reached by Amnesty International only goes to show that with time NGOs will overcome barriers to their influence and continue to champion sociopolitical and economic issues on national and international levels.