Tue, Jun 29, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The rising power of NGOs

Transnational groups are making their voices heard, and governments and corporations are taking notice

By Joseph Nye


When Human Rights Watch declared last January that the Iraq War did not qualify as a humanitarian intervention, the international media took notice. According to the Internet database Factiva, 43 news articles mentioned the report, in publications ranging from the Kansas City Star to the Beirut Daily Star. Similarly, after the abuses of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison were disclosed, the views of Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross put pressure on the Bush administration both at home and abroad.

As these examples suggest, today's information age has been marked by the growing role of non-governmental organizations (NGO's) on the international stage. This is not entirely new, but modern communications have led to a dramatic increase in scale, with the number of NGO's jumping from 6,000 to approximately 26,000 during the 1990's alone. Nor do numbers tell the whole story, because they represent only formally constituted organizations.

Many NGOs claim to act as a "global conscience," representing broad public interests beyond the purview of individual states. They develop new norms by directly pressing governments and businesses to change policies, and indirectly by altering public perceptions of what governments and firms should do. NGOs do not have coercive "hard" power, but they often enjoy considerable "soft" power -- the ability to get the outcomes they want through attraction rather than compulsion. Because they attract followers, governments must take them into account both as allies and adversaries.

A few decades ago, large organizations like multinational corporations or the Roman Catholic Church were the most typical type of transnational organization. Such organizations remain important, but the reduced cost of communication in the Internet era has opened the field to loosely structured network organizations with little headquarters staff and even to individuals. These flexible groups are particularly effective in penetrating states without regard to borders. Because they often involve citizens who are well placed in the domestic politics of several countries, they can focus the attention of media and governments onto their issues, creating new transnational political coalitions.

A rough way to gauge the increasing importance of transnational organizations is to count how many times these organizations are mentioned in mainstream media publications. The use of the term "non-governmental organization" or "NGO" has increased 17-fold since 1992. In addition to Human Rights Watch, other NGO's such as Transparency International, Oxfam, and Doctors without Borders have undergone exponential growth in terms of mainstream media mentions. By this measure, the biggest NGOs have become established players in the battle for the attention of influential editors.

In these circumstances, governments can no longer maintain the barriers to information flows that historically protected officials from outside scrutiny. Even large countries with hard power, such as the US, are affected. NGOs played key roles in the disruption of the WTO summit in 1999, the passage of the Landmines Treaty, and the ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in May last year.

The US, for example, initially had strong objections to the Convention on Tobacco Control, but dropped them in the face of international criticism. The Landmines Treaty was created despite the opposition of the strongest bureaucracy (the Pentagon) in the world's largest military power.

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