New tools, dealing with old problems

Globalization has exacerbated a host of woes: pollution, human rights abuses, poverty and hunger. But it has also given birth to a new player for dealing with them. Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, have over the last decade increased in power, number and scope. More than 30,000 groups with global reach exist – a number dwarfed by those operating at a local level. A conservative estimate puts the number of NGOs in the USA alone at up to 2 million. In some cases, NGO budgets are bigger than those of individual states. The scope of such non-profit, issue-driven organizations has broadened over recent years, addressing issues as diverse as consumer rights, the environment, Third World debt, militarism, and genetically modified crops. There is more than one reason why civil society groups have flourished over the latest decade or so. «The end of the Cold War gave the NGOs more room for action,» says Asteris Houliaras, assistant professor of geopolitics at the Harokopeion University in Athens. NGOs were totally absent in the former communist bloc, but by 1995 100,000 groups had sprung up. But the main driving force behind their success has been technological advances in information technology and telecommunications, i.e. globalization «that has enabled people to learn more about developments in third countries and communicate with each other.» From an economic perspective, NGOs have benefited from the reduction in the role of the State following a period of economic liberalization that kicked off in the 1980s. True to form, Greece has been out of sync with developments elsewhere in the West and the State here continues to dominate the economy and society. The strong hand of the State – combined with the typical let-the-State-take-care-of-it attitude of the public – has put brakes on the development of non-state aid organizations, says Houliaras. But this is by no means the only reason. The causes are often rooted in the Greek mentality but, as with the State, the main stumbling blocks are structural ones. Until the mid-1980s, Greece was itself on the list of developing states and a recipient of international aid. The country joined the donors’ club as late as 1997. The Greek Church has also been an impediment. «The Greek Church, like all Orthodox churches, is rather nation-centered and does not have a tradition of missionary activity like its Protestant and Catholic counterparts,» Houliaras says. The Orthodox Church in America, on the other hand, has set up the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), an international humanitarian organization established in 1992. In addition, he asserts, despite their mass migrations in the past, Greeks have limited geographical education. Travel as they may these days, their favorite destinations lie in the West; they know little of what is going on to the east and south. Ignorance is often coupled with mistrust. Greeks are wary of entrusting their money to NGOs, fearing «it will end up in the pockets of their administrations,» notes Houliaras. Filling the vacuum As states are backing off, non-state actors are stepping in to fill the vacuum. This trend does not necessarily raise eyebrows within national governments. Contrary to the popular zero-sum-game type of view that the state has lost out in the process, the role of NGOs seems to supplement rather than undermine that of national governments. Under strain due to new demands in a changing global environment, the nation state is having trouble ensuring so-called collective goods, such as peace, security, justice and sustainable development. «It is a conscious decision by the nation state to hand over some of its traditional tasks to the NGOs,» Pantelis Sklias, assistant professor of international political economy at the Democritus University of Thrace, says. «The NGOs meet needs which can no longer be met by the traditional nation state, especially in the area of social policy.» The deus ex machina does not come immune to blame. Critics say that NGOs have acquired too much power for their own good; some of them risk degenerating – or have already degenerated – into unelected, unaccountable interest groups. If elected governments represent the people, NGOs only represent those who support them. Greenpeace is an oft-cited target: «A small elite sets the goals and the means by which these will be carried out,» Houliaras says. Millions of Greenpeace members across the world have no say in policy-making. Their role is reduced to contributing a small fee and receiving a monthly news bulletin. True, sometimes it’s hard to know if NGOs express broader public opinion. But they would surely not have made it that far if they didn’t – at least, in most cases. Left-leaning critics view the new player with suspicion. Development NGOs, for them, are the latest reincarnation of Western imperialism. Old wine, new bottles? They say rich countries use economic and humanitarian aid as a tool to perpetuate their grip on less developed states. Far from fighting the causes of underdevelopment, the theory goes, NGOs intensify the causes of underdevelopment by creating new dependencies. But good old Marxist reductionism won’t do anymore. The problem of underdevelopment has proved to be far more complex. «The problem with underdeveloped states lies more with international indifference; the problem is that these countries lie on the margin of international developments, and not that they are the victims of dependence,» Houliaras maintains. To be sure, wealthy states occasionally yield to more self-serving temptations. To some extent, this is inevitable, as foreign aid has become an aspect of foreign policy. Reflecting the trend, the European Union’s High Commissioner for Foreign Relations is set to be placed in charge of development aid. «The management of humanitarian aid has clearly become an inextricable part of the economic diplomacy of the developed states, i.e. of the North,» Sklias maintains. «Foreign aid is used to serve the foreign-policy interests of northern states.» Even if well-intended, humanitarian intervention by development NGOs in poor states can actually damage local governments. Taking over the state’s legitimate tasks can undermine its accountability to the local citizenry. Food donations may save lives in the short term, but they push down local food prices, driving producers out of business. Realizing that overseas relief can be self-defeating, many NGOs are shifting toward empowerment and institution-building so that the target countries can stand on their feet in the long term. Poor countries are not the only ones struggling to maintain their autonomy, however. NGO dependence on state funds can stifle their independent voice. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently told US NGOs that their funding for development aid will cease unless they accentuate their connection to the Bush administration. The French section of Medecins sans Frontieres, one of the biggest non-governmental groups, receives almost half of its funds from the French State. Government funds are usually tied to conditions regarding their distribution; financially challenged groups tend to succumb. Carrots and sticks Despite some dependencies, all organizations pledge neutrality and impartiality. In theory, that is. «NGOs must operate regardless of color, race or any other classification principle. Independence is a sine qua non for their success,» Sklias says. But over the last decade, more and more organizations have been shifting toward a more politicized agenda, using carrots but also sticks – from the introduction of conditions to the backing of humanitarian intervention. In a way, of course, non-state actors have been profoundly – even if unwittingly – political all along. NGO decisions are political decisions simply because NGO activity is political activity. Distributing clothes and food is intrinsically political, Houliaras says. It may alleviate the woes of the local population, but at the same time it creates inequalities, even resentment in neighboring communities. «The actions of an NGO affect the everyday life of a number of people. This is what politics is all about: trying to better people’s living standards,» Sklias says. The rising tide of corporate-led globalization has failed to lift all boats. In the mammoth task of eradicating poverty and hunger, developing states have found a new ally in NGOs. Only time can tell if their contribution will be a success. For one thing, NGOs will transform the landscape of international diplomacy and humanitarian intervention in the future – already significant for an institution that seeks to make itself redundant. Pantelis Sklias and Asteris Houliaras are the editors of «The Diplomacy of Civil Society,» published by Papazisis.