Activism in search of a new direction as NGOs go tame

Greenpeace was one of the most innovative NGOs of the early 1970s. It counted on the competition among major media outlets, but, above all, it counted on its own anti-bureaucratic structure. David McTaggart was one on the people who left their mark on the 20th century. As a founder of Greenpeace, in an interview with this writer (shortly before he left the organization), he was asked about the criticism leveled at him in Greenpeace, which was by then famous, especially about decisions made on priorities for action «without the participation of supporters.» «If we spend half of every dollar each supporter gives us on running meetings or funding endless discussions, then we won’t get much done. I prefer to tell supporters at the end of the year where their money went and what results were achieved. If they disagree, they needn’t support us any more.» Many skeptics believe that the day of NGOs is over. And the new era presents many challenges. «In the 1990s, when Shell had an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea, a Greenpeace campaign mobilized European consumers and managed to halve Shell’s profits for a considerable period,» says Christos Frankonikolopoulos, a lecturer in international relations at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. «Since then we haven’t seen any NGO mobilize consumers in big campaigns. But food crises are common and the rise in the cost of basic necessities is unprecedented.» Yet large NGOs seem no longer able to mobilize people in large numbers across national borders. ‘Social players’ Nikos Mouzelis, of the London School of Economics, notes in the introduction to Frankonikolopoulos’s book «O Pagkosomios Rolos ton MKO» (The Global Role of NGOs) published by Sideris that «in their attempt to change the world in a more progressive/emancipated direction, global NGOs, as social players, put limits on the policies of other basic players. But they often create dependent relationships with the economically, politically and culturally powerful. In that case, instead of social transformation, we see their incorporation into the global status quo.» Three years ago, Frankonikolopoulos presented a study in England in which he argued that NGOs are not so radical any more, because they fear the reaction of their sponsors. Besides, many high-ranking NGO executives now have MBAs. In other words, they operate in the same stream of modern business management, which they do not change and certainly do not overturn. The difficulty of a brief global boycott to shake up big oil companies, or of rallying consumers on a large scale has raised doubts about NGOs. Some analysts say cross-movements like the Social Forum will replace NGOs. Such movements, says Frankonikolopoulos, are even more loosely organized than NGOs, «perhaps because people are fed up with the old hierarchical structures and wary of decisions made by groups organized in the traditional manner.»