The Role of NGOs in Global Governance

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This World Politics Review report analyzes the growing importance of NGOs in global politics, particularly their ability to mediate between international institutions and individuals. While some NGOs enjoy excellent access to meetings and have good relations with UN officials and delegations, governments sometimes react negatively to NGO advocacy and seek to restrict NGO opportunities.


By Peter Willets

World Politics Review
September 27, 2011

It has become fashionable to assert that the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in world politics has grown in importance since the early 1990s. This assertion is true, but not because of the end of the Cold War nor because there is anything new about NGOs exercising influence, as is often claimed.

Consider the success of the following campaign: A man, shocked by an event he witnessed, decided that change was an urgent moral imperative. He wrote a book that triggered the creation of an international NGO. The group lobbied all the major governments and, just five years after the initial event, its efforts resulted in an international treaty addressing its concerns. The man was Henri Dunant, and the NGO was the International Committee of the Red Cross. Its campaign to adopt the first Geneva Convention in 1864 led to the development of a new field of international law, namely international humanitarian law. Even today, any NGO would be proud of such a rapid, successful innovatory campaign.

Take another example: the Internet. Contrary to popular belief, its origins lie not in a military-developed command-and-control communications system, but in the vision and technical innovation of a small number of NGO activists in the 1980s who realized the potential of electronic communications to enhance the work of all NGOs. It is true that, in the 1960s, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency funded university computer science departments to create a computer network. However, people-to-people, email networks -- mainly for university staff and students -- evolved in the 1970s as an unplanned outcome and initially were not open to the public. The first global NGO electronic network, Interdoc, was built in 1984 by the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA), at the request of their African and Latin American NGO members. This too was for private use by ICDA members only. In 1986, PeaceNet/EcoNet in San Francisco and GreenNet in London became Internet service providers and took the first step in opening global email and electronic conferencing to the public. By 1990, before Tim Berners-Lee had produced the first Web page, these NGO pioneers had linked to advanced networks in five other countries and by telephone connections to many more. They went on to form the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which provided a global public network for NGO activists. Their technical lead meant both the World Bank and the U.N. first went onto the Internet by using the APC servers.

The transnational movement of revolutionary ideas in politics, religion, science, technology and the arts has been a feature of the global landscape for hundreds of years. The abolition of slavery, the fight for democracy, the rise of nationalism and the breakup of empires in the 19th and 20th centuries were just as much transnational processes as the fall of communism and the struggles of the Arab Spring today.

Nevertheless, there have been some significant changes in recent years. In all countries, there are more NGOs than there used to be. The end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the fall of military regimes in Latin America and Africa resulted in a substantial expansion of the numbers of NGOs in these parts of the world. The new NGOs have taken their place in global civil society. In addition, the revolution in global telecommunications has connected the most remote areas to the global media and, with it, to global politics. The change in the speed of communication has been dramatic. Just as important, but rarely acknowledged, is that email, the Web and applications such as Facebook and Twitter are extremely inexpensive to operate. Global communications can for the first time be used by the poor as well as the rich, as evidenced by the global campaign waged over the Internet by the peasants of Narmada to halt World Bank funding of a hydroelectric project that would have flooded their lands.  

It is obvious that the Internet has been of great advantage to NGOs. They can communicate more efficiently, more cheaply and more quickly to their members, their supporters and the wider world. In dealing with the general public, they no longer have to rely on the news media, but have their own unfiltered, uncensored communication channels. This immensely enhances their ability to mobilize. Of course, the effect should not be exaggerated. There would have been no Arab Spring without the existence of a young generation of disaffected, educated, unemployed individuals, who were willing to risk their lives by responding to the calls made on the Internet for them to demonstrate.

NGOs in the United Nations System

The first success of NGOs in influencing the U.N. occurred in 1945, at the San Francisco conference that drafted the U.N. Charter, when NGOs strengthened wording covering the U.N.'s role on human rights, economic and social questions, and equality for women. Most important, from their perspective, a new article was added providing for NGOs to have consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Initially, it was expected that this would only be taken up by a small number of global commercial organizations and trade union federations. However, there were soon many more groups, and a broader diversity of them, than had been expected.

Today, about 3,400 NGOs are recognized by the U.N., and over time their participation rights have increased. They receive all U.N. documents and circulate their own statements to government delegates. They hold their own meetings as "side events" to the official proceedings, and they can often make their own oral presentations at the start or the end of the diplomatic meetings. At times, they even table their own agenda items and open the debate. Overall, NGOs exercise far greater rights at the U.N. than they do at parliaments within individual countries.

Initially NGOs were limited to ECOSOC and most of its related specialized agencies, but now they have permanent formal participation rights in a General Assembly body, the Human Rights Council, and at all special U.N. conferences. However, NGOs have no formal rights in the policymaking bodies where governments are most sensitive about their prerogatives, such as in the U.N. Security Council and in the global economic institutions -- the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Even so, there are flexible informal procedures that give them access both to the staff of the international organizations and to government delegates. NGOs have the greatest influence on environmental policy, women's issues, development and human rights. In these issue areas, they use the media and lobbying of individual governments to set the U.N.'s agenda; they lobby in New York and Geneva to obtain U.N. endorsement of their policy goals; and they undertake detailed committee work, contributing text to strengthen international treaties.

Next page: NGOs taking on a monitoring role . . .


NGOs have learned that gaining support for their issue areas through U.N. resolutions and the creation of legal commitments through treaties is not enough. Even when government support is genuine, lack of resources, opposition back home, agenda overload and lack of expertise may result in governments failing to implement their commitments. Some governments may have joined the consensus merely to avoid the embarrassment of isolation. In these situations, NGOs switch from being lobbyists on policymaking to being monitors. Here their political position is unassailable, because NGOs are simply demanding that governments implement the policies that they have already officially endorsed.

The U.N. provides three monitoring mechanisms for NGOs to use. First, U.N. secretariats may be asked to produce annual reports on progress. NGOs with high status and high expertise can assist the secretariats in the production of these reports, produce parallel reports or generate media attention and coverage of the reports. Second, specialized U.N. conferences often have five-year review conferences, and global treaties usually include articles for regular conferences of the parties (COPs). These often require governments to prepare their own reports on progress made, and they can at times generate media interest, with journalists seeking NGO assistance in writing their stories. The third and strongest mechanism occurs when the U.N. establishes specialist committees. These meet annually with the sole purpose of reviewing the implementation record of each government over a regular reporting cycle. Again, NGOs are built into the review process and can hold governments to account, both in the committee work and in the media.   

There is a wide spectrum in the extent to which NGOs exercise influence. On environmental issues and women's issues, NGOs and governments collaborate comfortably, with NGOs enjoying full legitimacy as part of the political system. For example, in the Global Environment Facility, it is common to talk of the "GEF family," and NGOs are always included as members of that family. However, in some issue areas, such as disarmament, NGOs are sometimes kept at the margins. That said, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition were the prime movers in achieving the drafting and ratification of the treaties on those two issues.

In contrast, on human rights issues, NGOs have had to fight every step of the way. In 1945, NGOs successfully lobbied to have the U.N.'s purposes, as listed in the U.N. Charter, include the promotion of human rights. However, until 1970, the principles of sovereignty and noninterference in domestic affairs were rigorously maintained at the U.N., preventing it from responding to complaints about human rights abuses. The first breakthrough came in May 1970, when the "1503 procedure" was established to determine whether complaints revealed "a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations." From then onward, a variety of treaty and reporting mechanisms were created, with NGOs promoting the treaties and providing most of the rapporteurs.

In 1984, the "sovereignty barrier" was shattered when Amnesty International's decade-long campaign against torture resulted in the agreement for a Convention against Torture. Those who ratified the convention gained the right to put on trial and imprison torturers, regardless of which country they were from and where the torture had occurred, so long as their own citizens were the victims. In 1998, the statute for the International Criminal Court was agreed upon, and in 2002, the necessary 60 ratifications were achieved for the court to be established. At the ICC, again, sovereignty is subordinated to the international community's overriding interest in prosecuting those who commit war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity when their own government proves unwilling or unable to do so. The efforts to guarantee that the court was established, led by the NGO Coalition for the ICC, overcame opposition first from the Clinton administration, which attempted to prevent the creation of a strong, independent court; and subsequently from the Bush administration, which mounted a determined and sustained campaign to prevent ratifications. Simply put, were it not for NGOs, there would be no international law of human rights and no U.N. machinery to protect them.   

NGOs and Democracy

Some NGO activists naively assert that NGOs can act as the "voice of the people," calling governments to account and extending democracy to global diplomacy. A more sophisticated institutional expression of this aspiration takes the form of calls for a "People's Assembly" to be created alongside the U.N. General Assembly. However, in the foreseeable future, it will be impossible to hold elections for a global parliamentary assembly, and the alternative of an assembly of NGOs would not extend democracy to global governance. Many NGOs are very small and represent very few people, while many highly respected NGOs do not have any mechanisms for internal democracy. For example, neither Greenpeace nor Oxfam has any formal membership, and their supporters have no direct voice in the organizations' policies. Faith-based NGOs base their claims of legitimacy on their moral authority and make no claim to democratic authority. Scientific, technical and professional NGOs are restricted to people with the relevant qualifications. They represent an elite voice offering expertise, rather than a democratic voice. Other NGOs, such as Amnesty International and the trade unions, have millions of members and democratic assemblies, but they too are unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Whatever their size, each NGO still represents a self-selecting minority. No collection of NGOs would provide a representative policymaking or advisory body.

To give a small number of NGOs a decision-making role would be elitist and hence anti-democratic. To give a large number of NGOs a role would require organizing them into wider constituencies, with a spokesperson for the group. This does occur, especially in global environment politics, where NGOs are organized into nine "Major Groups" for stakeholder dialogues. But even there, the outcome underscores the difficulty of achieving a representative balance. The groupings include women, children and youth, indigenous people, local authorities, business and industry, the scientific and technological community, trade unions and farmers. It is a strange and illogical list -- including the young but not the elderly, for example, and unions but not professional associations -- and the arrangement as a whole is a variant on the profoundly anti-democratic doctrine of corporatism. It only avoids being highly authoritarian because the groups are self-organizing and because, bizarrely, the ninth Major Group of NGOs is called "nongovernmental organizations" themselves, a residual category that allows for the inclusion of any NGO that is not in one of the other eight groups.

Next page: Criticism of NGOs . . .


Just as misguided as the naive idealism regarding NGOs is the hostility toward them found among a minority of delegates to the U.N., who argue that NGOs are arrogant and unrepresentative. Some delegates from democracies say NGOs have little legitimacy when compared to governments acting as the voice of their voters. Other delegates from authoritarian regimes say diplomacy is the prerogative of sovereign states and that NGOs have no legitimate role to play in global policymaking. Some ultra-nationalist regimes label NGOs as the agents of a Northern neo-imperialism or assert that free association and free expression are not in accord with so-called "Asian values." In practice, a few NGO leaders may be arrogant, but the great majority are not. A few represent no more than themselves, but the majority of them speak for a significant constituency. Democratic governments may have been elected, but they should still be accountable on a daily basis in global affairs, as they are in domestic affairs. And in an interdependent world, where global diplomacy deals with all aspects of economics, health, education, social policy and human rights, the doctrine of absolute sovereignty does not accord with the reality of political practice.

The accusation that NGOs are Northern is particularly peculiar. It is mainly based on the fact that most global NGOs have their headquarters in Europe. But many organizations based in London, Brussels, Paris or Geneva could just as easily be called Southern, because the majority of their members are from developing countries. In reality, there are far more Southern NGOs than there are Northern NGOs, and they are active on all global issues. The only difference is that Southern NGOs are less likely to have the resources to act independently at the global level. As a result, they are more likely to act through their membership of an international NGO or a transnational network. The real aim of governments -- such as Malaysia, Singapore, Russia and Zimbabwe -- that criticize NGOs as meddling foreigners is to inhibit the activities of local NGOs and local branches of global NGOs. As for the "Asian values" argument, its invalidity was demonstrated in March 1993, when Asian governments convened the Bangkok Asian Regional Meeting in preparation for the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. To their surprise, they were confronted with a vigorous forum of local Asian NGOs, who argued strongly for universal values.

The Role of NGOs

While NGOs have many rights at the U.N., they do not have the right to vote in any of the principal organs. They do not possess democratic legitimacy in decision-making, as it is not their role to be representatives for anybody except themselves. But accepting these limitations can still leave them with a major role to play in enhancing democracy in global governance.

When we talk of democracy, we often over-emphasize the criteria of free elections and policy that is in accord with the wishes of the majority. However, there are two other essential features to democracy. Between elections, the system must be transparent, with the free flow of information about the policymaking process. In addition, there must be a free political debate. NGOs contribute to global democracy in these two ways. NGOs immensely enhance the flow of information in global governance. They report information about domestic politics to the world beyond a nation's borders, and, in the reverse direction, they bring global concerns and perspectives to the national and local levels. NGOs also give voice to a broad constituency, so that the diplomatic debate considers all issues within a wider context and policy is less likely to have unintended consequences. It is not necessary in democratic debate to be representative of society as a whole. It is only necessary for an NGO to have something coherent to say for it to have the right to be heard.

Until the 1990s, we used to speak of international regimes and intergovernmental relations. Now we speak of global governance. The new terminology represents a recognition that NGOs are central to global political processes. The manner in which they have fought for participation rights at the U.N. and for the construction of the Internet as a global system for public communications has transformed the world of diplomacy. Indeed, the defining difference between traditional diplomacy and the diplomacy of global governance is the participation of NGOs.  

Peter Willetts is Emeritus Professor of Global Politics at City University, London. He pioneered the study of NGOs in global politics 30 years ago. His third book on the subject, "Non-Governmental Organizations in World Politics," was published recently.