All Talk, No Action from World NGOs; the NGOs Have Become a Worldwide Political Force and Command Big Money, but Critics Say They Produce Little of Practical Value and Are Not Being Held Accountable

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Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

They think they're great, the United Nations thinks they're great, the World Bank says it can't work without consulting them and their critics are afraid that they're much too powerful. They are the internationally registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and they are becoming a well-funded and worldwide political force commanding the eyes and ears of governments everywhere.

The idea of NGOs is as old as organized charities and humanitarian causes laboring to do good and appealing to the world for support. Their activities can be seen throughout history, fighting with a grass-roots approach to advocacy that their opponents often have associated with fanaticism the abolitionists, for instance, and the women's suffragists and advocates of universal literacy. In recent years, NGO activists gained a high profile when many came together in Seattle in 1999 to protest what they characterized as the insistence of the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary

Fund that economic reform take precedence over relief for the poor. In Seattle the NGOs attacked the international bureaucrats in what a Rand Corporation study by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla called an "NGO swarm." And they succeeded in attracting media attention worldwide.

Even before Seattle, NGO advocates were being seen more and more as contributing to global policy decisions on issues involving minorities and the voiceless. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy was quoted by P.J. Simmons in a 1998 Foreign Policy report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying, "Clearly, one can no longer relegate NGOs to simple advisory or advocacy roles. ... They are now part of the way decisions have to be made."

The United Nations defines an NGO as a nonprofit that advocates for people with problems by working to bring the concerns of that group to the attention of the international community. This definition would include any group that is not a business or a political party but that is organized to work for social change. If this sounds vague that's because it is meant to be as a way of encouraging a broad inclusiveness among international do-gooders. The 1998 Foreign Policy report quotes an environmental activist, referring to the ability of anyone with a phone and fax machine to become an NGO, as saying that these organizations have produced a "rise of the global idiots."

For an NGO to be recognized by the United Nations, however, there are requirements, and even two statuses for which an NGO might apply.

The DPI status is under the authority of the U.N. Department of Public Information (UNDPI), which controls U.N. archives and research facilities. To obtain it, according to Paul Hoeffel, chief of the DPI/NGO Section at the United Nations, an organization must have been in existence for at least three years and provide evidence of having worked with the United Nations in some cooperative way. The financial records of the organization must be turned over to the UNDPI for review, and the ideals and philosophy of the organization must not conflict with broad U.N. missions and policy. "We have to be careful who we accept," Hoeffel says. The benefit of this status, he says, is that NGOs gain access to all U.N. facilities and conferences and may gather information on their areas of interest at the U.N. library. Currently, he says, about 250 organizations apply for DPI status a year, with 40 to 50 of these being accepted. There now are 1,400 NGOs with DPI status.

The other status for which the NGOs may apply is ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) status. The U.N. Website says that to obtain ECOSOC standing an NGO must prove that its work is directly relevant to U.N. goals. With ECOSOC standing an NGO may enter into a formal consultive relationship with access to officials of U.N. member states and must provide useful or special information to the U. …