New Kid in the Global Arena ; Nongovernmental Organizations Take Social and Political Battles across National Boundaries

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In Bangladesh, a shop owner gets a $175 "micro loan" to expand his business. In Kenya, a woman joins the activist "green belt" movement to fight deforestation. In the Western United States, churches join forces to save salmon and redwoods.

Around the world, private, nonprofit organizations are fighting - and winning - major social and political battles. Most are small, grassroots groups working at the neighborhood or village level. Others are spread across continents with hundreds of thousands of members and a variety of sophisticated organizational structures. But in virtually every part of the world, these nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are having a major impact on governments, on corporations, on official international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank, and - most importantly - on the lives of people and the health of the planet.

Working together, individuals and private groups around the world have had major impact on international trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on security and safety matters such as the use of land mines, and on such economic issues as the new requirements that forest products in some parts of the world be certified as environmentally friendly.

"The past few years have seen a remarkable growth in the number and prominence of such groups and their ability to precipitate change," says Curtis Runyan, who studies NGOs for the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "They have cajoled, forced, joined in with, or forged ahead of governments and corporations on an array of actions as disparate as the decommissioning of nuclear reactors, brokering cease-fires in civil wars, and publicizing the human rights abuses of repressive regimes."

It's hard to put an exact figure on the number of such groups. Some - those fighting slavery, women's suffrage organizations, humanitarian associations like the Red Cross - have been around for well over 100 years. But the numbers have accelerated rapidly in recent years.

The Yearbook of International Organizations reports that there now are more than 26,000 international NGOs - more than four times as many as existed just 10 years ago. Mr. Runyan estimates that there are some 2 million grassroots citizens' groups in the US, at least two-thirds of them created within the past three decades.

Lester Salamon, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who specializes in alternatives to government, calls this phenomenon "a global association revolution that may prove to be as significant ... as the rise of the nation- state."

Two reasons behind this rapid growth: governments around the world becoming more democratic and less authoritarian, and advancing means of communication allowing citizens and activists around the world to share information and strategies.

Environmental issues critical

Many of these groups deal with environmental issues or - more broadly - the "sustainability" movement encompassing economic development, environmental protection, social justice, and quality of life.

"Numbers themselves ... do not convey the power of this movement," says Paul Hawken, successful business entrepreneur and author of several books on sustainable business practices. "What does are the underlying mental models and frameworks that inform it."

"In the past, movements that became powerful [Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism] started with a set of ideas and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core model was changed, diluted, or revised," Mr. Hawken said in a recent Internet discussion moderated by the Sierra Club. "The sustainability movement [estimated by Hawken to include 30,000 groups in the US and 100,000 worldwide] does not agree on everything, nor should it.

"But, remarkably, it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth and how it functions, and about the necessity of fairness and equity. …