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
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-
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
"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
"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. …