Social Pioneers Come of Age

By Fisher, Julie | UNESCO Courier, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Pioneers Come of Age

Fisher, Julie, UNESCO Courier

Non-governmental organizations took centre stage in Seattle, but many have been spinning their web for several decades around the globe

Everywhere we turn there is good economic news. The massive growth of the global economy, fed by revolutionary changes in communication, promises unending prosperity that will, it is said, benefit even the poorest people on earth.

Protestors in Seattle who questioned the role of the WorldTrade Organization in supporting the present contours of globalization were widely portrayed in the media as new activists focusing on small issues such as the fate of the sea turtle. Yet the "Battle in Seattle" was but one tip of a mountain range of non-governmental challenges to politics as usual.

This worldwide explosion of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) actually began about thirty years ago, in response to the intertwined crises posed by poverty, population, and environmental degradation. Population growth can lead to deforestation or soil exhaustion, and thus increased poverty. The latter fuels migration to giant urban centres, or to more remote areas where the cycle begins anew. Moreover, environmental destruction by multinational corporations can further poverty by disrupting the traditional co-existence between people and the land.

NGOs, including the grassroots movements featured in this issue, have focused on these priorities for some time and have pushed governments to do so as well. The recent surge of activism testifies not to a change in purpose, but a growing realization that certain shared problems are partly caused by the common root of globalization. Targets like the agencies of international trade and finance are hardly new, though their current prominence reflects an era of much greater NGO co-ordination in the face of rapid economic change and unresponsive national governments.

The real question, however, is whether a growing global civil society, even in concert with willing governments, could begin to match the magnitude of the global challenge. No one alive today can answer this question, but an overview of what is happening may provide some clues.

International NGOs (INGOs) generally focus on development, relief, refugees, human rights or democratization. As of 1995 there were an estimated 20,000 INGOs with branches in at least three countries, plus 5,000 or more northern NGOs working internationally that are based in only one developed country.

Although INGOs have quadrupled in number since 1970, their contribution to relief and development pales beside the demands posed by increasing numbers of complex human emergencies. In 1995 only about $10 billion of $60 billion in overseas development assistance flowed through NGOs.

Yet these organizations have become prominent global players. They lobby official international organizations with increasing frequency and success, and have become important actors in agenda-setting meetings. From the Montreal Protocol regulating ozone emissions in 1987 to the 1994 Cairo Population Conference and the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, they have accompanied their partner organizations in keeping such issues as human rights, women and environmental deterioration on the front burner.

The most dramatic chapter in the NGO story has been their proliferation in the global "South." Beginning about thirty years ago, increasing numbers of well-educated young people took advantage of foreign financial assistance to create NGOs. Although a few organizers created local "counterparts" to INGOs, most others used funds from several donors to define their own programmes. Several of these organizations provided protection from political repression.

Almost everywhere, this process depended on partnerships between two types of NGOs: grassroots organizations (GROs) and grassroots support organizations (GRSOs). Grassroots organizations have local members and help develop their own communities. …

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