Do NGOs have a problem of legitimacy?
Many governments, international organizations and globally active companies today consider it a must to involve non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in their work. Yet these same entities are becoming increasingly critical of NGOs and are questioning their legitimacy. - Article published in: Swiss Coalition News, No 37, December 2003
By Peter Niggli and André Rothenbühler, Swiss Coaliion of Development Organizations (Alliance Sud)
Since the first demonstrations against international government conferences, champions of globalisation have been contending that those NGOs that set themselves up as guardians of public morals in international politics speak only for themselves. It was absurd for such organisations to criticise intergovernmental decisions as undemocratic. For after all, the governments being attacked were legitimised by elections, whereas the «NGO officers» had not been elected by anyone and certainly not by civil society.
The charge of lacking legitimacy has since then pervaded public discussions of NGOs. There is an unmistakeable call for NGOs to be subjected to some form of regulation. Two significant practical initiatives are under way in this connection:
Pleas for more or less NGO influence
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan this summer appointed a Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN Relationships under the Chairmanship of former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The goal was to «increase representation of the civil society» in international politics and above all in the UN. To this end, the Panel will be tabling a set of «basic legal guidelines» next April to which all NGOs will have to be accountable. It will be acknowledged at the same time, however, that NGOs do need «some freedom» for their work, according to Kevin Kennedy, the Panel Coordinator.The Panel works on the assumption that although «unelected», NGOs could represent civil society, provided that they conform to UN guidelines.
This summer too, the American Enterprise Institute, a Bush Government think tank, launched the NGOWatch program together with related institutions. «Many groups» have «strayed beyond their original mandates and [have] assumed quasi-governmental roles», the initiators complain: «The extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs has the potential [...] to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies». For the NGOs favour a world order of global governance or world government at the expense of the sovereignty of democratic nation-States, and they have UN support in this. NGOWatch wants to alert the US Government and multinationals to the dangers of cooperating with NGOs and to demand greater transparency and accountability from them. NGOs should cease their advocacy and go back to charitable works.
Officially approved NGOs
That governments ought be elected in order to act on behalf of their countries is a central requirement. It does not follow from this, however, that NGOs too must be elected in order to have access to governments and be able to criticise them. Such criticism is guaranteed by the basic political rights of democratically constituted countries. It is the public opinion which decides whether NGO criticisms and suggestions are any good. But even if majority public opinion rejects the political views of NGOs, that would not change one iota about their legitimacy to act the way they do.
Moreover, every globally active enterprise too claims direct access to governments. For decades now, business lobbyists have been accompanying every international negotiation and exerting sometimes excessive influence on the agenda and topic of negotiation. They have not been elected for this either by their staff or by the people of their respective countries.
The discussion is further confused by the fact that NGOs too sometimes attempt to defend their legitimacy without any reference to fundamental political rights. They insist that they «represent» civil society and thus lay claim to a representational function which, barring trade unions or farmers' organisations, virtually no NGO has. Small wonder then that they have not been able to counter the objection that no-one elected them as representatives of civil society. To our mind, however, most NGOs are not essentially about representing anyone, but rather providing a voice for problems and for groups that cannot successfully represent their interests and which risk being submerged in the struggle between the dominant interests.
For obvious reasons, NGO critics do not go into basic political rights. Instead they demand new instruments to remedy the supposed legitimacy deficit. Thus for example, the British Foreign Policy Center, a government think tank, suggested government-instituted rules of conduct for NGOs and the creation of an oversight body to certify NGOs. Such suggestions amount to legitimising NGOs through government recognition and using guidelines to channel their critical role. Licensing would also give the authorities some leverage for separating «reasonable» NGOs from «radical» ones.
Problems of legitimacy or of management?
A few voices are drawing attention to the abnormality of the legitimacy debate. The New York Times, for instance, had this to say about the NGOWatch initiative: «Nongovernmental organisations’ views are fair game, of course, but accountability and transparency should be about practices, not politics.»
The paper is thereby pointing out that NGOs too are enterprises that provide services and survive on donations and frequently on government subsidies. They should be required to be transparent and accountable about their management practices. As most of them are tax-exempt, they must at any rate fulfil government conditions regarding their business practices. In many countries – including Switzerland – NGOs also voluntarily abide by guidelines for the use of funds, intended primarily to ensure that the purpose of the donation is met. Besides, new initiatives are currently under way in many places to reinforce corporate governance within NGOs designed to reflect the increased professionalism and the growth of the sector.
When the legitimacy debate turns to the subject of guidelines for NGOs, it often remains unclear precisely which ones are meant – guidelines for their political conduct or guidelines for their corporate governance. It will be significant to see what the UN Panel means by the «legal guidelines» against which NGOs will have to be evaluated. If it is about governance, it is acceptable. If it is about politics, it becomes problematic.
Democracy deficit in international politics
The legitimacy debate started because primarily government representatives of industrialised countries and the globally active corporations find the movement against corporate-led globalization rather irksome and would like to remove the well-known NGOs – with their considerable public credibility – from it altogether. Yet the same entities are attempting to institute systematic cooperation with precisely those NGOs. They expect to be better able to legitimise intergovernmental action in that way.
In intergovernmental negotiations and the resulting agreements and international institutions, the participating governments function as Legislative, Executive and sometimes Judiciary all in one. There are no checks and balances. Furthermore, the outcomes of such negotiations in the economic realm take precedence over national law without national public opinions, interest groups and parliaments being able to exercise their substantive right of consultation and decision-making. The fact that governments are elected domestically is not enough to legitimise their extensive international legislative activities. That is the democracy deficit in international politics. It has been a key contributor to the emergence of the movement against corporate-led globalisation.
But when NGOs are allowed to participate in international government conferences, gain access to selected information and state their views on the agenda items, it does help conceal the democracy deficit. When NGOs even criticise governments and table alternative demands before the «world opinion» present, it reinforces the appearance of democracy. When a government subsequently tells a parliamentary committee that is has consulted the NGOs on the important international issues, it is suggesting that to the extent possible it has taken account of all Opposition views. Naturally, this is most often not the case. It is clear, however, that critical NGOs are irksome – leading adversaries to question their legitimacy – but useful at the same time.
The NGOs as «the Third Estate» of global governance?
For two or three years now the UN has been systematically preaching – supported by the governments of industrialised countries – tripartite cooperation between governments, civil society and private sector. The Cardoso Panel is working on the assumption that there are three international players – governments, civil society and private sector – whose interaction is to be determined and will constitute future global governance. The aim is a corporatist construct in which NGOs function as representatives of the «Third Estate».
Michael Edwards, Head of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation, a major source of funding for US and international NGOs, has further elaborated on the corporatist model in a book. In his view «the NGOs' right to a voice» should be «structured» through a series of compacts between governments, enterprises and NGO networks – and indeed from the bottom up, i.e. from the regional to the national, through to the international level. These compacts would regulate the «roles and responsibilities» of the players with regard to specific issues and institutions. To Edwards, the advantage of his model is that NGOs would no longer be able to circumvent the national level (or political agreement at national level) and take conflicts directly to the international level. He cites the example of the dispute over the Arun III hydroelectric power project in Nepal, which the World Bank wanted to co-finance and which fell through as a result of an international NGO campaign – in this case, Edwards deplores, the painstaking work of national coalition building had simply been circumvented and local Arun III advocates given too scant a hearing.
The example shows, the Edwardian model is clearly seeking to strengthen the powerful and weaken the influence of the NGOs. Moreover, it brings out the problem that is inherent in the corporatist approach for global governance – if the construct is applied at national level, it will be in direct conflict with existing democratic mechanisms. If we imagine a compact between Federal Council, Economiesuisse and NGOs for Switzerland – how should it relate to to the parliaments of all levels, municipal and cantonal executive branches, political parties and instruments of direct democracy? Superordinating the compact would lead to a revolt even in stable Switzerland, whereas subordinating it would make it pointless. Both business and NGOs fare better if they avail themselves directly of the democratic mechanisms, without corporatist construct. There is no reason why the model should be better for developing countries. Tripartite corporatism is only possible internationally, where there is no democracy at all.
In short, there are good reasons why NGOs should not succumb uncritically to the enticements of global governance with a corporatist structure. It is of course better to bring the NGOs on board for global governance issues rather than leave the field entirely to the representatives of global corporations, which at any rate have long been involved as a matter of course. To our mind, this is the weightiest argument that NGOs should wield in defence of their wish to be heard in matters of global governance. Yet including them does not make international politics any more democratic. They should therefore continue to be critical of the democracy deficit of global governance and monitor the transfer of political powers from the national to the international level with great scepticism.
Contact: Peter Niggli, Director Alliance Sud