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Learning fron civil society

Published by Newsweek on 1999-11-01

During the heyday of Islamic rule in India, the Mughal emperor Jehangir decided that he needed to better connect with his people, majority Hindus and minority Muslims alike. So he installed a bell outside his palace. Commoners with grievances could ring that bell day or night, and the emperor would come personally to meet his citizens. Because of the large numbers of individuals wanting to petition Jehangir, however, he eventually urged that people form groups and send their representatives instead. And in this way Jehangir fostered civil society activism among his subjects--centuries before "NGO," the modern-day acronym for nongovernmental organizations, became a buzzword in the international community.

Jehangir's gesture is worth recalling as tens of thousands of NGOs continue to descend this week upon Seattle to protest against the World Trade Organization and its current and incipient policies. In the spirit of accommodation and openness cited these days by many multilateral organizations, the WTO--in the manner of Jehangir--invited representatives of civil society to come and express their views at trade talks that would set the stage for a new round of international trade and tariff negotiations. Unlike the Mughal, the WTO must be ruing its decision- for prospects of any civil discourse between petitioners and potentates are being smothered by the incessant clanging of NGO bells. Meanwhile, the WTO's proposed agenda--an agenda that, ironically, is intended to strengthen globalization in ways that create fewer victims--appears in jeopardy on account of disagreement among rich and poor nations over questions such as protectionism, child labor, subsidies and environmental security.

The NGO groups--such as Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, and People's Global Action--are well funded, and they have a conspicuous target, a global organization that many activists consider secretive and insensitive. Notwithstanding their political and geographical diversity--and their traditional differences over ideology--the NGOs' agenda is focused sharply on linking trade to social issues. Some radical NGOs want the WTO to be dismantled altogether, accusing it of being a handmaiden of recharged capitalist neo-imperialism. Most activists, however, would have to scramble to marshal plausible arguments against faster economic growth, foreign investment, more affordable imports and the lowering of trade barriers--all of which, in general, would contribute to alleviating growing global poverty and promote desperately needed economic growth in the world's 130 developing countries. "There's increasing recognition that poverty, deprivation and desperation lead to political instability," says Steven W. Sinding, who's leading a new Columbia University study on foreign aid. "There's a definite connection between poverty and instability in developing countries and our own wellbeing in affluent societies."

Is the linkage of trade to social issues sensible, then, and is the WTO the most appropriate entity to expedite progress on issues such as social justice and environmental protection? Jyoti Shankar Singh, head of Population 2005--a Washington-based NGO--notes that the international community has already established a number of major goals and benchmarks on these social, environmental and economic-development issues at various global conferences in the 1990s. "There's been a consensus that economic development generates more rapid social development," Singh says. But many countries are against the idea of linking trade to social issues because they feel that by creating conditionalities or linkages, the primary beneficiaries would be proponents of protectionism.

NGOs need to be freshly reminded that in today's increasingly interdependent world economy, continued resistance to globalization is self-defeating. "A retreat to doctrines like self-sufficiency and import substitution--once the most devoutly advocated prescriptions for economic progress in poorer countries--today would virtually assure that backward economies would stay that way," says Professor Ralph Buultjens of New York University. "Besides, it's time that many NGOs grasp the reality that today's globalized world is not only about saints and sinners."

If questions about the legitimacy of the WTO are considered relevant by NGOs, it is also appropriate to raise some inconvenient but timely questions about civil-society organizations themselves:

_ How representative of local grassroots people are the NGOS who man the barricades at places such as Seattle? Over the last decade, many NGOs have been transformed from "no heels" to extremely well-heeled. Private foundations and donor governments in the West hand out billions of dollars to such groups. A new "conference class" has distinctly sprouted, with familiar faces turning up at global meetings, usually convened at luxurious resorts or in pleasant Western cities. Of course, it helps that these NGO representatives are fluent in international languages such as English and French, and also demonstrate agility with jargon favored by bureaucrats. It's hard to imagine a Sri Lankan peasant or a Zimbabwean weaver at such talkfests--other than at special "grassroots" exhibits.

_ Is the international NGO system becoming a self-serving coterie of elitists? Organizers of global conferences often misperceive NGO opinion at such meetings for civil society opinion elsewhere. Like bureaucracies everywhere, a conspicuous "mission creep" characterizes the work of many NGOs. For example, many activists who espoused environmental causes at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro now agitate on behalf of other issues as well; donors seem to like such "connectivity." But once these conferences are over, rarely are their topics sustained in national conversations back home.

_ Should activists also be negotiators? Many national delegations to governmental global conferences now include NGO representatives. These inevitably tend to be well-informed, well-funded and well-connected players who bring vested interests into the backrooms of diplomacy. But it's not at all clear that such access has improved the quality of global negotiations on thorny issues such as climate change, desertification, trade rights and galloping population growth. Indeed, many negotiations have been slowed down because of the fractiousness of the nondiplomatic participants.

All this is not to suggest that the NGO community ought to be restricted to the grassroots. But it would be nice if NGO representatives who seek headlines and television face-time at global carnivals occasionally went back home again to re-connect with their constituencies.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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