The UN and Japan in an Age of Globalization:
The Role of Transnational NGOs in Global Affairs

Stephen Toulmin

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2. The Variety of Non-Governmental Organizations

This last example brings us to the central topic of this essay. My subject is the tension in the institutions of global governance, between Nation State Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations . I will first sketch the number, scale and variety of the "nongovernmental organizations" active in different practical situations: this done, I shall be better placed to map the particular areas in which this tension is most evident. I will then focus on the major transnational NGOs, which (I shall argue) play a role in global affairs today that needs fuller understanding than it often gets.

The term "nongovernmental" is what Aristotle calls a privative term: it defines its instances by what they are not. A familiar everyday example is the term "amateur", as applies in Sport: "amateur" golfers do not play golf for a living, do not teach others to play golf, do not sell golf clubs and equipment, nor do any other things that endanger their amateur status. (Despite its etymology - the word amateur, from the Latin amat refers to one who "loves" an activity - amateurs do not lose their status if they stop enjoying the game!) In its broadest sense, the term "nongovemmental" is applied to any organization or institution that performs a public function, but is not a part of the Government of the territories in which it works.

To narrow the overall class of NGOS down a first stage: in the mid 20th century, Nation State Govemments began to hive off public functions that were previously the responsibility of government departments, to newly established bodies set up in ways that insulated them from political criticism. This activity had gone a long way, before State enterprises bcgan to be explicitly privatized in the 1970s or '80s: before that, the line between the "governmental" and the "non-governmental" had become very thin - the Arts Council in Britain, which gives public funds to orchestras, art museums etc., and the SNCF, which runs the French railways, were dependent on and answerable to the Government for overall policies and control of their budgets, so they might as well have been government departments. With this in mind, the Economist launched the name quangos: "quasi-nongovernmental organizations." The insulation of such bodies from Government was something of a pretense, and to this extent their independence was a sham. So let me begin by setting "quangos" aside. as outside the class of NGOS I shall be discussing here.

I also say little in this essay about a second, and more numerous class of NGOs. In many countries, including some of the poorest in Africa, farming cooperatives and other local organizations are set up without any blessing from the Government of the Member State in which they operate: these organizations facilitate, or finance, better methods in farming, ilTigation, medicine, education and other cobperative activities. These NGOS are typically local, and operate on a small scale: in a single country, or a single locality. They raise funds from a variety of sources: partly, as loans from IDA, the low interest branch of the World Bank, more often from charitable organizations like Oxfam, sometimes as grants or loans from the U.S. AID, the British ODA, or similar agencies in other Governments: notably, those of Canada, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries.

These local NGOS have strictly delimited goals, and are usually somewhat fragile - dependent on one, or a few, funders and activists. Their need to keep good standing with their donor agencies obliges them to guarantee the quality of the "work product" from their grants or loans; so they tend to keep their heads down, and are disinclined to develop an independent stance over matters of general policy.

Moving to a somewhat larger scale of operation, a substantial number of agencies are not confined to limited localities, but maintain more extensive - or even world wide - areas of concern. Once these organizations have developed international ambitions, they seek "observer status" at the United Nations, which can give them access to UN Headquarters, to papers that the UN Secretariat prepares for circulation to recognized NGOs, and to some direct participation in conferences in their special areas of concern. (More of this later.) The status is so helpful that people sometimes think of NGOS in ways that treat only nongovernmental organizations with UN observer status as being genuine "NGOs" at all. However much the potential role of NGOS was a factor in the preparatory discussions of the UN Charter, it is worth recalling that many influential NGOs were established, and proved their worth, at a time when cooperation between the UN and external NGOS was in a very early stage of development. In a few cases, indeed, the lifetime of particular NGOS had long antedated the UN itself: the ICRC -the International Committee of the Red Cross - is a prime example.

Having set on one side the nongovernmental organizations I am not concerned with in this essay, let me sharpen my focus, and identify the large, transnational NGOS that are my main concern. Several kinds of organization are relevant here, and have much in common. Their scope is world wide, and they pursue their topics on a global scale. They operate on a transnational basis: for administrative purposes, their headquarters may be located in one particular country, but their work is carried out by networks of local organizations, which have local autonomy and raise most of their own funds. Typically, they take no money from either industry or government, but get it through subscriptions from individuals who have their "cause" at heart. Most crucially, they seek to protect their independence of judgment, and their claim to be impartially critical, by keeping a distance from both Nation State Governments and the United Nations - dining with them (as the English saying is) "using a long spoon."

The purest instances are those transnational single-issue NGOS that concentrate, in some cases, on humanitarian issues, in some on problems of the environment, in some on abuses of human rights. The first group includes the ICRC, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam), Medicins san Frontieres and the Save the Children Fund; the second includes Worldwatch, the World Wild Life Fund and - most particularly - Greenpeace; the third includes Amnesty International (the pioneer post-1945 NGO), the network of regional organizations that makes up Human Rights Watch, and such impromptu organizations as the group of Nobel Peace Laureates who joined to exert pressure on the Military Government of Burma to release the country's elected leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

Another group of NGOS is grounded in shared commitments of professionals in different disciplines and countries. Physicians together, or lawyers together, find a common cause in the distinctive values of their professions. Organizations such as the World Psychiatric Association, World Medical Association. or International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, conduct a transnational defense of medical values - including the values of the public health movement - in a way that transcends the policy of all Nation State Governments. (Israeli and Palestinian physicians who meet over the injured body of a shared patient, will approach his treatment in the same frame of mind, and set aside all considerations that rest only on questions of citizenship or nationality.) The same can be said in the legal profession for, e.g.. the International Commission of Jurists and other such institutions.

Finally, a few transnational NGOS engage in charitable work from a commercial, not a professional or academic angle. In modus operandi, a business consultancy like McKinzie resembles Greenpeace or Amnesty: it has branches in two dozen countries, each of which is an independent operation with traditions and experience that allow it to address the special problems of its own country; but which pool technical ideas about working with clients, and handling other issues that go beyond their own boundaries. Meanwhile - though the NSGS of Europe grumbled at "unscrupulous currency dealers" - the Soros Foundation started the Central European University in Budapest and Prague in less time than it took the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, its intergovernmental counterpart, to buy marble for its grandiose entrance hall. In the background, of course, older Foundations of commercial origin (Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, etc.) continue to operate multinationally, or sometimes transnationally.

None of these groups of organizations - humanitarian, professional or commercial -is tempted to act as agents for a National Govemment. If anything, their relations with Government are conducted at arm's length to preserve both the appearance and the fact of independence. As we shall see, the efficacy of their operations, and their credibility for those who benefit from them, depends on keeping a real distance in these relations, so that political disputes among States or peoples do not touch the NGOs' reputations as honest brokers or disinterested bringers of aid.

In number and variety, the NGOS have multiplied since World War II, but their historical origins are much older. Like so much of the educational or social services given by the State in modern secular societies, the work of NGOs was in earlier times undertaken by Churches and religious orders. (In Europe from 1200 on, the Medieval Christian Church was in effect a transnational institution, with a standing above, and apart from the secular rulers of the time.) As we know it now, the tradition of NGOs dates from the establishment of the ICRC in Switzerland in 1865. To this day, indeed, the ICRC succeeds, by acting with great care, in keeping the confidence of countries with very different cultural and religious traditions: peoples and governments in most parts of the world have learned to accept its impartiality and independence.

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