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

Stephen Toulmin

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4. The Political and Technical Faces of the UN

On a less high flown level, the shifting balance of influence was in evidence at the Conferences on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Human Rights in Vienna, most recently on Population Policy in Cairo. At Cairo, a coalition of NGOS and women's groups - above all, from the developing countries that suffer most from population pressures - played a major role by preventing the representatives of NSGS from making concessions to the Vatican and other conservative male religious groups, which were trying to destroy the effectiveness of the Conference's final documents. NSG spokespeople are exposed to a clash of interests among different groups on their domestic scene: so, Benazir Bhutto presented a more conservative Islamic view than one might expect from a woman of her education. The interests for which the NGOs spoke were less ambiguous and more clearly defined; and they mounted a powerful operation to defend the central purposes of the Conference.

Here we can begin to answer one of the larger questions facing this meeting, about the relative efficacy of the UN's political and technical agencies. In ways exemplified in the Cairo proceedings, the UN's political/diplomatic activities have all the turmoil of domestic politics, but on a larger stage. They are subject to the familiar criticisms that ordinary people direct at politicians back home: that they are "corrupted by" the groups whose needs they serve, "subservient to special interests" and so uncommitted to the Public Good3. The technical activities are effective, on the other hand, to the extent that their goals are defined in advance clearly enough to ensure a consensus. We may thus form an impression that the technical agencies of the UN function well, and its political institutions badly. But this impression rests on a confusion over this division of tasks. The single-mindedness of NGOS makes them natural allies of the technical agencies: in their work, they turn to the same technically equipped professionals - agricultural scientists, hydrologists or physicians - whose advice and opinions the UN agencies rely on, and whose knowledge and skills are of use in the kinds of practical situations that the NGOs also address.

In passing, let me remark on a stratagem that NGOS use to shift the field on which issues are debated. At the end of the Cold War, groups like International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility argued that nuclear weapons are a public health problem, like communicable diseases and polluted drinking water, so that nuclear disarmament has to be viewed as a public health issue. The stratagem had both strength and weakness. On the one hand, it focused attention on the catastrophes that will follow any use of nuclear weapons: the problems created in the affected countries would be too vast for the Public Health authorities to tackle effectively4. Policy debates about nuclear weapons or disarmament, per contra, have for long focused not on radiation and the like, but on the balance of interests involved in nuclear deterrence: diplomatic issues that a Public Health approach cannot resolve.

Certainly, there is a virtue in replacing political and diplomatic issues by technical and professional ones, wherever this is practicable; but it cannot be done completely, or in all cases equally. On the contrary, medical information serves only to spell out, in detail, the consequences that should be a necessary component in all political and diplomatic equations: even after these have all been taken into account, there is still substantial room for NSG bargaining to go on as before.

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