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The NGOs as Global Actor

The NGOs as Global Actor

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Published by: The May 18 Memorial Foundation on Nov 07, 2008
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Gwanju Human Rights Folk School 2004
The NGOs as Global Actor: Myth or Reality?
 Presented by Hae-Young Lee (Hanshin University)
I. IntroductionOne of the peculiar trends in the nineties in the international political arena isdoubtlessly the NGOs. With the 1989/90 collapse of the so-called real existent socialismwas boastfully proclaimed the New World Order. The World-Capitalism hassuccessfully proved its viability once again. As a result, the 'Age of Extremes' (E.J.Hobsbawm) seems to expire now and forever without knowing its successor. After tenyears of anxious hope are many people now conscious that the "Age of Extremes" isended irreversibly but the next century also has nothing to do with the "brave newworld". On the contrary the U.S. as a sole empire on the globe is continuing the"imperial overstretch" (P. Kennedy). Only the "neo-feudal" international system hassubstituted its antecedent. One imperial state assisted by the "knight" states such as G7dominates the most countries. One used to say that after "September 11" everything haschanged utterly. However, the hard core of the age, in my view, has not changed at all.Amidst
 fin de siecle
pessimism had J. Habermas 1984 diagnosed our times asfollows :The future is negatively cathected ; we see outlined on the threshold of the twenty-first century the horrifying panorama of a worldwide threat to universal lifeinterests: the spiral of the arms race, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons,the structural impoverishment of developing countries, problems of environmentaloverload, and the nearly catastrophic operations of high technology are thecatchwords that have penetrated public consciousness by way of the mass media.... The situation may be objectively obscure. Obscurity is nonetheless also afunction of a society's assessment of its own readiness to take action. What is at
 
Gwanju Human Rights Folk School 2004
stake is Western culture's confidence in itself .
1
On the one hand, the aftermath of "September 11" has reactivated the pessimism of "new obscurity." On the other hand it may imply no other than a warning signal whichurges us to take measures. The "optimism of will" (A. Gramsci) could be justified aboveall by the fact that in the nineties the NGOs have increased their capacities at theinternational as well as at the national level so dramatically that the nationalgovernments can hardly hold the countervailing power of NGOs under control. Theinternational institutions such as WB, IMF, WTO must react to them by any means.Moreover, they are often considered as a recognized actor of world politics and peopledemand them to hold even more accountability and morals than the politicians. In thenational politics many assign them to take the role of the "fifth pillar" next tolegislature, executive, jurisdiction and media. One often says, "taking NGOs seriously."The NGO-activists' catchphrase may be: "Together, we are superpower."Despite success stories of NGOs in the nineties, there may be still manyunanswered questions for closer examination. For some critics, "NGOs are the mostoverestimated actor of the nineties."
22
 However, others forecast the "shift of power"from states to NGOs.
33
There are good reasons for the critical review of previous globalactivity of NGOs: as many contradictions and divergences as harmonies andconvergences exist between- NGOs from the North and South- "Moderate" and "radical" NGOs- Lobbying-oriented and movement-oriented NGOs- Rich and poor NGOs- Large and small NGOs- National and international NGOs- "Occidental" and "oriental" NGOsetc.The list could last endlessly. Nevertheless, central in my paper is the next problem: Could NGOs be a
 political 
alternative in the future? In other words, are they
1
) J. Habermas (1989),
The New Conservatism
, MIT Press; Cambridge, pp.50-51.
2
P. Wahl (1998), NGO Transnationals, McGreenpeace and the Network Guerrilla,(www.globalpolicy.org/ngos/issues/wahl.htm)
3
) Jessica Mathews, the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that "the steadyconcentration of power in the hands of states that began in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, is over, at least for a while." See
 Economist,
December 11-17, 1999.
 
Gwanju Human Rights Folk School 2004
 politically capable enough to articulate a vision of global governance that re-regulatesthe "disembedded" economy into world-society without world-government? If suchexpectation seems to be unrealistic for the moment, then, is NGOs' future confined to play a role of "checks and balances" in world politics, namely, the "junior-partner" of senior players like states and international organizations? Is their role simply a moralcounterpart of corporate- or state-led international system in order to bridge the gap between the people and international organizations? Is herein an alternative project tothe present international order included? This essay wants to contribute to such adiscussion.II. Globalization and the rise of NGOs in the ninetiesAlthough NGOs have existed for a long time in history (in the early 1800s, theBritish and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society played an important role in abolishing theslavery system), they have not established themselves as an
independent 
internationalfactor until the 1990s. The NGOs in the new age are one of unintended consequences of neo-liberal globalization.Most imposing is above all their increase in number. The Yearbook of International Organizations has counted on the rather conservative basis - that is, groupswith operations in more than one country - the number of international NGOs at morethan 26,000 today, up from 6,000 in 1990.
44
 In addition, the U.N. now lists more than3,000 NGOs. The World Watch Institute suggested that in the U.S. alone there are about2 million NGOs, 70% of which are less than 30 years old. In Eastern Europe sprang up between 1988 - 1995 more than 100,000 NGOs. The big international NGOs areconcentrated mostly in three main areas: human rights, development and theenvironment. Also remarkable is the membership growth in these areas; for instance, theWorldwide Fund for Nature now has around 5 million members, up from 570,000 in1985, which doesn't need to be shy to compare to the population of small countries.All this is a historically unprecedented phenomenon. In form, the "NGOswarm" is amorphous, linked each other "online", organized highly decentralized andacts "molecularly". The NGOs as a whole are, in short, not an organization in classicalsense, but a "net" itself.
4
) Ibid.

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