Umair Ali looks at internationalisation of multiple activities of Growing ambit of NGOs
The growing ambit of NGOs has grown in influence and their presence has added a much-needed third angle to societal activities. Since 1945, there has been a slow but consistent expansion in the role of NGOs in policy making within the UN system to the point where the out-comes in all areas of multilateral diplomacy, including security questions, can no longer be explained without analysing the influence exer¬cised by NGOs. They have also greatly increased their status in international law as those with ECOSOC consul¬tative status have international legal personality. In any case their valuable utility is now universally recognised and they have gained in stature.
Along with their multifarious contribution the most significant impact of NGOs has been in the cre-ation of the Internet that has radicalised the global context. NGOs made two essential contributions to the conversion of communications technology from disparate unconnected private networks to the contemporary Internet as a global public communications system. In the 1980s, they established the first Internet service providers and linked them together to provide global coverage. Also, they were the first to create gateways to link all the diverse networks to each other. In popular discourse, an NGO is often pre¬sumed to be voluntary organisation acting in the public interest. Sometimes, distinctions are made between operational NGOs, which raise money and spend it on projects to assist the needy and the vulnerable and campaigning NGOs that seek to articulate the concerns of disempowered and mar¬ginalised people.
Such an approach brings to mind NGOs concerned with development, humanitarian relief, women’s rights, human rights, peace, and environmental questions. However, it is confusing and misleading to conceptualise NGOs in such a restricted manner. All these fields of global politics are also influenced by other NGOs that would not be primarily identified either as operational or campaigning NGOs in such fields. At the UN, the 3,000 plus organsations that have consultative status as NGOs include religious bodies, trade unions, business groups, scientific and technical bodies, professional associations, youth organisa¬tions and parliamentarians. Many of these also make their own specialist contributions on global issues.
In the domestic politics of individual countries, NGOs are more commonly referred to as interest groups, pressure groups, lobbies, or private volun¬tary organisations. However, as noted above, the term NGO may still be used to refer to a more limited range of public interest groups and/or groups that engage in transnational activities. NGOs vary greatly in the geographical scope of their structure and their activities. Some may be highly local, community groups in which all those involved know each other personally. Others are organised in individual towns or cities, within a larger area, or over a whole country, while some cover a continent or have a presence throughout the world. The scope of their structure does not necessarily relate to the scope of their activities. National NGOs often have a minimal organisational structure outside their home country but engage in extensive trans¬national cooperation with other NGOs around the world.
One of the most important features of NGOs is that many of them break down the dis¬tinction between domestic and international poli¬tics by simultaneously operating at both levels. Initially, local and national NGOs could influence global politics only through the membership of international NGOs. With the expansion of global communications, in particular the development of the World Wide Web since 1993 any NGO can now easily have a transnational impact. In addi¬tion, the only major amendment to the UN’s NGO statute was the decision in 1996 to allow accredi¬tation to national NGOs. The prime reason for this decision was to encourage participation by NGOs from developing countries.
There is great variety in the structures of NGOs. Some decide policy through democratic processes open to all their members, but others rely on sup¬porters who merely have an indirect influence on policy, by increasing or reducing their level of sup¬port; some are formed by individual people, but some consist of separate independent NGOs who form an umbrella organisation to cooperate; some relate to members and supporters directly through a centralised structure, but others have complex hierarchies or a federal structure. NGOs also have a diverse range of political roles. Some are altruistic but others represent the interests of their members as some have charitable status and obtain tax concessions from governments.
As may be the case oth¬ers are not eligible as some represent a very small number of people but others have an active mem¬bership measured in millions; some are highly specialised, but others are concerned with issues that affect a wide range of social, political, and economic questions; some have no public profile, but others obtain regular media coverage; some have no desire to engage in politics but others are campaigning organisations; some are insiders in government policy making, but others are outsid¬ers, concentrating on mass mobilisation and some are progressive or left wing, some identify themselves as being apolitical and some are right wing. TW