Hostile Governments Are Targeting the Expansion of NGOs’ Roles and Reach

Protesters against the law on associations and non-governmental organizations march towards the National Assembly, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 13, 2015 (AP photo by Heng Sinith).
Protesters against the law on associations and non-governmental organizations march towards the National Assembly, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 13, 2015 (AP photo by Heng Sinith).

International NGOs can promote global policies that have far-reaching benefits. But will a growing political backlash limit their effectiveness?

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are an essential feature of global governance, participating in international summits and institutions as stakeholders and watchdogs. Yet, as fashionable as it is to assert the importance of these organizations in world politics, there isn’t anything new about the influence of NGOs.

The International Committee of the Red Cross lobbied major governments to adopt the first Geneva Convention in 1864, leading to the development of international humanitarian law. And contrary to popular belief, the origins of the Internet lie not in a military-developed command-and-control communications system, but in the vision and technical innovation of a small number of NGO activists in the 1980s who realized the potential of electronic communications to enhance the work of all NGOs.

Today, about 3,400 NGOs are recognized by the United Nations, and over time their participation rights in U.N.-sponsored gatherings have increased. They receive all U.N. documents and circulate their own statements to government delegates. At times, they even table their own agenda items and open the debate.

Despite this influence, no NGO can act as the “voice of the people,” as some NGO activists naively assert. Many are very small and represent very few people, while many highly respected NGOs do not have any mechanisms for internal democracy. Still, NGOs are central to global political processes. The manner in which they have fought for participation rights at the U.N. has transformed the world of diplomacy. Indeed, the defining difference between traditional diplomacy and the diplomacy of global governance is the participation of NGOs.

How do NGOs affect global policymaking? To find out, read The Role of NGOs in Global Governance for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

One area in particular where non-governmental organizations play a major role is in "setting and vetting" the global agenda, curating the issues that advocacy groups promote most energetically. For close to a decade, for example, the call for a killer robot ban was virtually ignored by all but a few small NGOs. It wasn’t until the well-known NGO Human Rights Watch published a report calling for such a ban that killer robots became the biggest “human security” buzzword since cluster munitions. But what do NGOs do to get their causes to the public, and why do so many fail to gain the massive attention and policy priority that others enjoy? The two conclusions that emerge from an examination of their track record is that any NGO must be selective and strategic in focusing on the issues they champion, and that new ideas are judged not only on their merits but also on the ideational and social networks surrounding them.

To learn more about the NGO gatekeepers of the international policy agenda, read The Politics of Advocacy: Setting and Vetting the Global Agenda for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Can Citizen Science Shape Policy In a Non-democratic Country?

Another vital role non-governmental organizations can play is in safeguarding the environment. In 2016, for instance, fishermen in Vietnam began to notice dead fish washing up on shore. As the environmental disaster unfolded over weeks, the dead tuna and mackerel kept coming, joined by clams and even one whale. But the disaster had a silver lining—it played a major role in galvanizing citizen scientists to embrace grassroots environmental activism. The big question facing the rise of citizen science in Vietnam is whether it can actually lead to policy changes, or whether it will merely allow for the environment’s deterioration to be documented in greater detail. The emergence of environment-focused NGOs, however, provides a foundation for grassroots activism, and though this nascent movement hasn’t been given the opportunity to substantively shape environmental policy, there are increasing signs of its impact.

What do NGOs do when development policy threatens the environment of 20 million people? To find out, read Can ‘Citizen Science’ Save Vietnam’s Environment From Unchecked Economic Growth? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Restricting NGOs Kindles the Fires of Political Instability

Because they are often associated with political agendas, such as democracy promotion and human rights, non-governmental organizations are increasingly attracting the attention of hostile governments, both authoritarian and democratic. It is not particularly surprising that authoritarian countries such as China or Laos would wish to limit the reach of NGOs. What is concerning is the number of Asian democracies that have joined the anti-NGO chorus. Established democracies like Indonesia and India, as well as less-consolidated ones like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have all drafted or passed new laws regulating the sway of foreign or foreign-funded NGOs since 2011. But instead of strengthening ruling parties, restrictions on NGOs might weaken them, because where the state is not strong enough to meet the needs of all its citizens, NGOs have historically worked to fill in the gaps. If leaders cannot replace the work left behind by NGOs with equal or better services, the so-called influence of foreign forces may become the least of their worries.

To learn more about the political backlash against NGOs across Asia, read From China to India, States Risk Unrest With NGO Crackdown for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.

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