The Role of NGOs in Global Governance

The Role of NGOs in Global Governance
The entry plaza of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters, June 2, 2011, in Seattle (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson).

Though they have long existed, NGOs are playing an increasingly significant role in global governance, whether participating in the United Nations system or bringing global concerns to the domestic level. From local to global, NGOs are now an essential aspect of a variety of systems.

It has become fashionable to assert that the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in world politics has grown in importance since the early 1990s. This assertion is true, but not because of the end of the Cold War nor because there is anything new about NGOs exercising influence, as is often claimed.

Consider the success of the following campaign: A man, shocked by an event he witnessed, decided that change was an urgent moral imperative. He wrote a book that triggered the creation of an international NGO. The group lobbied all the major governments and, just five years after the initial event, its efforts resulted in an international treaty addressing its concerns. The man was Henri Dunant, and the NGO was the International Committee of the Red Cross. Its campaign to adopt the first Geneva Convention in 1864 led to the development of a new field of international law, namely international humanitarian law. Even today, any NGO would be proud of such a rapid, successful innovatory campaign.

Take another example: the Internet. Contrary to popular belief, its origins 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. It is true that, in the 1960s, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency funded university computer science departments to create a computer network. However, people-to-people, email networks -- mainly for university staff and students -- evolved in the 1970s as an unplanned outcome and initially were not open to the public. The first global NGO electronic network, Interdoc, was built in 1984 by the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA), at the request of their African and Latin American NGO members. This too was for private use by ICDA members only. In 1986, PeaceNet/EcoNet in San Francisco and GreenNet in London became Internet service providers and took the first step in opening global email and electronic conferencing to the public. By 1990, before Tim Berners-Lee had produced the first Web page, these NGO pioneers had linked to advanced networks in five other countries and by telephone connections to many more. They went on to form the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which provided a global public network for NGO activists. Their technical lead meant both the World Bank and the U.N. first went onto the Internet by using the APC servers.

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