1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

NGOs and Social Movements: A North/South Divide?



This paper examines those contemporary agencies broadly termed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements. Emphasis is placed on political differences in approach, and the paper poses the question of how such differences coincide with geographical distinctions between the North and South. Differences in approach are also a product of different types of analysis and different strategic proposals, although among many NGOs and social movements there is a broad belief in the need to change the existing global political and economic order. While some NGOs and social movements will contest policy, others will contest power—as a result of their differing analysis of phenomena related to globalization. Such divisions are evident, for example, in the Jubilee 2000 movement, where NGOs focus largely on specific goals for countries demanding debt forgiveness; the Jubilee South movement, more tied to social organizations, insisted on the illegitimacy of all debt and demanded debt cancellation and debt repudiation. In the area of international trade, distinctions may be identified between the “market access” reformers mostly in the North and those, primarily in the South, demanding the end of the export-oriented development model. A key question posed in this paper is whether social movements (mass resistance) can absorb and reorient NGOs, or whether we are witnessing the “NGO-izaton” of movements and politics.

Many such tensions and coincidences are reflected in the World Social Forum (WSF). The paper discusses the politics of the WSF and examines the debate around its future. Attention is given to the educational dimension of the WSF’s processes, as well as to the challenge it poses to existing political cultures and models. The paper points to the WSF’s rejection of politics organized exclusively around the nation-state, while at the same time leading actors in the forum continue to place considerable importance on the same notion of the state. NGOs and social movements are also examined in relation to the broader challenge of transforming WSF spaces into a broad movement linking actual situations of resistance all over the world to WSF processes. Will the WSF become more than a simple space or “supermarket of ideas”, able to articulate new modes of action and alliances capable of confronting the global power structure?

The paper seeks to transcend the ritual denunciations of neoliberalism and, in so doing, it argues that the WSF is contributing to a growing awareness of a new movement, or movement of movements, and also that it is contributing to the effort to move beyond fragmented local struggles, as well as beyond simple and often simplistic negations of neoliberalism in its economic, military and sociocultural dimensions.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 2006
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD