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NGOs and Social Movements: A North/ South Divide?

1 Jun 2006



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.

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.

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.

Alejandro Bendaña is Director of the Centro de Estudios Internacionales in Managua, Nicaragua.

Order PP CSSM 22 from UNRISD, 29 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.