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Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper 10: Technology and Transformation: Facilitating Knowledge Networks in Eastern Europe

4 Dec 2003

  • Authors: Jonathan Bach, David Stark


Today, NGOs play a key role in strengthening civil society in countries in transition. This paper examines the co-evolution of interactive technology and NGOs in Eastern Europe. In a context where the extremely rapid growth of the voluntary sector since 1989 has coincided with the digital revolution, both NGOs and the Internet are experiencing exponential growth throughout the region.

This paper argues that NGOs can enhance their use of new technologies to go beyond their existing roles as safety nets (mitigating the social problems of emerging market economies) and as safety valves (giving voice to underrepresented social groups in the newly competitive polities). In doing so, NGOs may function as social entrepreneurs that explore new organizational forms, and thus as sources of societal innovation.

However, a whole new set of problems stems from the fact that interactive technology is altering the organizational form of NGOs. In such a context, can new hybrids remain within the accepted definition of voluntary organizations? What new accountability problems might ultimately compromise their autonomy or flexibility? What impact might such changes have on their ability to act as socially transformative organizations?

In this paper, the authors focus on three NGOs in Eastern Europe that are co-evolving along with interactive technology. As NGOs become sites of competing and co-existing evaluative principles, they are increasingly caught between the value systems of business (efficiency, solvency) and social mission (adherence to principles, ideological agendas). The authors see a tension between successfully exploiting these contradictions and the challenges raised by the proliferation of performance criteria, where the danger is that actors who are accountable according to many principles become accountable to none.

Jonathan Bach is a core faculty member of the International Affairs Program at the New School University, New York and a faculty affiliate of the Center on Organizational Innovation at Columbia University, New York. David Stark is Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Columbia University.

Order PP TBS 10 from UNRISD ($12 for readers in industrialized countries and $ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).