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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Globalization and Civil Society: NGO Influence in International Decision-Making

Since the 1980s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have emerged as an important force on the world stage working to democratize decision-making processes, protect human rights and provide essential services to the most needy. Underpinning this expanded role in global governance has been a certain disillusionment with the role of the state in facilitating sustainable human development and the belief that more flexible, motivated and decentralized structures have the required skills and responsibility to undertake this role.

In recent years, the arena of NGO action has expanded rapidly from local and national settings to the international level. The institutional transformations that are occurring in the context of globalization have seen international actors — such as United Nations agencies, regional organizations, finance and trade institutions and transnational corporations — as well as inter-governmental "summits" assume an increasingly prominent role in global governance. NGOs have been late-comers to this evolving system of global governance but are now finding ways to influence the international decision-making process associated with development issues.

UNRISD work on the institutional and social effects of globalization has highlighted the concern that certain international economic, finance and trade organizations are enjoying greater freedom and power, but often without any commensurate increase in social responsibility. There are high hopes that the role of NGOs on the world stage will act to correct this potentially dangerous imbalance. But are NGOs sufficiently effective to perform this role? Have they been able to penetrate the dominant fora of international decision-making? And can they retain the cohesion and moral authority needed to influence the process of global governance?

These are some of the questions addressed in this paper by Riva Krut. Basing her inquiry on a rich collection of secondary sources and a survey of 500 NGOs, she examines the achievements, tensions and limits of NGO action in global governance.

Following an introduction that identifies some of the concerns that globalization poses for democracy and the potentially constructive role that civil society organizations might play in global governance, the paper consists of three main sections. The first considers the issue of NGO representation and participation: who are they, what do they stand for, and how representative are they? The second section looks at the varying degrees of access which NGOs enjoy to different international decision-making institutions. The third assesses the impact of NGOs in certain areas of international decision-making and the various strategies adopted to exert influence and pressure.

The author concludes with a dual warning. First, NGO access to global institutions of power has indeed improved — but it remains highly uneven, and in relation to certain key institutions that have tremendous power to affect our lives the door still remains firmly shut. Second, the ability of global civil society to act in a cohesive fashion may be coming under greater strain as the NGO "community" becomes increasingly differentiated and as tensions increase between Northern and Southern NGOs.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Apr 1997
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD