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Relations of NGOs with Business and Commerce

A few intergovernmental economic organizations do allow an individual company to have access under their provisions for NGOs, but this is only in cases where there are loose adhoc procedures and there are no formal institutional arrangements. However, as with political parties, non-profit-making federations of companies, established for industry-wide collaboration and to act as lobbies, are widely accepted. From the earliest days of the UN, bodies such as the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Organization of Employers and similar organizations for particular economic sectors have been included among the NGOs. Until the 1990s, they were not of much significance in the UN itself, but they have always been important in the specialized agencies. The more technical the question under discussion, the more the policy-making process will draw on their expertise.

One of the outcomes of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the UN Conference on Environment and Development, was to draw companies into global environmental politics and hence more into the work of ECOSOC. Sectoral bodies are prominent when questions such as energy or transport are on the agenda. In addition, issue-oriented commercial grouping have been formed. The most prominent is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a successor to various lobbies that focused on the Earth Summit, to promote environmentally friendly business. The oil companies have sound environmental credentials in some forums, but not in others. The Oil Companies International Maritime Forum is making a useful contribution to the reduction of oil pollution at sea, but the Global Climate Coalition opposes reductions in oil consumption. OCIMF is registered as an NGO by the International Maritime Organization, and the GCC is admitted as an observer to the sessions of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 1999, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, explicitly called upon companies to widen their social responsibilities by entering into a Global Compact with the UN. Companies that do so agree to endorse nine principles, covering promotion of a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labor standards and protection of the environment. Soon afterwards, global business organizations, several hundred companies and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions responded positively, but only a handful of human rights, environment ‘and development NGOs did so. There remains a deep suspicion among many such NGOs about the possibility of companies implementing commitments to social responsibility.

Despite the suspicion of business, some NGOs have chosen to engage directly in collaborative arrangements to formulate and monitor statements of business ethics. This has been done both on an industry-wide basis and with individual companies. For example, WWF (known as the Worldwide Fund for Nature until July 2000) took the lead in forming the Forest Stewardship Council in 1993 and the Marine Stewardship Council in 1996. Each,Council works to promote sustainable practices, with participating companies gaining the benefit of having their products endorsed by the NGOs as being environmentally friendly. Similarly, various companies are having environmental and/or social audits undertaken on an annual basis, by independent assessors.

NGOs and the Political Use of Violence

There has been no compromise in any political system with the idea that the use of violence is not a normal part of the political process. In the UN, aggressive behavior by individuals is sufficient to raise the question of suspension of an NGO’s consultative status. In the exceptional circumstances where group of guerrillas wish to claim their use of violence is acceptable as part of the , struggle against an oppressive regime, the group does not call itself an NGO. Their supporters call them a national liberation movement, whereas their opponents call them terrorists. Sometimes these groups gain admittance to intergovernmental organizations, as if they were the governments of recognized states. At the UN, they have never been classified as NGOs, but a few have been given a different status, as observers at the General Assembly and at UN conferences. Within individual countries, there are rare examples of the use of violence as a deliberate tactic, by groups that would normally be referred to as NGOs. A clear example is the Animal Liberation Front in the United Kingdom. They are simply regarded as criminals by the government and by the public, including many who support their goals. A commitment to non-violence is the best respected of the principles defining what is an NGO.

Different Types of Structures Among NGOs

There is a great variety of ways in which NGOs are structured. The classic model is of a membership organization, co-ordinated in a geographically- defined hierarchy. Individual people work in local groups, which co-ordinate in provinces and then have a headquarters in the capital city for the country as a whole. Such country-wide organizations are called national NGOs. Frequently, the national NGOs combine in an international NGO, or INGO, which may consist of regional groups of countries and be capped by a global body. Not all the levels of the hierarchy need exist. Many countries are too small to have provincial structures. Smaller specialist NGOs may simply enroll individual members at the national level, without having any local branches. Occasionally, individuals are enrolled at the international level. On the other hand in large organizations, the international level often seems relatively remote and attracts little attention, even among the NGO’s own members. The group running a local family planning clinic does not necessarily know about the work of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) at the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. Nevertheless, such global organizations with their membership measured in millions do maintain a democratic policy-making process. While some may hold direct elections for key posts at the national level, the responsibility to the membership at the global level is always indirect, via some international councilor assembly of national representatives.

It should be noted that one of the ambiguities about the term, NGO, is whether it is referring to a local, provincial, national, regional or global body. Until the early 1990s, the matter was generally straightforward in academic, news media or political discussions. The overwhelming majority of local and provincial NGOs never engaged in transnational activities. Thus NGO, by itself, usually meant a national NGO and regional or global bodies were called international NGOs. National NGOs did engage in transnational development and humanitarian activities, but, with very few exceptions, they were not, in their own right, participants in international diplomacy. When they wanted to exercise political influence at the global level, they did so through the appropriate INGO. In the 1990s, there was a great upsurge in local organizations becoming active at the global level, particularly on environmental issues, because of the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992, and on social issues, because of the Copenhagen Social Summit in March 1995. Since then, the term INGO has not been used so much and NGO, by itself, has come to cover both national and international NGOs. As an expression of the new politics, various terms then were popularized to refer to local NGOs. Grass-roots organizations, community based organizations (CBOs), and civil society organizations (CSOs), all came into currency. There is still an ambiguity whether these newer terms cover organizations that only operate at the local level or also include local branches of national organizations. Grass-roots and community organizations clearly refer solely to the local level, but civil society has connotations of any level within a single country. Indeed, it has become quite common to refer to global civil society.

Linguistic usage in the legal atmosphere at the UN used to be somewhat different. When the UN was formed, any involvement of private individuals or groups in its work constituted deviation from the norm of diplomacy being the exclusive preserve of “states”. Thus, a national organization, as mentioned in Article 71 of the UN Charter, was any NGO based in a single country. No distinction was made between an organization that covered a large, constituency, over the whole country, and an organization based solely in a local community or a small section of the population. The lack of any distinction did not matter, as participation by either country-wide or more limited national NGOs was so rare in the permanent UN organs. Participation began on a small scale in the 1970s at UN conferences, on an ad hoc basis. When the ECOSOC rules were changed in 1996, to admit “national NGOs” to consultative status as a matter of routine, the presumption became that a national organization was a country-wide membership organization or a federation of local groups or an umbrella group, that is a coalition of NGOs operating in different fields. As is common at the UN, practice has not been consistent: a few local NGOs have been admitted as “national NGOs” to consultative status. The Rio conference also produced a term that has only been used in environmental politics at the UN. “Major Groups” refers to a system of categorizing NGOs from all levels, for the purposes of participating in UN policy-making processes.

Hereafter, use of NGO alone will imply that any or all levels are included, while local, national or global will be used when the meaning must be restricted to that level. Terms such as CBOs and Major Groups will also be used in the appropriate political context.

Changes in Terminology Covering NGOs

Level of Organization

From 1945 to

Early 1990s

Early 1990s Onwards


National NGO, at the UN Not discussed elsewhere

Grass-roots, community based or civil society organization, or local NGO

Provincial (USA -state)

National NGO, at the UN Not discussed elsewhere

Civil society organization or local NGO


National NGO, at at the UN NGO, outside the UN

NGO or national NGO or civil society organization


International NGO

NGO or civil society organization


International NGO

NGO or Major Group or civil society organization

A minority of NGOs conform to the model of a global democratic hierarchy, in which any person may become a member. One variant is for the NGO to have subscribers or supporters, providing income, receiving newsletters and responding to calls for action., but not having any democratic control either over expenditure or over policy priorities for the organization. This is common among altruistic NGOs, promoting social welfare and poverty alleviation, and also among environmental NGOs. Another variant is for a specific status or participation in some activity to be a prerequisite for membership. Thus trade unions are only open to those employed in certain occupations (sometimes very broadly defined). Similarly, professional, scientific and technical bodies are only open to people with the relevant qualification. Such organizations may then be grouped on a functional rather than a geographical basis, before they form national and/or international federations. Trade unions do maintain democratic decision-making structures (at least in principle., if not always in practice). However., professional, scientific and technical bodies have professional norms that override democratic norms and members may be expelled for violating the professional norms. A third variant is a religious organization. The major religions do all have complex hierarchies, from the local faith community through to global spiritual authorities. None of them claim to be democratic: authority is based on faith, a holy text, the charisma of individuals or a hierarchical tradition. To some it will be surprising to discuss trade unions, professional bodies and religious organizations as if they are NGOs. Indeed, the leaders of all three will usually deny they are NGOs. Nevertheless, they are treated on the same basis as NGOs throughout the UN system, with the exception of the special place for unions in the International Labour Organisation’s tripartite system of governance.

Coalition-Building Among NGOs

Once NGOs do decide to influence public policy, they organize, in broad coalitions, specifically for this purpose. This means there is a large number of NGOs that bear no resemblance to the classic model of a unified hierarchy. Coalitions may take the form of umbrella INGOs, networks or caucuses. In the days when the main form of communication was by mail and even transnational telephone conversations were expensive and time-consuming to arrange, multi-national coalitions generally took the form of institutional structures. Many international women’s organizations, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies and the World Conservation Union are examples that date from this era. They are referred to as umbrella organizations, to signify the presence under the single umbrella of a variety of different NGOs that do not share a common identity. In the 1960s, direct transnational telephone dialing was established and air travel became sufficiently cheap for individuals to meet occasionally. Then in the 1970s the news media gradually used satellite communications, so that events in one place were shared around the world as television images. These processes encouraged the formation of looser issue-based networks of NGOs to exchange information, mobilize support and co-ordinate strategies. At this stage, networks still required some degree of formal organization, with enough resources being raised to pay the salary of a network administrator and associated costs for the paperwork. The International Baby Foods Action Network was the prototype, followed by similar networks on pesticides, rainforests, climate change and other questions. The advent of e-mail and the web in the 1990s then “meant that the costs of running a network dropped substantially and individual people could afford to take part in sophisticated instantaneous global communications. The number of networks increased dramatically and they no longer needed any formal structure. Once a lead organization or even a lead individual establishes technical and political communication skills, a coalition of thousands of NGOs can be formed rapidly and their influence focused on specific targets. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Coalition for an International Criminal Court and Jubilee 2000 are the most spectacular examples. However, the impact of technological change should not be exaggerated. The most effective modern networks still derive their impact from being coalitions of well-organized NGOs. Although communication costs are now minimal, it is still essential to have sufficient resources at the center, even if they are provided by a single member of the network, for at least one person to devote most or all of his/her time to servicing the network.

A variant of the global network is a global caucus. This arises when a group of NGOs come together as lobbyists at an international diplomatic event, such as a UN agenda’;’setting conference or a UN forum for negotiating on the formulation or implementation of a treaty. The caucus will be highly focused on achieving specific outcomes from the diplomatic process. The impression is given that such a caucus is an ad hoc grouping that only exists during the two or three weeks of the relevant diplomatic meetings. It may be accurate that the particular combination of NGOs having the particular political purpose will never meet again. However, a successful caucus will be well prepared and will carry forward procedural expertise, substantive knowledge, political status and diplomatic contacts gained in one forum through to the next forum, handling similar questions. Key organizations and key individuals provide continuity. Women’s organizations and environmentalists are among the most successful operating in this way.

When we consider something as loose and transient as a caucus, it is perhaps inappropriate to call it an organization. Nevertheless, structured umbrella coalitions, networks and caucuses are all handled in the same way by governments. In the UN system, all transnational actors have to accept the label “NGO”, in order to participate. They may be present under the label of the coalition or of its constituents or through both routes. Umbrella INGOs have consultative status and networks usually are listed, but caucuses rarely have any formal recognition. Coalitions that focus on policy outcomes in a particular country or a particular intergovernmental organization will tend to take the form of an umbrella organization. Coalitions that focus on issues tend to take the form of a network or a caucus, with different members being active in different policy forums.

In global environmental politics, there is a unique set of caucuses -the system of “Major Groups”. The term was adopted at the Earth Summit, when Agenda 21 devoted one of its four sections to “Strengthening the Role of Major Groups”. The preamble argued that “one of the fundamental prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making” and this must be done as a “real social partnership” with “individuals, groups and organizations”. The aim was for the UN to move beyond the traditional reliance on the established NGOs, in two ways. Communication must reach down to individuals at the level of local communities and particular sectors of society of importance for the environment must be mobilized. The section devoted separate chapters to nine Major Groups, under the following headings-

  • Global action for women towards sustainable and equitable development
  • Children and youth in sustainable development
  • Recognizing and strengthening the role of indigenous people and their communities
  • Strengthening the role of non-governmental organizations: partners for sustainable development
  • Local authorities’ initiatives in support of Agenda 21
  • Strengthening the role of workers and their trade unions
  • Strengthening the role of business and industry
  • Scientific and technological community
  • Strengthening the role of farmers.

The choice of these nine groups was the arbitrary and incoherent outcome of negotiations at UNCED. It was influenced by the personal concerns of Maurice Strong and by the lobbying of NGOs who were accredited to the conference. It is arbitrary to single out women but not. men; the young but not the elderly; indigenous people but not other minorities; unions but not professional associations; business and industry but not commerce, finance and services; natural scientists but not social scientists; and farmers but not fishing communities. It is anomalous, but understandable, to emphasize one level of government, local authorities, when they have responsibility for all the Major Groups. Above all it is incoherent to have NGOs as one of the Major Groups, when all the other eight (including associations of local authorities) are represented in the UN system via the ECOSOC “arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations”. This incoherence arises because many in the other Major Groups did not wish to be labeled as NGOs and there had to be a category to encompass environment and development NGOs.

In the Commission on Sustainable Development set up after the Earth Summit, special arrangements were made to allow for participation by all the new groups that had engaged with the UN for the first time at Rio. Any NGO that had been accredited for UNCED was allowed to apply for Roster NGO status at sessions of the CSD and later was given a special fast-track procedure for gaining full status with ECOSOC. Although the CSD is constitutionally a standard subsidiary body of ECOSOC, it has developed its own procedures for relating to NGOs. Rather than each NGO attempting to exercise its participation rights separately, the NGOs are organized into the nine Major Groups from Agenda 21. These categories are used both by the NGOs in their own caucusing and in the formal proceedings. In addition, the CSD has gone beyond the normal consultative arrangements to hold various types of formal, and informal, panels and seminars. Notably, each of the annual sessions starts with the appropriate Major Groups making presentations in special “stakeholder dialogues” on the different substantive agenda items for that year. In pragmatic terms, the illogicality of having NGOs as one of the nine groups of NGOs serves a useful function, in enabling any organization that does not fit elsewhere to be included. This Major Groups system has only operated in the CSD and in other processes that have been derived from UNCED.

The Geographical Spread of NGOs

It used to be widely argued that NGOs were predominantly a feature of Western societies. This false proposition was derived from a mixture of ignorance., Western presumptions of their superiority in the Cold War and nationalist rhetoric from authoritarian regimes. All societies in modern times have had large numbers of NGOs at least at the local level. Under the most authoritarian regimes or in the least developed countries there are still self-help co-operative groups, community welfare associations, religious groups, professional and scientific associations, sports and recreational bodies, etc. Even Romania during the dictatorship of President Ceaucescu was host to the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations. The presence or absence of a democratic political culture is one of the major variables determining the number of NGOs, but the size of a country, its ethnic., religious and cultural diversity, the complexity of its economy and the quality of its communication infrastructure are also of crucial importance. Thus there are tens of thousands of NGOs in countries such as Bangladesh and India, while there are relatively few in Iceland or Finland.

A particular source of controversy is the idea that the major NGOs are “Northern”. Many people are still trapped by the mental prejudice that organizations have to be situated in geographical space. It might be a practical necessity for an international NGO to have a headquarters office in a particular building., but the location of the office in a North American or a European city does not convert a global NGO into a Northern NGO. Equally., the historical origins of an organization being formed in a particular country does not mean it is currently a Northern rather than a global organization. The proper criteria for assessment whether an organization is global are the location of its membership, the staffing of its headquarters, the sources of its funding and the content of its programs. An organization, such as Amnesty International, with 56 National Sections, groups in some 40 other countries, an International Secretariat from over 50 countries and an African Secretary-General is a global NGO, even if it started in Britain and has its headquarters in London. Due to the spread of democracy and the improvements in communications, many international NGOs that started in individual countries became global at the end of the twentieth century.