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The Lessons from Genoa and the Changing Role of NGOs

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

September 15, 2006

The Context for the Seminar

Two years ago, newspapers were confidently predicting that the end of the anti-globalisation movement was not far away. But on the contrary, their presence has been felt at subsequent international meetings, and the movement as a whole seems to be acquiring more energy.

Now is the right time to look for lessons from Genoa and to reassess what it means for the role of NGOs in the global governance structure. The current situation could be usefully described as gridlock rather than governance and, as Michael Edwards warned, the situation is already forcing some northern governments to retreat back into their bunkers.

In an article in the Financial Times, Martin Wolff usefully put forward a number of criticisms facing the state of the global governance structure, all of which have been echoed by both the protestors themselves and actors within the structure:

1.Rules that have been applied internationally haven’t helped at all, particularly in marginalised Africa.

2.Financial markets and the systems of global governance have failed.

3.A procedure is needed for dealing with unmanageable debt burdens.

4.Countries must be allowed to decide themselves through democratic processes their policies and priorities.

5.Rich countries should practice what they preach and end their hypocrisy.

6.Corporate interests have too much influence over policy making.

Of course, there are often misconceptions and misunderstanding about the anti-capitalist movement: its members and its motivations. These must be overcome before lessons can be learned and challenges addressed.

Firstly, the movement consists of a diverse collection of organisations and networks; some are formally established, others are less formal and rigid in structure and may in fact just form on the streets; the groups differ according to their own specific interests and aims; and the groups adopt different methods to pursue those agendas.

Secondly, it is often misperceived to be a movement in the north. However, a report published by the IMF and World Bank at their meeting in Prague, ‘States of Unrest’, documents the growth of protest movements in developing countries, showing that over 1 million people were involved in the space of a single year.

Thirdly, the anti-capitalist movement goes beyond the people on the streets of Genoa. The roots of these types of groups are being developed much deeper within society at large, where support is growing. Active protestors represent only a small proportion of those who have taken action, often through much lower intensity forms of protest. A striking example is the petition on debt clearance; at 24 million signatories, this is the largest petition in history.


Legitimacy has emerged as a central concern in discussions surrounding the reform of global governance structures. NGOs have traditionally sought to hold governments and companies to account for their behaviour. However, they now find themselves in the spotlight, too. As Michael Edwards suggested in his report for the Centre, in order for NGOs to continue to perform their important role on national and international stages, it is vital that their own behaviour is transparent. Michael set out three principles:

1.A voice not a vote – largely accepted by NGOs, and important in buying space from governments for civil society involvement.

2.A level playing field – special help needs to be given to those left out of discussions and a ceiling needs to be placed on those who are over-represented, whether businesses or NGOs. Some of the most prominent Northern groups, for example have volunteered to surrender their accredited place at Qatar to NGOs from the South in order to achieve a more balanced representation of civil society voices.

3.Voluntary ways of regulating NGOs that are not imposed by external forces or governments. These codes of conduct are already beginning to appear, drawn up by (among others) the New Economics Foundation in England and Friends of the Earth in Europe. These codes spell out minimum standards of behaviour for NGOs in the areas of non-violent protest, openness to diverse perspectives, transparency, and accountability.

While it is important that the individual policy groups – governments, companies, NGOs and so forth – are held to account for their activities, it is vital that the structure which brings them together is also open to scrutiny and accountable to all it seeks to represent (this will be addressed in more detail in ‘International Summitry’). In a world of declining state authority, is also impossible to achieve legitimacy without civil society participation and consensus across societies about how to manage the costs and benefits of globalisation. While the structures for achieving this remain undefined, it is clear that there is considerable potential for NGOs to continue to play an important role in this process.

The Challenges to NGO Legitimacy

As Charlotte Denny pointed out, NGOs should not be complacent about the position they have managed to carve out. Many organisations have, for a number of reasons, felt their positions of trust and legitimacy slide in recent years – from the church and the state to the media.

For NGOs, the public’s increasing cynicism about organisations that manipulate information should be cause for concern. Many NGOs are seen to be guilty of propagandising the ongoing debate about globalisation; for example, by using emotive pictures of starving African children in campaigns to force western countries and institutions to cut third world debt. It is, in many respects, simplistic to blame these deaths on the World Bank and the Washington consensus, particularly given the fact that the economic policies that have crippled these countries are largely home-grown, but these images continue to be used.

A number of suggestions were made about how NGOs could guard against the negative implications of these trends:

Firstly, it is vital that NGOs recognise the complexities of the debates in which they are engaged rather than setting up dichotomies between good and bad, where NGOs sit on the side of good and all other actors – international financial and governance institutions, national governments and the private sector – sit firmly on the other side of the table. Such positions do not do justice to the issues they address and are likely to undermine their own legitimacy in the long-term.

Secondly, there is a danger that short-term objectives could undermine long-term goals. Particularly for NGOs closest to the anti-capitalism protestors, the defeat of the Bretton Woods twins and the WTO may be of immediate concern, but if this process continued to its natural end, the total collapse of these organisations may be in opposition to the underlying interests represented by the NGOs – i.e. civil society and southern populations. The danger being that negotiations would still take place, but in a framework where the most powerful nation in the world – the US – would be able to dictate the grounds on which it does business. Instead, fundamental reform of such mechanisms and institutions should be the goal – their health, in whatever format, is a common interest for all groups of actors.

The Future of International Summitry

It was broadly agreed that multilateral institutions still have a critical role to play in tackling poverty and other related global issues, and this formed a central theme in the debate. However, while the organisations themselves undoubtedly need to look for ways to reform the way they work, they also need to reassess the way that the structure their decision- making process. A key element in this is, of course, the high-profile international summits. The violence in Genoa has raised serious questions about the way international discussions are framed and formatted, and the panel emphasised throughout the need for practical change strategies. Four principle suggestions for future international gatherings were put forward:

Firstly, it is vital that international institutions look for ways to reduce the amount of violence that is beginning to characterise their meetings. There are a number of practical measures that could be incorporated at the planning stage that would help to minimise the potential for chaos, but it is also important that there are genuine opportunities for dialogue and engagement with a wider coalition of actors.

Secondly, it is vital that opportunities are created whereby all voices in civil society can be fairly represented, rather than just those who shout loudest. This is particularly true of the powerful northern NGOs and business lobby groups, and it was suggested that additional financing should be made available for smaller, marginalized groups. Governments and private foundations should finance a travel and capacity-building fund so that under-resourced citizen groups can also participate.

Thirdly, international institutions should reassess their voting methods, which at present give undue weight to northern countries. This would allow increased participation by southern countries.

Fourthly, there is a strong case for moving summits to developing countries. This might help international institutions to overcome the perception of imbalance that has dogged them, and it might also be a useful way to redress the balance between northern and southern NGOs. There is also a sense that the arrangements surrounding such delegations have been less than helpful in overcoming this. They have often been seen as no more than a excuse for large-scale corporate hospitality. When this happens within a northern context it sends out negative signals about the goals and working methods of the organisations themselves.

And finally, there is also useful work that can be done at home. Global citizen action should be rooted more firmly within local and national politics. Governments should include representatives from civil society in their national government delegations to global gatherings, and they should host a series of open dialogues beforehand so that their negotiating positions begin to represent the full range of public interests at home.

The Road to Reform

Recent years have been characterised by transition and changes that throw up significant challenges. We find ourselves in the middle of a historic transformation of global politics in which the boundaries between direct and representative democracy, and between local, national and global governance, are being tested and rearranged. Where this will end up, no one is quite sure because it is a radically new situation. As such it is not surprising that the question of NGO involvement is near the top of the agenda, but we must not lose sight of the fact that this is part of a bigger question about the shape of the global governance structures. The challenge for all actors is not just to work out what types of institutions we need and how they should work, it is also to ensure that this process is conducted through genuine partnership. Only then will workable and lasting solutions be found.

It is difficult to underestimate the scale of the task in hand. But if this is not tackled head-on, the scenes we saw in Genoa will become a regular fixture on our screens.

NGOs: Rights and Responsibilities by Michael Edwards was published by The Foreign Policy Centre in September 2000. Copies can be ordered for £9.95 from this site – see ‘publications’.

The publication was kindly supported by NCVO.

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