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World: IMF/World Bank Meetings Show Growing Influence Of NGOs

  • Tony Wesolowsky

At the first World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings in a former East bloc state, more attention seems to be focused on what might happen outside rather inside the meeting room. Protesters in Prague are promising massive demonstrations, and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are present in greater numbers then ever before. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks at the rise of NGOs, and their influence in Prague.

Prague, 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Six years ago, officials from some of the world's richer countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, gathered in Paris to hammer out the details of a far-reaching treaty meant to tear down barriers to the flow of investment money across national borders.

The draft treaty was called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, or MAI. In many ways, its principles mirrored the aim of today's World Trade Organization, or WTO, which seeks to eliminate barriers to free trade in goods.

Most of the public in the OECD countries had heard nothing of the treaty. But the document was known to some 600 non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, from around the world. Fearing the MAI would spark a, what they called, global "race to the bottom" in environmental and labor standards, the NGOs turned to what has since become an indispensable tool -- the Internet -- to stir up global awareness to the treaty. Eventually, the OECD -- which take decisions by consensus -- was unable to agree on the MAI.

This was not the first time NGOs had helped force powerful institutions to do an about-face. In 1988, many prominent nations were set to divide up Antarctica for mineral development. Some 200 NGOs mobilized their forces and the mineral treaty was abandoned three years later, with Antarctica being declared an environmental preserve.

More recently, NGOs won a stunning victory in a Nobel prize-winning campaign to enact a global treaty banning the manufacture, use, transfer, and stockpiling of anti-personnel landmines. Despite staunch opposition from the United States, China, and Russia -- all three of which have refused to sign the treaty -- the ban went into effect for scores of signatory countries in 1999.

Today, NGOs are enjoying success and exerting influence as never before. But they have been around for some time. At the turn of the 20th century, the suffragette movement to win women the right to vote in the United States was a precursor to today's more sophisticated feminist campaigns. The same went for the abolitionist movement to end slavery in the United States in the 19th century, the predecessor of the 20th-century civil-rights movement. In both cases, concerned citizens came together voluntarily to work to achieve a common goal -- which roughly defines what an NGO is.

One reason given for the current rise of the NGO movement is the growth in number and influence of private companies. In 1970, there were about 7,000 transnational corporations. Today, there are at least 53,000, with more than 449,000 foreign subsidiaries. And, according to a report by the London-based Control Risk Group, as international corporations have grown in size and number, "states have become less able and less willing to regulate them."

Anna Fielding of Consumers' International, based in London, says the recent growth of NGOs has been in part a response to the growing power wielded by multinational corporations. She says they also compensate for what she considers the lack of political will in national governments to challenge big corporations.

"At the global level, you've got all these vast corporations, with enormous lobbying power. A lot of agreements are made between various agencies that work together, you know, whether they're UN agencies, or specially set up agencies, and so on. So the global power is diffuse and unclear, and of course, you've had a rise in the equivalent movement of the NGOs to counter-balance that."

The new era in electronic communications has also greatly helped NGOs expand their organizations and their influence. When NGOs torpedoed the MAI treaty in 1994, it was partly a result of a U.S. NGO, Public Citizen, which acquired a rough draft of the treaty and posted it on the Internet. The subsequent protests were a big factor in defeating the treaty at the OECD.

Fielding says that groups like Consumers' International have a web of communications that covers the globe and allows them to get their message out quickly.

"If Monsanto goes into Ukraine and starts planting GM [genetically modified] potatoes, our Ukrainian member tells us, you know what's happening in the Ukraine and then the whole movement knows what Monsanto is up to in Eastern Europe."

In Prague yesterday (Thursday), World Bank President James Wolfensohn paid indirect tribute to NGOs for raising public awareness to a host of issues: "I am pleased that there is a growing awareness around the world about issues of equity, issues of poverty, and indeed issues that relate to globalization, itself. I think that we have a lot to discuss, there is a lot for us to learn about these subjects."

Today, the World Bank -- one of the anti-globalization movement's major targets -- vaunts its ties with NGOs. This week, the bank issued a press release stating that more than 70 percent of the projects it approved last year involved NGOs and civil society in some way -- up from less than half five years ago. In 1995, too, only two NGOs were accredited for the World Bank/IMF annual meetings. This year in Prague, they number more than 350. Today (Friday), Wolfensohn even held talks with some of his bank's harsher critics on the sidelines of the Prague meeting.

In some former Eastern bloc countries, popular movements played important roles in the collapse of communism. But they had little experience in forming and sustaining the type of NGOs common in the West. That, however, is starting to change.

Curtis Runyan writes in "World Watch" magazine that more than 100,000 non-profit groups were set up in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union between 1988 and 1995. Many of the NGOs active today in Eastern Europe were spawned in the anti-nuclear movement. They include the Czech Republic's Hnuti DUHA, which has waged a campaign against the opening of the controversial Temelin nuclear power station.

Natalya Ablova, of Kyrgyzstan's Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, says that her group and other NGOs in the country were initially wary of one another. There was also early strong competition, she explains, to win a share of precious donors' grants from abroad. But now, Ablova says, the NGO movements in Kazakhstan as well as Kyrgyzstan are accepted by the two countries' governments as legitimate voices in debating social issues.

"For us in Kyrgyzstan, we simply used the favorable conditions for the growth of NGOs, because in other countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan that kind of opportunity didn't exist. In Kyrgyzstan, [in] Kazakhstan to a certain degree, there was that opportunity. Today, the [NGO] community is so developed that, understand, there is no longer a battle over donors' money, there no longer is suspicion between one another. We've come to a point where we've realized we can form coalitions of NGOs in order to fight for a common goal without this competition which existed at the beginning of the development [of NGOs]."

People in other former communist states are also seeking to organize themselves effectively in pursuit of common goals. It may be merely a matter of time before NGOs in the former East bloc are able to raise their voices as loudly as their colleagues further West.