Coming or going? NGOs in the new political landscape

Anthony Barnett
Rebecca Willis Ian Christie Charles Secrett Richard Burge Tom Bentley Anthony Barnett
29 August 2001

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been one of the success stories of civil society and democracy for two decades. They have brought together issues of social justice, the environment and sustainability. They’ve been effective in articulating complex ideas, they have changed attitudes, improved working conditions, shamed companies and influenced legislation. They command the financial support of millions, the practical support of perhaps hundreds of thousands, and employ thousands across the world.

At Genoa, the “anti-globalisation” protests that NGOs have done so much to bring to life presented them with a dilemma – how far can they align themselves with direct action that threatens to become violent when they want to get a complex, positive message across?

Do they have the potential for leading mass movements? If not, will NGOs come to be seen as a passing feature of the late twentieth century? Or will what the American magazine

Foreign Policy termed “The NGO-Industrial Complex” become a lasting aspect of global power and influence? The place, the role, the strategies and the accountability of NGOs is a theme openDemocracy intends to develop.

We start in Britain. Most of our readers are outside the UK. We hope that they will see this important round table not as Brits presuming that the rest of the world is interested in them, but as the start of openDemocracy’s global learning process about how best to analyse and report on the actions and attitudes of NGOs. We begin locally – but with the aim of developing fully international exchanges in one of the defining areas of our time. We invite responses that extend the issues under debate.

The Round Table was conceived and chaired by Ian Christie, associate editor of the openDemocracy City&Country; strand, who brought together the heads of four organisations. Charles Secrett is Director of UK Friends of the Earth, which was founded in 1971. It has over 150,000 members and supporters, with 200 local groups across Britain and sister organisations in 61 countries. Richard Burge heads the Countryside Alliance: formed when three bodies came together over hunting, it now defends rural ways of life and is currently the fastest growing organisation in Britain. Rebecca Willis is Director of Green Alliance,an environmental policy charity that brings together government, business and NGOs. Tom Bentley is the Director of Demos, a radical and influential free-ranging think-tank founded in 1993. Anthony Barnett, editor of openDemocracy, took part in and wrote up the discussion.

The discussion takes as its starting point the fuel protest of September 2001. Britain, as well as other European countries, saw popular action against the price of fuel that included the blockade of refineries. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth seemed to have been taken by surprise, and found it hard to mobilise counter-protests and arguments. Mass action was deployed for what were seen as right-wing purposes, without an NGO in sight.

Much of the press has a vested interest in the routines of traditional politics, and a narrow conception of what constitutes public debate. The wide-ranging discussion that follows – of far greater importance than most parliamentary exchanges – is a challenge to broaden the definition of politics. Few politicians have the influence of the people who gathered round the table at the openDemocracy office. Their purpose is to shape the national and European agenda, and in the case of Friends of the Earth, a global one. Their relationship to power becomes, rightly, one of the themes of this discussion.

Richard Burge: What troubled me about the fuel protests in Britain was that they were deliberately disruptive. They inflicted a penalty upon people who had absolutely no control over the issues in question. Second, it was based on greed and self-interest. There was popular support because large numbers of motorists thought that they were going to get a slice of the action if fuel prices went down. It was simple-minded, it was built on self-interest, and it was illegal. I found those three things very discomforting.

Sometimes the Countryside Alliance deals with simple issues – or issues that are perceived to be simple – but we don’t believe in direct action designed to disrupt the lives of people who have no control over the issue. Direct action and protest must be carefully targeted at those who have the power to commit to the change that you want. That doesn’t mean that our only task is to reflect what our members think. A big job, particularly for sustainability NGOs, is sometimes to lead the debate into avenues people haven’t recognised or don’t particularly want to go down.

One final thing about all NGOs is never to confuse seeking to influence those in power with wanting to have power for yourself. Sometimes the supporters of organisations bring with them a need to become powerful in their own right. Our role is to influence those in power, not seek it for ourselves.

Charles Secrett: I don’t think it is so simple. There’s no such thing as a “sustainability movement” in this country. Nor an environmental movement: at least, not if you look at it through established NGOs. We have a mass membership of nature conservation charities, plus perhaps three sustainability NGOs: Friends of the Earth, Forum for the Future, and probably the New Economics Foundation; and some general environmental NGOs in between, like Greenpeace. A sustainability NGO is interested in social justice issues. It has a world-view and its expertise is around the linkages between the environmental, social, cultural, and economic agendas.

Another characteristic of this movement is that it is not a political movement. It is a policy-driven movement. This also applies to other, related movements, like those confronting issues of poverty or health. Sustainability is a complex agenda, and we at Friends of the Earth are trying to pioneer many of the key concepts needed. Whether the mass of people know this or not is another issue.

In terms of the fuel protest, we thought it was a flash in the pan, and that we were going to have a typical Anglo-Saxon bunfight over nothing, driven by media headlines and making a crisis out of something that there was going to be no substantive shift on. So, for us, reacting to them would be to fuel the flames of that protest and give it far more attention than it deserves. But we expected leadership from the government, we expected them to come forward to explain the arguments, why we needed to have high taxation for dirty fuel and low taxation for clean fuels. And that was entirely missing.

We tried to provide some leadership, but was it our job? No matter how effective you are as an NGO, there are only certain things for which you can create space in particular circumstances.

Tension within the movement

Rebecca Willis: I agree that sustainable development provides a very useful way of analysing what we do, and you need to make the link between the social and the environmental and the economic. But having said that, it isn’t a campaigning slogan. There are real difficulties with trying to bring people together around such a concept.

The main tension within the environmental movement is that when it started 30 or so years ago, it was very much a counterculture. It was saying that things are badly wrong with the whole way our economic system and society is heading, and we need a radical alternative. It was immensely powerful in articulating a different image of what was possible. Today, it’s no longer new and cutting-edge. It’s not cool to be an environmentalist anymore. Instead, it’s cool to be an anti-globalisation protestor.

We have moved on to become much more of a policy-driven movement, where there’s as much expertise on issues like biodiversity in the NGOs as there is in government. The policy knowledge is immense, and this restricts your ability to say, “Well it’s black and white, it’s really simple, the whole economy is moving in the wrong direction.” The more you get into detailed policy analysis the more, by default, you engage with, not against the system. This is one reason why we are so at odds with the anti-globalisation protestors.

My organisation works explicitly with decision-makers, with the economic and political system we have. That’s our niche. But on the other hand this only works because there are people saying the challenging stuff, not talking to government, not doing the “insider” work. And their activity only works if there are people like us. For the two extremes it’s easy, but for the middle ground organisation – I’d include Friends of the Earth – it’s much harder to strike the balance.

CS: No, don’t include us, really.

RW: I think it’s hard for Friends of the Earth to be knocking on the door of 10 Downing Street as you have been, and on the other hand joining direct action-type protests on the street. I’m not saying you can’t do both of those, but it sets up a tension.

RB: Well if it is illegal, if the action is deliberately designed to destroy property and to put people’s lives at threat, then obviously the two can’t be reconciled. But I’ve never heard of Friends of the Earth indulging in that. And I think it’s perfectly possible, indeed essential, both to protest peacefully and to lobby, providing that the message you deliver inside the cosy walls of Downing Street is exactly the same as what you say outside, in front of your supporters to the world at large.

A mature government should be able to take account of the fact that protest is legitimate. In fact, the government needs to talk with open protesters. If all it does is engage in a nice little conspiracy of talking to think-tanks who agree with you most of the time and who you can occasionally butter up with a place in the House of Lords, then you’re not getting any closer to people who have the problems and frustrations. From our point of view, the Countryside Alliance wants to deliver the message in every possible way, making sure that it is always consistent. This is a good way to take advantage of being in a democracy.

RW: Just to be clear. I have no problem at all with direct action, I think it’s very useful. Green Alliance doesn’t do it, but that’s not because we’re ideologically opposed to it. As I said, our work is only effective if there are people getting the media headlines. We’ve done a lot of careful, detailed work with government on how they should be handling biotechnology. Now, there’s no reason for the government to listen to us on biotechnology if Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace weren’t making a huge fuss about what’s happening out there. My point is that the more you become engaged with the policy agenda, with the nitty-gritty of the detail, the harder it is to make the really radical points that need to be made about the problems with society as a whole.

Take Third World debt: you can approach that really simply, by giving the public messages like, “The rich companies are screwing money out of the poor countries and this is fundamentally unequal and an absolute disgrace and the world shouldn’t work like this.” But then you find you get involved in the details of how debt relief can work, and in which countries, as Jubilee 2000 did. You get into debates about how to define a highly-indebted country and so on. You get dragged in, and your resources get dragged in, and the kind of staff you employ change. You lose your balance.

CS: This is my point, the danger exists only if you engage at the level of policy alone. The agenda is not about nature conservation, it’s not even about the environment. It’s about the relationship between the environment, social affairs, and economic systems. We must and do engage with governments – but on the basis of an alternative world-view.

Friends of the Earth has attempted to develop the intellectual work on what sustainable development means over 50 years – in terms of environmental protection, equitable shares in the earth, with future generations being taken care of in terms of natural resources, and we’ve worked out how you do it. So when we engage with government, we are practical in a detailed way, but we have a perspective which ensures we don’t get bogged down.

This agenda is not just theoretical. It’s the intellectual resource that contributes to breakthroughs in climate change negotiations. We engage with governments not just in closed-door meetings, or lobbying committees, or through the media, or the courts, though we do all of those things. The primary concern is to mobilise citizens, to persuade politicians, or a company, to do something that it originally didn’t want to do.

openDemocracy: But can you mobilise people in the really huge numbers that would make a difference?

CS: No, we don’t think we can at the moment.

open: Why is this? You said earlier that NGOs are not political so much as policy driven.

CS: A politics is emerging.

Turning into politicians?

open: Traditional politics used to be about making those interconnections you referred to earlier. Political parties offered people alternatives, and even a world-view. Now their language is more technical, they try to reassure and lower expectations. Voters see them as narrow, only interested in office, and lacking the ability to make a real difference. This surely explains part of the growing role of protest.

At the same time, as NGOs develop alternative world-views and detailed policies, they become more like political parties of old. Richard said NGOs must never think of themselves as exercising power. But Rebecca says, “we’ve got more policy and better policy people than government”. The implication is that we would be better off if NGOs were running the show. The Countryside Alliance White Paper, for example, published for the British General Election, was governmental in tone, persuasive because of this, and laid out what it thought policy ought to be. If you had run candidates, you’d have probably been more successful than the Conservative Party.

RB: Not an option! And the production of that document was a serious cause of debate in the organisation, because we worried that we’d actually gone too far and started to do the government’s, or the political parties’, job. In fact, our task is to articulate protest and rage, whether the source is self-interest or injustice. What we then try to do is to articulate a radical vision. But it would be an error for us to articulate that vision in the form of a policy as though we were a political party seeking office. That would be wrong.


open: But this is the heart of the matter. It relates to what we’ve seen in Genoa. However important rage is, the vision and the solutions have to become a politics to be effective. Demos has been looking at public disengagement from conventional political parties – and has started to talk about solutions in terms of self-governance. Are people turning away from politics because we’re living in an era of peace, complacency and plenty, or because they see governments as not listening and not providing a lead with respect to urgent problems?

Tom Bentley: There are several things going on. One is as a crisis of institutions. This is the central issue for middle-ground NGOs. Can they legitimise the mode of operation they have employed in the last twenty or thirty years?

There is a remarkably consistent decline across the industrialised world in the role political parties play in helping to organise peoples’ political identity. One of its effects is that political parties are less and less able to produce coherent policy platforms that corral various issues into a credible programme for change. This then makes it more difficult for government to convince an increasingly skeptical electorate. What then comes under pressure is actually the entire definition of what power is, and the institutions that try to set rules and control the actions of increasingly diverse societies.

Politicians at the summits face increasingly sophisticated, but also in some ways increasingly irresponsible populations. Irresponsible, in the sense that their actions are less and less subject to the constraints of traditional authority and social routine. It raises the question: “How does any organisation stick in peoples’ minds and win not just the legitimacy but also the profile to claim that it can effect any change?”

There is huge competition for media space between different movements for change and different methods of action or protest. And there’s a competition over how you effect change. Is it possible to mobilise people behind a detailed programme of reform that can be written down in advance by experts – however defined – or those who are empowered to come up with solutions? Many of the NGOs have, in some cases quite effectively, tried to show that they have both the technical knowledge and the credibility to advise on alternative strategies. But the problem comes when you have a conjunction of direct action, media-friendly and intuitively attractive politics, and the ongoing decline of programmatic institutionalised policy reform.

People are rejecting the basic legitimacy of the institutions that set the rules, and they are trying to undermine the foundations of those institutions. Any organisation which has a strategy of encouraging the institutions to change is somehow, according to this direct action view of the world, implicated and co-opted in the set of arrangements which is still producing greater inequality and destruction of biodiversity and so on. So the challenge is: can an approach to change like the one that Charles is articulating be converted into an approach that helps people to govern themselves?

RW: I’m very worried that anyone might think we’re better-placed to do the work of government than those elected to be the government. The environmental movement has enough policy expertise to challenge specialist government departments on particular policy areas. To have that policy expertise and to do the challenging, it is essential to be able to present alternatives. But you shouldn’t ever think that you can somehow do the job of democratic government for them, and I don’t think anyone does.

Since New Labour’s election in 1997, the difficulty is how much you engage with government on their own terms. The sheer amount of work involved in responding to its consultations and other dialogues is such that you can easily be diverted from core activities. The wider point is: who is providing the leadership, who’s providing the world view that people buy into? Labour hasn’t given us any straightforward political leadership on the environment. One of the reasons that the fuel protest grabbed the headlines in the way it did, and brought Britain to a halt, was because no-one except the environmental movement had been making the case for progressive environmental taxation. You never heard Gordon Brown standing up and saying “I support environmental taxation, we should tax pollution rather than jobs.” He never makes that fundamental point and that erodes the whole case.

CS: What we are talking about is the emergence of a new type of politics. It’s not about replacing parties, it’s about challenging them. The new politics is based around a new set of ideas. It is ideas that change the world, sometimes rapidly. Every revolution is based on a new set of ideas and we live in revolutionary times. Sustainable development has become an intellectual model that guides the way we are conceptualising a new agenda.

There’s also, linked to this, a new politics of decision-making. We saw a start at the climate change agreement at Bonn. The new ideas of sustainability, which are very easily explained – environmental protection, social justice and prosperity, particularly for the poor – are having influence alongside this new politics of action. This is where taking the long-term view is so important. Why do European governments have new political will to take a lead on climate change? In part you can say that in the short term, it was because of Bush, but in my view, it’s actually because of the longer-term impact of the new ideas and the new politics. There is still a huge way to go, but you can see it in terms of a snowball effect from where we were twenty years ago.

Don’t mourn, mobilise

open: That is a very optimistic view, that the potential is there for a new politics to be shaped, and for strategic alliances to effect fundamental change over the long run.

RB: I still see global warming continuing. The Bonn outcome will be virtually minuscule in reducing the effects of global warming. I still see massive inequality appearing over the globe. The poor are going to get poorer, the rich are going to get richer. More and more people are going to starve, and even in our own country – a small place with huge resources – we are still completely incapable of creating sustainability in our own back yard. So, I’m not at all optimistic.

Two things: first of all, people. I run an organisation that’s only three and a half years old, with just over 100,000 members, and yet we can get 300,000 and more to a march. That means that the vast majority of people who turn up to our marches are not our members. They turn up for the event, but they are not committed enough to the continuity to stay with us. It’s quite humbling. No matter how much I try to increase the membership, the vast majority of people don’t participate until that moment when they really want to. The rest of the time, they’re not interested.

The second thing is that too many NGOs and think-tanks compete with each other and for media coverage. Nobody is a member of the Countryside Alliance and therefore not a member of Friends of the Earth. I’m sure we have lots of members in common. I’m a member of the Labour Party, I’m a member of the Museum of Garden History. There are lots of things I join and participate in because that organisation articulates that issue for me in a way that has personal relevance. We should be linked. I really worry about the way government reacts to the voluntary sector and sees a need to constrain it, partition it, and to categorise, because then it’s easier to deal with. It restricts people’s choices in expressing themselves.

open: You’re up to 100,000 members in three and a half years, that’s half the size of the Conservative Party, with all its clubs, history and buildings, and you complain! An organisation must be able to mobilise more people than its membership. Otherwise it’s not addressing the public. People like single, occasional activities which symbolise their agreement. Actions with a beginning, middle and end. This is as healthy as your astounding growth. The big question is – could you mobilise even half your existing members to come on a march for something complicated, such as a better system of planning?

RB: Yes, I agree it’s good to mobilise more people than the membership. It’s just that at times it’s frustrating that you can’t articulate that mobilisation in a permanent form. I don’t think it’s a question of the issue needing to be simple or negative. It’s a question of the issue being one that touches people. I think our big dilemma relates to the quality of the political bodies we have to deal with. I see more intelligence, more drive, more dynamism, more worthy people going into NGOs and into businesses than are going into political parties.

Political parties have become exclusive little clubs. You need to go into them at university and do your bit in the Central Office research department and be seen in a nice, friendly think tank. Otherwise you’re never going to get a look in. In the Labour Party, where are the people who have actually spent twenty-five years on the shop floor? They’ve all gone. They’ve all been excluded, and you end up with this increasing mediocrity of experience.

Part of the reason that people are galvanising themselves around NGOs is that they actually see them as being led by people who reflect more of their views, respond more readily, and actually handle them more intelligently than professional politicians.

RW: I also don’t buy into Charles’ optimism. He is talking about mobilising people around sustainable development. If you stopped an anti-globalisation protestor on the street at Genoa and said “sustainable development”, it wouldn’t mean anything to them. It could, but it doesn’t at the moment. Sustainable development, or even the environment more generally, is not something that motivates good citizens at the moment. Ethical consumers are a tiny market.

People might claim to be Green, but they are not. The reactions aren’t there, and I don’t think we should kid ourselves that they are, that there is this groundswell of environmental activism just waiting to happen. It’s very easy when you’re inside the movement to think that there is this sort of latent Greenery within everyone, but there isn’t.

There are all sorts of interesting currents at the moment. One of them is sustainable development, one of them is anti-globalisation, one of them is the alliance of middle class women and protesters in organising road protests, middle-aged women supporting tree-climbers. There are little currents and countercurrents like the fuel protest. The Green NGO movement needs to consider, “What if things get worse? What if Europe suddenly backtracks on climate change the way Bush has done?” Some things have got worse. Transport has gone backwards. No-one quite knows how to deal with an agenda when it’s going backwards. We should be realistic about the challenges that we face without getting too depressed about them.

Effecting sustainable change?

TB: Surely that’s the crux of the challenge. There is another element to the new politics in addition to Charles’ vision of a contest of ideas and a new mobilisation of action. The test of both ideas and new forms of action is whether or not they then lead to sustained behavioural and organisational change. There’s not much evidence that this is happening as yet.

The fundamental reason is that our model of Western governance, our model of representative democracy, is less and less suited for the conditions that are gradually taking shape. The specific issues that have come up in this discussion relate to why the energy and the power goes into alternative forms of organisation, not into political parties. It relates to the potential of small-scale, subversive or radical organisational innovation – and also business innovation – and whether they can scale up and be institutionalised differently. It relates crucially to the question of whether or not people can be mobilised en masse around a positive proposal rather than a negative protest.

Social movements have a long history – two hundred years or more in Western politics – and they often share common characteristics: an issue that can be put simply, a perceived injustice which you can build widespread social sympathy or support around, and a particular institutional or political change that can be campaigned for, from slavery and votes for women to civil rights. Drop the Debt is a classic example of a highly successful international social movement in the late twentieth century. But it was still focused around a negative: Drop The Debt. Tony Blair’s greatest political triumph so far was the campaign to win an election through a strategy based on not being Old Labour. He has never come close to repeating that level of triumph in the party or the country by presenting a positive alternative.

The positive alternative has to lie in what Charles said about the integration of the economic, the social, and the environmental. Many of our cultural currents – personal, social, lifestyle, media – are groping towards the goal of wholeness, psychological wholeness, social wholeness, holistic theory, holistic therapy, integration of our personal lives and work, and so on. But what worries me is that we are still unable to articulate a way of progressing this agenda which is credible, in terms of large-scale organisation.

CS: The pessimists use evidence of the short-term and the immediate. Where does Bonn lead to? In terms of the need for 60 percent cuts in carbon emissions, it hasn’t delivered. But for the first time, 178 countries are coming together and agreeing an international, statutory-based way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, isolating the biggest polluter and not allowing it to wreck the agreement. We are working for the long-term, and the long-term has started now.

There’s one thing missing from the jigsaw in terms of mass-mobilisation, and that is the equivalent of the Wealth of Nations or the Communist Manifesto. We are missing a text, and history shows us that a text helps mobilise big movements. Whether it is a gospel or political philosophy or a manifesto, it may be an electronic one in the next century – who the hell knows. But we’re missing a sustainability philosopher-poet.

RW: But other people have different world-views. George Bush and the money that supports him will pursue theirs to the end. There are other people who never even think about the environment – and lots of them are my friends! As for having a fundamental text, that’s not the problem. We’ve got thousands of texts. The difficulty is that there are so many groups and each has their poet-philosopher.

CS: Looking out into the streets, you see hundreds of thousands of people buying things. You can conclude, like Rebecca, that no-one is listening to the sustainability message. That’s if you expect 200 years of industrial capitalism, and all the attitudes and belief systems that have built up around it, to change overnight. The time perspective is crucial. The whole point about democracy is that people have the power, but they don’t understand it. Political parties need voters much more than voters need political parties. Business needs consumers more than consumers need any one business. How this advantage can be put to good use will take time and effort, and it’s not headline-grabbing and immediate.

The coalition up against Seattle and the WTO probably represented about 20 to 25 million people. The climate change coalition now, I would say, represents up to 200 million people. We drove Monsanto out of business in two years because of the breadth of our approach and the narrowness of Monsanto’s belief. Shell learnt. The next big test is: can we do the same for Exxon? That’s our next strategic target, and we are saying that if they want to sell their products to the citizens of the world, they have to support Kyoto.

TB: History is there to be shaped. There is no one single underlying determinism of any kind, no historical trajectory that we can discern. All we are able to see is some possible alternatives. The future of progressive social change depends on the possibility of a progressive social order with very different economic, technological, environmental conditions. Our ability to achieve these depends upon articulating a credible and sustainable system of organisation, which can find ways of incorporating the new imperatives. But the first steps towards these forms of organisation are being articulated not by political parties but by the independent sector.

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