NGOs as the Power Brokers of Our Time

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Today no one would be confused by the question: what are NGOs and what role do they actually play in advancing world democracy?

NGO concept

You can get links on the Internet to thousands of NGOs which carry out essential poverty reduction missions in the third world countries of Africa and Latin America, fight illiteracy in India, and undertake environment-oriented missions everywhere. We admire courageous men and women who volunteer to serve in countries with totalitarian rule like Libya under Gaddafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Iran today to assist local fighters for democracy and against repressive policies. Following the dictates of the heart and having human compassion, thousands of committed people rush to rescue places in turmoil or become fighters for democracy at risk of their well-being and sometimes even at risk of their lives.

Politicians and experts call the world we live in “civil society,” in which a dynamic NGO community serves as proof of democratic maturity. It is interesting to note that the definition of “civil society” was not suggested by the U.S. Founding Fathers and not even by the leaders of the French Revolution as it may be mistakenly believed. The concept of civil society appeared within the framework of the so-called naturalistic school of political thought which countered “natural” society (societas naturalis) with “civilized” or civil society (societas civilis).

In 1755 the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his work “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men” wrote: “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.” Rousseau concludes that civil society is a trick perpetrated by the powerful on the weak in order to maintain their power or wealth.
Those who accept private property but don’t have it live in a state which can be called natural (or uncivilized); and those who can afford to hire labor unite into a civil society – the owners’ republic. The word “republic,” i.e. “commonwealth,” initially referred to all nation-states including monarchy. British philosopher John Locke, one of the founders of the theory of civil society, said: “The main purpose for which people come together in a republic and obey the government, – the preservation of their property.”

Now therefore the term “civil society” is based upon two concepts: anthropological (the human being as an individual) and from the point of view of political economy (private property). In the 20th century aggressive policy or so-called “gunboat diplomacy” was gradually replaced by cultural imperialism. Ideological convictions about universal human values and human rights in civil society have become its most important expression, thus the original concept of “civil society” was withdrawn into the shadows but never lost its inclusive power. Societal attitudes towards “savage” and “poor” have changed neither policy reality nor political rhetoric. And obviously the question arises: what role do NGOs play in modern democracy? In today’s social discourse the idea of civil society goes hand in hand with the concept of non-governmental organizations. They somehow create a sphere within civil society in which they act alongside the government but still remain independent.

Actually NGOs appeared in Europe due to the desire of various elements within society to display discontent with their oppressed social status. Trade unions which brought together proletarians fighting against the “owners’ republic” can be referred to as the first NGOs.

Further on, organizations supporting the interests of women, slaves, etc appeared. The government, guarding private property and civil society, at first tried to suppress the activities of such organizations (that caused all the major wars and revolutions of the 19th century). In the course of time it became clear that it would be far more pragmatic to incorporate those organizations into civil society. As the result of this new approach to NGOs, governments not only stopped hampering their growth but began to encourage their activity in order to create some kind of distraction to preserve the stability of the “owners’ republic.” Unions fighting the slave-trade, poverty and social inequality influenced objectively the consolidation and expansion of both goods and labor markets which obviously strengthened capitalism and private property. Karl Marx had understood this reality, and later he explained that the activities of labor organizations within the capitalist system can only encourage its consolidation.

The 20th century started the age of global policy and economy. Stability of the “owners’ republic” depended then not only upon the inviolacy of national social contracts but upon externalities also. It became important to find resources for global capitalism’s expansion in order to ensure the survival of the private property system. Thus NGOs have become important agents in world globalization on a Western model. The content of their activity has changed together with its form. Along with traditional non-governmental organizations (PINGO – Public Interest NGO) new ones have appeared: business- and government-oriented (BINGO – Business Interest NGO and GONGO – Government Oriented NGO subsequently).

In the United States NGOs are particularly powerful and well financed. It is obvious that after September, 11, 2001 funding of Arabic NGOs from Western sources increased greatly. In 2009 the amount of just U.S. funding in the Middle East exceeded the whole amount of funding during the period 1991 – 2001. The result of this occurrence is well-known under the name of “Arab Spring.”

NGOs are a real force, with the potential to privatize a serious part of governmental functions, and for valid reasons. According to experts, NGOs in the U.S. employ around 1,5 million people; about 1,4 million people are working for NGOs in Japan, and 1 million people are involved in NGO activity in each of France, Germany and Great Britain. As stated in one of the publications of famous sociologist Tina Wallace, approximate cash flow through NGOs from 1970 till 1997 has increased from 200 billion up to 2,6 trillion. She also notes that NGOs are kept under pressure from both sponsors and governments in Western countries. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Quite often the governments of the states concerned use NGOs to their own advantage. This can be done by means of financing, and by introducing individuals from government institutions into NGO management.

Increasingly their activity aims to exert influence on other countries’ politics under the veil of guarding “civil society” in countries with so-called “undemocratic” and “authoritarian” regimes. Over the last decade NGOs have been widely used as an instrument of the “Orange Revolution” to bring down governments unwanted by their beneficiaries. Thus American and European money passed through such organizations as George Soros’ “Open Society Institute” and “National endowment for Democracy” (USA), etc.

It’s most likely that the worldwide slump of 2008 indicates that the “owners’ republic” of the West has depleted its strength trying to create a so-called “transnational civil society” based on Western standards and to privatize economies and politics in Asian, African and Latin American countries, which in fact means the whole world. As a result, Western countries together with many other states got into a severe crisis of the neo-liberal paradigm of development with disastrous financial and economic consequences. To recover, the world definitely needs to shift the paradigm and admit that the civilized world is multidimensional and all people are equal in their rights to use scientific-and-technological advancements.

Nowadays the missionary activity of Western “civil society” looks much like the ideology of the Communist International, which aimed at consolidating socialism across the globe and was also foredoomed to failure. It was probably Bismarck who said that only fools learn from their mistakes but he had not mentioned any wise man who had learned from the mistakes of others. It is hoped that modern society will be able to draw some lessons from more than two thousand years of history containing wars, revolutions, plague, severe defeats and great achievements; will be able to remove the blinders from their eyes and realize that physical as well as intellectual abuse could never affect the laws of nature and existence: that only woman can give birth to a child and only the respect for human rights of other people can help us stick up for our own rights.

Photo: Shutterstock

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